Last week, I called my brother in LA and told him that my husband Scott and I were buying an antiquarian bookstore. He considered our occupations — magazine editor, author, and now bookstore owner — and said, "Wow. Books, magazines — you guys are really getting into a growth industry up there."
"Yes, we believe the printed page is the wave of the future," I said, "and we're investing in it heavily."
Yikes. As I write this, I have been the part-owner of Eureka Books for less than 24 hours. It's a grand, glorious old place, crammed to the ceiling with odd and offbeat treasures like Victorian marriage manuals, yellowed sheaves of sheet music, and even a Zane Grey novel bound in flamboyant marbled papers for Liberace's library. A few days ago, a book scout came through looking for inventory to sell to dealers, and he pulled out what may be the first novel about Alcoholics Anonymous. The term "alcoholism" was so new, back in the 1940s when the novel was published, that it had to be defined on the dust-jacket flap. The scout paid four bucks for it and may sell it for $20 to a dealer who specializes in AA books. The dealer might sell it to a collector for $120. Every book finds its home eventually. So it goes in the rare book trade.
I don't know a damn thing about rare books — I like my paperbacks cheap and tattered — but I know that I plan to fight long and hard against the alleged demise of the book. Let the National Endowment for the Arts make dire predictions about the decline in reading. Let Sony, Apple and Amazon roll out one handheld e-book device after another. I'm having none of it. I love the smell of an old book, I love the heft of a hardcover, and I love getting to know a person by browsing their bookshelves. Surely I'm not the only one. Antiquarian bookstores all over the country are closing their doors, but by God, I'm going to wedge my body in the doorway of this one and keep it open.
Scott, who founded a magazine about rare books, is in charge of figuring out a strategy for making a 19th century-style bookstore viable in the 21st century. He's been a book dealer before and he's in touch with the movers and shakers in the antiquarian book world. Most of them are well past retirement age and their kids aren't interested in old books. They give him fatherly advice and drop hints about where a few good private collections might be had for a decent price. Several of them have told him that he's crazy for buying a bookstore in this digital age, but they say it fondly, the way your dad might tell you that you're crazy for restoring an old Mustang or taking your rock band on the road. It's crazy, but in a good way.
As for me, I hope to pull a shift in the store once in a while so I can live out my romantic writer/bookstore-owner fantasies. Just yesterday, I was browsing the shelves when I came across a whole section of books on a bit of obscure botanical history that I've been interested in lately. I started to pull the books off the shelf to see if I could afford them, and then I thought, "Wait a minute. I've already bought them. I totally own all these books."
That's a dangerous thought. On second thought, maybe I shouldn't be allowed to work in the store. I never could stand to part with a good book.