Inside the city’s quirkiest three-day-a-week bookstore
If you take a moonlit stroll along the banks of the Seine River in Paris’ Latin Quarter, you’ll pass hundreds of padlocked, coffin-sized green boxes perched on the low stone wall. Come sunrise, those unassuming boxes will flip open to become bustling bookstalls displaying the myriad literary treasures of “les bookinistes”—a French cultural institution so revered that it has been named a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Show up at Albuquerque’s Winning Coffee Co. on a Monday, Wednesday or Friday morning and a similar literary transformation awaits. At first, you’ll see a wraparound wooden counter hosting java drinkers and enclosing a giant coffee-roasting machine. By 10 a.m., the counter and adjacent floor space will be chockablock with 1,000 secondhand books and tended to by a grandfatherly bibliophile.
Bradley’s Books is open for business.
For the past four years, Bradley Bumgarner-Kirby has set up shop inside Winning with an eclectic trove of classic literature, contemporary fiction, poetry, philosophy, history, spirituality, sci-fi and leftist politics. For several years before that, the Duke City’s resident bookiniste peddled his wares on UNM’s Cornell Mall, between Popejoy Hall and the Student Union Building—a stone’s throw from where his bookselling career began 35 years ago.
“This couple-of-block radius has been a crossroads of my life,” Bumgarner-Kirby says. “I’ve been a fixture in the neighborhood.”
“As long as there are independent booksellers like Bradley and his peripatetic store, I think the United States will not totally sink into the morass of consumer-oriented supercapitalism.”
A 1971 graduate of UNM, Bumgarner-Kirby taught elementary school and guitar lessons before finding his true calling while selling jewelry on campus. “One day, just on a whim, I brought a Coke flat full of books along with the African trade beads,” he recalls. “Every book was 50 cents, and the books made more money than the jewelry. So I started going to thrift stores and the flea market and picking up books specifically to resell.”
In 1979, Bumgarner-Kirby took the 3,000 titles he’d accumulated and opened up Bird Song bookstore in the erstwhile Alternative Community Center at Girard and Central. Over the next five years, Bird Song carved out a fiction niche (specializing in counterculture icons like Jack Kerouac and Charles Bukowski), expanded to 30,000 books and outgrew its nest.
“I’ve always been a better buyer than seller,” Bumgarner-Kirby says. “It’s a fun challenge, like treasure hunting. And then the selling is just the gravy. I’ve always loved dealing in mid-range paperbacks—not like collector’s items or real expensive ones, but really nice, good literature. That’s what I like to read.”
In the mid-’80s, Bird Song moved to Harvard Drive, where the shop remained and gradually enlarged for the next dozen years—until disaster struck. On the 1997 summer solstice, a nighttime fire consumed Bumgarner-Kirby’s 70,000-book inventory.
“It felt almost like losing a child,” Bumgarner-Kirby says. “We had 18 and a half years of blood, sweat and tears and all of our savings tied up in that place, and it felt devastating. I just remember grieving for it. The first time I went to look for a book for myself after the fire, I walked into a Goodwill, and started looking around, and I just burst into tears and had to get out of there. I couldn’t even ...” Bumgarner-Kirby pauses, “look at books.”
Bumgarner-Kirby sold the Bird Song name to a former employee (Bird Song Used Books is located west of University on Central) and eventually returned to his humble bookiniste roots at UNM.
“I want to sell somebody John Irving’s A Prayer for Owen Meany because it’s the best book I’ve ever read.”
Winning Coffee co-owner Sandy Timmerman approached him in 2006 about coming in from the cold, and she says the arrangement has been a boon for staff and customers alike: “Winning is such a riot of influences that it’s hard to pick out where one starts and one lets off,” she says in an e-mail to the Alibi. “I know the staff certainly buys a lot of books from Bradley and passes them around and talks about them. And I know a lot of students rely on him for their books. He’s so great about getting anything you ask for that people really trust him.”
Bryce England, a Winning customer and UNM student in Latin American studies, offers a more mixed review, conceding that Bradley has a strong selection but grousing about the sticker shock compared to other used-book shops. (Bumgarner-Kirby says he follows a general rule of selling titles at half their current “new” list price.)
Tony Mares, a poet and former professor of English at UNM, says he sees Bradley’s Books as a saving grace of humankind: “As long as there are independent booksellers like Bradley and his peripatetic store, I think the United States will not totally sink into the morass of consumer-oriented supercapitalism. There’s hope for America because you have to be a thinking person to be that concerned about books, and he sells good books, and they’re books for thinking people.”
To hear Bumgarner-Kirby tell it, the Bird Song fire reinforced for him that bookselling is about more than transactions and profit, and that books represent more than what marketers might refer to as “units of product.”
“I just really enjoy filling my life up with interesting people who stop by and love to read and love to talk about what they’re reading,” he says. “I don’t want to be moving units of product, I want to sell somebody John Irving’s A Prayer for Owen Meany because it’s the best book I’ve ever read.”
Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays from around 9 a.m. to 4 p.m.
Winning Coffee Co.
111 Harvard SE