I love a good used book store. To be fair, I like almost any good bookstore, extending even to stores like Borders (where I spent many of my afternoons during high school, may it rest in peace) and Barnes and Noble (which often provided me a welcome sense of familiarity during my romp around the country, and also carried my old advisor’s awesome, then-new book when I needed to read it now), but the used bookstore is a particular love of mine. In part, because they’re (almost) always independent–and who doesn’t love supporting small business–but also because I’m never disappointed with the people and conversation I find there. Don’t want to talk? They’re reading behind the counter anyway. Want to go on and on about an author, genre, book, completely tangential topic? Done.
I was completely spoiled for used bookstores when I lived in St. Louis. An embarrassment of riches, really, especially considering many of the local indies had cat-guarded basements full of used books just waiting to be add to my to-be-read shelves (I mean, section of a shelf… small pile… or…). I was particularly fond of Dunaway Books, which had both an excellent selection of books on a dizzying array of topics and the advantage of being a short bike ride away from my apartment (though still much love to my early favorite, The Book House, though to be fair it was way cooler when it was actually located in an old house).
I had a writing professor in college who’d nearly been a concert pianist before jumping ship and getting back into the academy. She’d often have us do copying exercises: “When you’d try to learn a score, you would copy it out by hand, because in the process of ‘writing’ it, you’d get a better idea of why the notes were what they were, why they were, and why they were in that order. It’s the same with prose.” I can’t remember what exactly we had to copy for her class, but I do remember the lesson, having, at one point, thought of attempting to go into music myself. There was a composer I’d met with during my last fall semester before college, who told me, “If you’re going to write a quartet, you need to study all of the quartets like the one you’re trying to do before, so you know what’s been done and you have a better idea of how to do it.” (I had not studied nearly enough scores by that point, and given my academic ambitions, I chose a different path.)
The point, of course, is that I’ve had a lot of people impress upon me, in various ways, that you need to have some idea about how things have traditionally worked out, about what’s already been done, before you go off and try something crazy and new (I will leave aside, for now, the actual value-judgement of this advice). So, I thought, I want to be a writer, I’m Jewish, I should probably read Jewish authors.
About two years ago, I was pre-researching an idea for a novella (that never got past the researching phase), and walked into Dunaway with a mind to pickup a copy of Henry James’s The American and “something Jewish.” They didn’t have a copy of the James, or at least one I was looking for (paperback, cheap), and so far as “something Jewish,” I didn’t really know even where to begin but in the “Jewish Studies” section. I had, of course, read Jewish authors before, but not in a “reading Jewish authors” kind of way, more in the “this is on the English syllabus anyway,” or, “this is a classic book I need to read to impress so-and-so,” kind of way. I had a list of books from my Lit advisor (a Jew, a James/19th c. American Lit scholar, a generally wonderful human being), which I requested before graduation, but beyond that, I had little to go on save a vague memory of the Hebrew school library and a co-Sunday-School-music-teacher telling me, while we waited for the always-challenging seventh-grade class to come through on morning, “You’re reading that, you should be reading better books, Jewish books.”
I found a veritable treasure trove a Dunaway. I got a few, hilarious “cultural literacy”-type pamphlets that were published in the late-50s, the venerable Wanderings: Chaim Potok’s History of the Jews, and a thick, green-covered collection entitled A Treasury of Yiddish Stories. When I brought them to the old man behind the counter, he said, “You know, I was about to get rid of those last week. I knew I was saving them for something.”
I skimmed through the pamphlets, got seventy or eighty pages into Wanderings, and started the introduction to the story collection maybe twice, before life inevitably got in the way, and I became distracted by other things, books, projects, pursuits, and so the books were relegated to the to-be-read shelves to sit for a while.
Then I happened upon a book by I.B. Singer. It was my last morning in Asheville, NC, during part one of ‘Danny Takes a Trip to Find Himself and also America,’ and I walked from a little euro-style coffee shop down to Downtown Books and News for little more reason than to kill some time. I picked up a zine about making komboucha for A., and then wandered over to the used trade paperbacks and poked around. I had some vague idea of picking up another Saul Bellow or Malamud book. I browsed and browsed and came upon this book called In My Father’s Court, which had a rad, black and white kind of late-Matisse/jazz-pop looking cover and, though used, was still a little more expensive than I was planning on spending on a book (especially given that my other find that morning, a badly worn copy of The Sound and the Fury was but a mere $2.00). Still, I had, of course, heard of I.B. Singer before, and had, in fact, read a short story of his my old Lit advisor had recently sent me. And so I got the book.
Fast forward a few months, a few states, many books, and I decide to start the Singer book at a brewery/bar called Lost Coast in Northern CA. The beer was so-so (I greatly preferred the brewery I went to after that, which was called Redwood Curtain and had this killer 3-piece bluegrass band playing in matching bowling shirts), but the book was excellent. I’ve got written in my journal from that night, “[the book] is devastating and wonderful and beautiful and sad in the best ways.” (So, I can be sentimental.)
I was reading this, along with the green Treasury book, as well as A.J. Heschel’s God in Search of Man alternating back and forth as I drove and camped the rest of my way down the left coast. This turned out to be the last leg of my trip, and though I still managed to read quite a few books during the last months of 2016, I slowed down quite a bit in the confusion of moving to a small town in North Wisconsin, a second attempt at applying to grad school, finding a job with health benefits, and trying to figure out what it was I ought to do next.
