Tag Archives: bookstores

The Book Cellar

The waves of heat radiate off of the amusement park-sized parking lot, reminding you that you are in the Hellscape and it is June.

The massive, largely full Sunday parking lot is for the gigantic corporate movie theater screening various early-summer Hollywood excretions. But we are there, not for the overpriced CGI mindrot, but for the bookstore. More importantly, it is a used bookstore — that rarest of the bookstore breed. Because we don’t really care for the overpriced and lame offerings of Books A Dozen. But we do love used bookstores. And when we find a good one, we not only write about it, we go back often and spend a whole bunch of our money there.

So we’re not THAT picky. We’re not looking for first editions. We don’t need it to have a coffee shop. We just want a couple of good shelves (or even boxes) to browse. We’d like some serious attempt to stock non-fiction, and we’d like prices to be reasonable, if not competitive with the Internet. If you’ve got to traffic in romance novels and run some kind of manga trade operation, so be it. We support the circulation of crap pulp novels (your Grishams, your Dan Browns) if that’s what’s needed to keep the lights on.

But there’s got to be some there there. The Book Cellar is like a bookstore as if run by someone who had never been to a bookstore, but had once had one described to them over the phone. They clearly purchased a ton of shelves. They rented a place in the shopping center. And then they skipped to “next step: profit.

A few points: There’s nowhere to sit. Well, that’s not technically true. There is some sort of grandmotherly arm chair set up in the front of the store that looks more like a decoration to be seen through the window than an actual comfortable chair that someone would want to sit in.

There’s no step stool for getting to top shelves. We didn’t need one, but heard a customer ask and be told that there was none.

There’s no sense of value. Some of the used paperbacks with creases in the cover and other small cosmetic problems are $6. Too high. There’s a 25-cent table, which would ordinarily be a great thing. But the only thing worth noting about that table is that the books there were slightly better than the books on the $2 shelves. In that they weren’t guides to the year 2000 (we wish we were joking). Not that the quarter books weren’t nutso too, but at least there were multiple copies of FutureShock (sensing a theme here…). And the only thing that makes it remotely worth looking at those shelves is the likelihood that you’ll find some kind of crazy religious self-published thing. You might briefly consider buying one of these as a joke for a friend, but really, you just end up feeling depressed that this is the quality of the books being stocked here.

The books here are like a window into the mind of the average Hellscape resident. There are no college textbooks or even semi-academic stuff. There’s no philosophy section. The non-fiction section is too hilarious to describe properly. There are a curious amount of books about owning pets, with hilarious titles like “So, you’d like to own a Great Dane.” There are self-help books galore. And, like we said, plenty of crazy religious stuff.

There’s no literary fiction besides a Louise Erdrich novel and a handful of other readings that smack of Book Club. There are certainly slim pickings on the “classics” front. The children’s section seemed okay, if a little heavy on the heirs to Goosebumps and other trashy pre-young-adult type offerings. It made us reflect on how important it is for young people to read fiction and how much good fiction there is for young readers, little of which was represented here.

The non-fiction section is just awful – entirely bereft of legitimate histories (we bought one of the only serious nonfiction books on offer — a medieval history book) and it’s rife with conspiracy theories, half-baked right wing diatribes and weight loss pep talk manuals. The bottom line on the bookstore is that it reveals either how awful the store owner’s taste is or what slim pickings she has to work with around here. Probably we’re looking at some of both, but our opinion of the Hellscape is so low that we could certainly imagine someone coming in to resell the O’Reilly Factor For Kids to partially pay their ticket to see Prince Of Persia — not despite but because it is based on a video game. And there, dear readers, is your explanation of Vaughn Road in a nutshell.

It’s a damn shame. It’s a shame that this is what passes for a passable used bookstore in this town.  It’s a shame that the Thomas Pynchon book they stocked (Vineland) was priced the same as the Oliver North novel they stocked. Mostly, though, it’s a shame that people once bought these books and (shiver) read them.

Reed Books – Birmingham, AL

You live in Montgomery. You like to read. So far, so good. Lots of nice places to sit and read, plenty of shady trees and so forth – a good city to have a reading habit. Sometimes you like to buy additional books to read. This will be less great, especially if you like to physically go to bookstores and browse what’s available. Montgomery’s just not a good bookstore town.

CAVEATS: (1) Capitol Book & News. Our wonderful neighborhood bookstore has a great collection, extraordinarily helpful staff and a fantastic sale room, but they stock all new stuff, and sometimes one just can’t afford new books (especially on a non-profit salary). (2) New South Books. Close to work, with a delightfully retro Montgomery Book Factory sign above the entrance, every part of this bookstore makes a fun visit. New and used are in the same shop, which is a definite plus. Alas, many of the books are rare and thus super-spendy. Also the collection is pretty small. (3) Trade ‘N Books. But only if you’re into genre fiction, which we really aren’t. (4) Big Chains. Yes, we know that there’s a Barnes & Noble in town, also Books-A-Million. Look, both of these are big mega-chains (strike one), and not even the good big mega-chain bookstore (that’s Borders, strike two), and while you can find a lot of stuff at them (well, at Barnes & Noble … Books-A-Million deserves its local nickname Books-A-Dozen), you’re just as likely to be confronted in an unpleasant way by the massive self-help section and any number of coffee table books featuring glossy photos of military airplanes. (5) Religious Bookstores. There seem to be a lot of these in town. Haven’t been. Not planning to go. (6) Friends of the Library Bookstore. Haven’t been. Really want to go.

