Monday, February 27, 2012

How did you buy books before the internet?

When I was in my early-teens I read a magazine article that briefly mentioned a book. In those couple of lines something was revealed to me though then I wouldn’t have been able to express what. The book was On the Road by Jack Kerouac and I knew that at any cost I HAD to read this book. But this was the bad old, pre-internet days when one didn’t have the world’s bookstores at his young, rapidly texting thumb and finger tips. I was too young to drive and the library was way too far away to get to by bike so I did what I often had to do. I committed the book to memory and slotted it into place with hundreds of other titles and authors.

This mental list was always carried around in those days because getting to a bookstore (other than the one located in the local mall which I had of course picked clean at that point) was a rare, once a year bounty. I would save my money all year for when we went on vacation because it was Ocean City, MD that held the most book stores per capita for me in those years. There were multiple used book stores in addition to the chain locations that would have stock that was new to me. Manna from heaven indeed.

The first thing I would do when I entered these new stores was to recall my mental wish list. Then I would systematically head to those letter's sections on the shelf and scan my eyes quickly across the shelf. Too often I would strike out and the author of the still non-existent book I was hoping to find would taunt me. I was convinced that the book shaped hole in my heart would never be filled.

The flip side to this was the unmatched joy when my scanning eyes would stop dead in their tracks, sometimes having to back track, staring in disbelief at a book that I had been seeking for years. There was always a pause, as if I what I was looking at wasn’t real. This would almost always be followed by reverently pulling it off of the shelf. Whatever else had been going on in my life the discovery of a long sought book would dominate it all.

Another emotion that would mug me every once in awhile was on those rare occasions when I had panned more than one flake of gold but didn’t have enough money for them all. Never has such an agonizing decision been forced on a reader. Fear only to be matched by being in a public restroom in a stall with no toilet paper. It was many a book that came THIS close to resting not so comfortably down the front of my pants as I tried to waddle cooly out the front door.

I remember when I found my copy of On the Road in a bookstore directly on the boardwalk that was long and narrow and filled from floor to ceiling with paperbacks. I clutched that ugly pink and blue cover as Moses must have clutched the Tablets of Stone. As I stumbled from the store dodging the throngs of fellow vacationers (and fellow stumblers from The Purple Moose), blinking from the bright sun stinging my eyes, I felt like I was coming down from Mount Horeb. I found an empty bench and began to read. It awoke something in me and spoke to me in a way that hadn’t happened before. It was the first book, as an adult (or near adult) to offer me a great reading experience.

Before the internet there was an element of chance to what I was going to read because there were limitations to what was in front of me. I had limited funds, a limited selection of stores, and the library. Back then I was more likely to do "subject" reading. A particular subject would grab my attention and I would read all I could. I was probably the only middle schooler who knew about The Shroud of Turin.

These days, I'm not subjected to the same constraints. Mainly because I have more money then I did in high school but more importantly the internet happened.

When I first got online sometime in the late 90's the very first thing I did was order all the Thomas Wolfe books that I hadn't read yet. And with that purchase a fundamental shift would occur in my book buying patterns.

These days I'm more of a "destination shopper". I go somewhere with the intent of buying the book that I want.

Because I'm setting out to get a particular book and will succeed in getting it I no longer fall into those accidental bear traps that books lay out. I no longer find myself reading books on random topics.

It would be easy to say that something was lost but really something just changed, that's all. As I'm sure they will change again down the road.

What I really want to know is, How did you buy books before the internet?

Currently listening: Slow Dance by local band June Star

Currently reading: I had a slow week so I'm still reading many of the same books. West Coast Crime Wave; The Cold Cold Ground by Adrian McKinty; The Gamblers by Martin Stanley; Cutter and Bone by Newton Thornburg


Thomas Pluck said...

I had made road trips to stores all over the state, and to the Strand, Murder Ink, Mysterious Bookshop, Forbidden Planet and others in NYC.
A new & used store that is still standing, Montclair Book Center, was a haven for me. They had nearly everything. Also, "Book Finder" people advertised in the classifieds. I remember a guy wanting $50 for the Blade Runner movie tie-in for Philip K. Dick's Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep. I found it for $2 at MBC.
I'm still friends with another bookseller, Marie, who owned Cup & Chaucer in Montclair. She now works at Watchung Booksellers, my local fave.
I remember finding a bookshop that reprinted the first novel of one of my professors, John A. Williams. It was more of an adventure back in the day, before Amazon and abebooks, ebay and so on.

Jon The Crime Spree Guy said...

I did and still do go to bookstores. If I wanted something specific they could order it, and I loved wandering around discovering books. It just can't be duplicated on the internet.

Steven J. Wangsness said...

Browsed in bookstores. But I also had an account with Blackwell's, the English bookseller.

Joelle Charbonneau said...

I love bookstores so I tend to buy books the same way now as I did when I was a kid...I go to the store, browse the shelves and come away with about 6 or 7 more books than I intended to buy in the first place. I mostly use the internet as a last resort. I'm a traitor to my generation.

Dan_Luft said...

I grew up in a small town and fell in love with Robert E Howard in the late 70s. Sometimes I could find books in the local used store but the big trip, about once every three months, was an hour away to Binghamton to Fat Cat Books, a Sci Fi store with a huge used selection.

In high school college, and after I always had half a dozen authors I had to check whenever I shopped which was at at least weekly.

The last author that I looked long and hard for was Richard Brautigan in the early 90s -- most of his stuff was long out of print and it took me three years to find them all in a big city (Boston).

The first time I got online and looked at the ABE website, my reaction was "now I can live anywhere."