Downtown Books Good; Multinational Fascist Bookstore Chain Bad
A nondescript building houses literary treasures
By John Bear
Independently owned book stores tend to be darker and more cavernous than their chain store counterparts. They are a source for used books rather than new ones, places to dig through stacks, search for that used copy of Martian Time-Slip by Philip K. Dick or hunt for an Edward Bunker crime novel. They lean toward the eccentric titles that can be hard to find outside of the Internet but, unlike their electronic counterpart, don’t rob you of the joy that accompanies scoring a Richard Yates book after scouring the shelves. It’s easy to click on a PayPal button; it’s much harder to embark on a used bookstore rampage. (Those can last for days. Sweat beads form on the temples. The eyes strain.)
Conversely, they can be prime spots for a cheap copy of a Stephen King book or a Carl Hiaasen novel.
Used book stores don't need to be bubbly, highly illuminated storefronts where the French literature section has two books and the latest Meghan McCain autobiography is being pushed hard. There’s no espresso machine and no spinach croissants are being served. Most importantly, they aren’t owned by huge companies that abuse their employees and throw away paperbacks that don’t sell rather than donate them to, say, a school, all while acting hip and egalitarian (I’ve worked at such a place).
Downtown Books fits the bill (for cool indie bookstore, not fascist global corporation). The store is owned by Scott Free, a humble man who downplays his knowledge of books but admits that spending hours upon hours in a bookstore exercises the memory. It fosters an ability to guess the book a customer is looking for, but can’t remember the title of. A visit to the store quickly reveals Free’s enthusiasm for his work as he darts in and out of the stacks looking for books, talking with customers.
Free bought the store from its original owners about 10 years ago. He has been in his current location, the north side of a quirky brick building on Eighth Street, for three years. The store is small but bursting at the seams with books. Free says it took a few years to build the inventory he has now.
Used book stores don't need to be bubbly, highly illuminated storefronts where the French literature section has two books and the latest Meghan McCain autobiography is being pushed hard.
Free sells and trades a variety of fiction and nonfiction, hard- and soft-cover. Though he offers mid-priced used books, he does cater a little to the collector crowd, a dedicated bunch whose members usually stick to a niche, be it science fiction or Chicano literature. A first edition, second printing is not as cool as the first edition, first printing. There’s a signed copy of Welcome to the Monkey House by, The Man, Mr. Kurt Vonnegut (still up in heaven), but even stranger is a copy of a book by a long-forgotten writer signed by George Bernard Shaw. Apparently, the author sent a copy to Shaw, who wrote a nice note and mailed it back.
He has a fairly large collection of pulp titles—among them The Hunter by Richard Stark, which was made into Payback starring my favorite drunken, racist actor named Mel. He also carries old paperbacks by more traditional authors like Ernest Hemingway and Henry Miller. People collect them for the covers; some covers that lost their book are posted around the store. I saw a lonely William Faulkner taped to a shelf. (It was the most Faulkner I’ve ever read. Punctuation. I’m a believer.)
Being the proprietor of a bookstore has its perks. Free’s son is way into ancient history and an armful of ancient history books is at arm’s length.
There is no fortune involved in such a venture, but Free’s happy with the path he’s taken.
“It’s nice to do something that means more than just selling toothpaste,” he says.
109 Eighth Street SW
Hours: Monday through Friday, 11 a.m. to 6 p.m.; Saturday 9 a.m. to 4 p.m.; closed Sundays
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