So, you want to look at some used books. Perhaps some other ephemera as well? Get yourself up to Birmingham and visit Reed Books [aka The Museum of Fond Memories]. It’s an entirely overwhelming experience. Not just for the books (the collection is eclectic, heavy on the childrens’/young adult lit, and is definitely not for someone looking to pick up a Grisham paperback for the road), but also for the stuff. The dizzying, crazy variety of stuff. There’s no way pictures can do the place justice. It’s as if every cool garage sale in the world decided suddenly to merge, colliding in a giddy explosion of plastic Santas and statues and cheese graters and matchbooks and trading cards and old brochures and campaign signs and tiny boxes that hold other tiny boxes.

And then there are the personal effects. There are at least two banks of postal boxes at the front of the store, with each cubby holding, well, stuff. Letters, mostly, and pictures and postcards. So to call it “stuff” is the biggest insult in the world, frankly, since each cubby contains dozens of memories, some probably treasured, some disposable, but all crazily archived here for you to look over in wonder. In just a few minutes standing at the letterboxes, I read a letter from a pastor’s wife in Tuscaloosa to a man in Montgomery, a letter from an army cadet to his brother from training camp, a Christmas card, part of a Standard Oil work diary, and looked at a few dozen photographs – each one poignant, special, and still discarded somehow to end up here, saved and for sale and browsing. I bought a few photos for a project I’m working on. I also bought a book for my boyfriend and a great Modern Library copy of Thorstein Veblen’s Theory of the Leisure Class.

It’s a magical place, part bookstore, part haven for lost and wandering memories. Well worth the drive and a long, long afternoon.

Trade ‘N Books — Madison Avenue

Trade ‘N Books is an overstuffed, creaking, catastrophe of a bookstore on Madison, pretty close to downtown. They only sell used books, and the selection is almost entirely trade fiction, of the romance/western/science fiction/mystery/thriller flavors. There is a small selection of other, “classic”

The store front

The store front

type fiction (Tess of the d’Urbervilles, and so forth) and an equally small number of non-fiction books, mostly offering financial and legal advice or expounding on niche histories and inspirational lives. It’s the kind of place where, if there is a philosophy section (and there usually isn’t), it’ll have a Bible and a New Age book about crystals.

As the name implies, you can bring in your old books and exchange them for “new” ones. We didn’t trade any books the day we were there, but they seemed to be doing a healthy business with folks using their store credit – there were a number of people going through the narrow aisles filling plastic grocery store-type shopping baskets with books. This is an oddly heartwarming sight if you’re a bibliophile, even if the currency is mostly of the Koontz/King/Grisham variety. Beach house reading to the max!

The maze of shelves can be sort of intimidating, especially if you’re not already conversant with your genre of interest. The romance section seems particularly able to cause sensory overload, with its yards and yards of candy-

Inside, the maze awaits

Inside, the maze awaits

colored titles promising appropriately soft-core delights of different kinds. They had the ones set in “historical times.” They had the ones with Fabio on the cover. They had the ones that looked like they had been stored in a moist restroom.

If you turn right when entering and follow the path all the way down a stair or two, you enter a kind of special annex devoted to huge shelves lined with cardboard boxes. Each box has an author’s name on it and the box is full of random, unsorted paperbacks by that author. You’ve got your Crichton and your W.E.B. Griffin. No, there’s no box for Susan Sontag, nor one for Neruda, but there are five boxes of Tom Clancy and Stephen King is the only author bestowed with the honor of an entire shelf. This special “sort by author” room is a store highlight and prompted a good discussion about whether having a box in this room with your name on it would be a good thing for a writer. On the one hand, it means you have had enough commercial success for there to be a box full of random paperbacks that you have crafted, each well-worn and thumbed through. On the other, it means you have generated such mammoth quantities of pulp crap that you likely are responsible for the death of at least one forest. Plus, the rows of boxes highlighted the commodification of authorial identity: a second-hand monument to the nexus between art and the commercial food chain. We both concluded that we would like to have boxes with our names on them because it would mean that we were rich and famous and people got joy from reading our books.

We bought a Lurleen Wallace biography and an autobiography of noted cat-torturer Bill Frist. Not sure how often we’ll be back, but that’s mostly because neither of us reads a lot of the kinds of books on sale here. Seems like a great place if you’re into genre fiction.