July 22, 2010


On Monday, I went to a bookstore that buys and sells used books. I wanted credit to apply toward a new purchase. It’s a simple commercial transaction but every time I do it I leave feeling uneasy.

Some of the clerks behind the counter behave as though they are bestowing grace instead of conducting business to our mutual benefit. I stand like a school girl in front of them, shifting my weight from one foot to the other, while I wait to discover if my books are worthy. It doesn’t matter that I purchased them at this same shop only months ago. The clerks hold in their hands electronic devices that make what appear to be arbitrary decisions; either my offering receives a beep or it doesn’t. When it doesn’t, the book is thrown ingloriously aside and I hurry to stuff it back into my brown paper bag as if it were a gin bottle. The people in line behind me look away, embarrassed or perhaps in dread that their offerings will receive a similar fate.

What makes matters worse is that I feel guilty about selling books. When I was a child, books were considered treasures.  I was taught never to bend the corners of a page to mark a place and never, never, ever never to mark a book in pencil, even if the mark could be erased.  (To mark a book in ink was unthinkable, like violating a commandment.) 

What’s more, no sooner do I sell a book than I find a reason for wanting it back. Maybe I wish to recall the author’s name, or recapture a quote, or I receive a call from a friend wanting to borrow it.

I know I’m not alone in my ambivalence. That Monday at the book store, a man in line before me kept pulling his books back from the counter before they could be subjected to a beep or no beep. Perhaps he couldn’t stand the tension of waiting for a decision, or perhaps he’d remembered a quote he wanted to save or that a friend had asked to borrow one of them. In the end, he couldn’t let many of them go. In the end he cradled his books in his arms and left the store. He looked happy.

When I was a child, I imagined my toys talked to each other when I wasn’t with them. I suspect it’s a common fantasy otherwise the iterations of Toy Story wouldn’t be popular. Now that I am older, I sometimes feel my books have a life of their own. Certainly we have a history together. I have an old thesaurus, for example, that I took with me to college. Its spine is broken and the cover dangles loosely from its binding. The bookstore machine wouldn’t beep if I decided to sell.   I doubt I could give it away. But I wouldn’t try. That thesaurus and I have burned too many midnight lamps together writing college papers, then short stories and now novels. There are newer versions containing more words, I suppose; but let’s just say they have no character…my character because my thesaurus reflects the wear I’ve given it. The same is true for most of my books. They’ve become a part of me.

I don’t know when I’ll go to the bookstore to trade in books again. I suspect it won’t be for a long, long time.