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Monday, 17 August 2015

Save Bookbuyers in Mountain View: the Unique Pleasures of Used Bookstores

Although the once-vibrant bookstore scene around Palo Alto has been pretty comprehensively obliterated by Amazon and the collapse of Borders, I'm lucky enough to have not one but two bookshops on the street where I work, both right next to one another. The first is the Mountain View branch of Books Inc, which bills itself as the West's oldest independent bookshop, and the other is Bookbuyers, a used bookstore that's currently locked in a fight for its life.

I won't go into the litany of problems it's had, but the main issue is that it doesn't have enough cash coming in. This is a shame because it happens to be extraordinarily well-stocked, and full of books that would be pretty much impossible to find elsewhere.

Case in point: last week they were holding their monthly comic book sale, where single issues were going for 25 cents (or $1 if you bought them with trade-in credit). I had an idle look while in there on my lunch break, and found all four issues of the Elongated Man mini-series from 1992.

Maybe I'm the only person in the world who'd say this, but that was a hell of a find. It was written by Gerard Jones, who wrote the Justice League Europe book during the "Bwah-ha-ha" years when Keith Giffen was masterminding the Justice League books, and was drawn by Mike Parobeck, whose best known work was possibly on the Batman Adventures tie-in comic to the Animated Series, and who died way too early, at the age of 30, of complications from diabetes.

Those Justice League America and Justice League Europe books were what hooked me on DC Comics, and finding the Elongated Man series was like unearthing a long-lost B-side. It's mostly quite silly, juvenile, and the Italian dialogue, where it appears, is abysmal (though still better than I expected), but three issues in and I'm charmed. Ralph and Sue Dibny are characters I first encountered in JLE, and it's nice seeing them take center-stage, especially in light of what happened to them in Identity Crisis.

Also, I remember even now how bad I felt when I heard Parobeck had died, so that it's almost miraculous to find another example of his body of work (I first encountered his cartoony but fluid style in the ten-issue Justice Society of America series, and in El Diablo, which was his first big assignment).

As I noted to a friend the day after I found them, those books are probably worth nothing at all now, but to me they're priceless. DC's gotten quite good about reprinting stories in trade paperback form, but I can't imagine there's much demand for Elongated Man 1-4, so I'm happy I had a look in Bookbuyers's comic boxes when I did.

And that's why it'd be a shame if Bookbuyers went under: like any good used bookstore, it's messy and labyrinthine and impossible to find anything without dedicating time to searching. But if you put in the time, you're likely to find something that's fallen between the cracks of the publishing industry - something worthwhile, but that failed to gain enough of an audience to stay in print. And in addition, Bookbuyers is putting on events to make it even more of a place for communities to form - book clubs and author talks and more. One author talk I went to was by a local writer who set part of her debut novel in Bookbuyers itself, so it's even becoming responsible for literature.

You might argue that its business model shows that it can't hack it in a world of Amazon and e-books more generally. But, much as I love that I can buy a book on my phone while sitting in the Rose Garden in Portland, and start reading it straight away, there's also something to be said for the pleasure of finding something unexpected and physical.

Pretty much all of the new books and comics are coming out on Kindle, and classics from Mark Twain or Jane Austen are available for free, but like everything nowadays, there's a huge middle-section that's being lost, as it's too difficult to digitize and too new to be public domain. I'd hate to see a gap that size in our cultural patrimony, just because we're too addled by technology to appreciate the tactile pleasures of a book or comic.

So go to Bookbuyers! Or to your local used bookstore, wherever you might find it. Pick something up, riffle through it (gently), and try and imagine how hard it would be to find in Barnes and Noble. And then buy it and take it home.