Somewhere during this period, looking at the balance of my “To Be Read” pile, I decided on a “Year of [mostly] Jewish Reading,” and wandered into Spinster Books.
Ashland, where I live now, is a small town of, according to the road signs, 8,216 persons. It is a good small town, and a “model” small town in many ways: it’s economy isn’t great but it’s chugging along, there are too many drugs but still not so much as in many rural towns, and they’ve at least got a neat food co-op, an excellent coffee shop, and one or two bars I like to go into. The longer we live here, the more interesting places and things we find to go and do, reminding me a little bit of what I would say about St. Louis when compared to other cities: we’ve got everything here, you just sometimes have to do a little more work to find it. The “everything here” part is less applicable, but the work to find things certainly still pays off. Spinster is a good example of that.
This particular used bookstore was one of the few things I was able to find in town via the Internet. Many things are still word-of-mouth, posted on the community bulletin boards at the co-op or the coffee shop, or, at best, found only on semi-closed Facebook groups or by “emailing the guy that runs it.” Of course, though I was able to find the site, it was still a few weeks before I was able to make it in there. Though many of the Main Street shops are closed on Mondays, befitting the largely tourist-driven summer economy, Spinster’s hours are even more conservative than that, open only Wednesday through Saturday, and then only in the afternoons. On top of that, they share space with a consignment store, and, at the time, did not yet have their own sign, and so it wasn’t exactly easy to find, either, to be fair.
I did find it, though, and I was pleased.
Though there are, I should say, other used bookstores in the area, Spinster is the only one in Ashland itself. The other bookstore in town, Book World, sells new books and tobacco products of indeterminate age, and every time I go in there I am both disappointed by their selection and feel that I’m being watched with utmost suspicion (I suppose I look shady). Washburn, a town ten minutes or so north on the peninsula, has a rather nice, if somewhat rundown, used bookstore that’s a bit bigger (I applied to work there at one point, but we both agreed that it was not a good fit), and then there is one in Bayfield, another twenty minutes or so up the road from there as well.
Spinster Books is relatively small, laid out narrow and long, and it is not the kind of used bookstore that’s crammed and piled high to the ceiling (which I, at least, find somewhat comforting). Still, I like the layout at Spinster, as it somehow reminds me of what I could perhaps call ‘my first bookstore,’ a small shop tucked into a strip mall near where I grew up in St. Louis County (unincorporated), which was (if I remember correctly) a children’s bookstore and had a really, really cool cardboard castle and moat display in the back of the store that must have guarded the back office. It’s very bright and open, carpeted, and the shelves are labeled neatly. Though I believe Jill, the owner, prefers sci-fi and fantasy herself (though, as most booksellers, it seems like she has read some of nearly everything), she keeps a wide range of genres given the size of the store. I tend to gravitate towards the back where she keeps the “Fiction,” which in some stores might be labeled “Literature,” though I do occasionally browse the small collection of “Classics” and “Philosophy” nearer the front.
My first visit to the store was, I think, right after I’d come up from St. Louis to settle in Ashland. I remember looking for the shop when I’d been up over the summer, but for some reason I don’t think I actually made it in. I browsed aimlessly, politely (I hope) refused help to find whatever it was I might have been looking for, and, feeling that I shouldn’t leave the shop without getting at least something (a weird guilt thing, I know, but you want to help the small shops, even when you’re technically living nowhere (i.e., you’re not on the lease) and unemployed), I picked up a copy of David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas, mostly so I’d have the “Letters from Zedelghem” sections to re-read someday. I was bummed that it was the movie-version cover, but it was cheaper than the other book I’d been looking at, The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay.
I returned for this latter book a few months thereafter, once I’d actually gotten myself a job.
Jill, the owner/proprietor of Spinster Books, remembered me, and asked if I’d enjoyed the Mitchell book when I brought the Chabon book up to the counter. When I told her I hadn’t exactly read it yet, mumbling something about having read sections of it for a thing in college, she changed tact and told me how much I was going to enjoy this new one. I asked if she ever did special orders, and she said yes, and I said good to know, and she handed me the book along with a “frequent reader card” with a hole-punched representing the combined value of the two books I’d bought so far.
Another month or two passed, I worked, read a few more books (of note, E.L. Doctorow’s wonderful Homer & Langley), and I went back to Spinster to make good on my implicit promise of ordering a book, a book I’d searched for at every other bookstore I went into in the intervening months (i.e., the B&N in Duluth and the used shops in Washburn and Bayfield), but was unsurprised not to find.
Remember the I. B. Singer book from before? Well, Isaac Bashevis had an older brother (who is actually mentioned a fair few times in In My Father’s Court, mostly as an avatar for the Haskalah and general trends towards assimilation/westernization), Israel Joshua (so, “I. J.” Singer – very confusing), who was also a writer, and was, in fact, much more popular in his day than his brother (even though his brother’s the one who got the Nobel prize – but I digress). I. J. Singer’s The Brothers Ashkenazi was popping up everywhere during my Jewish Book Project research. I’d jumped ahead to read one of his stories in the Treasury book, and enjoyed that well enough, so I figured, since I was far too lazy/cheap to pay the shipping from Powell’s (I don’t like buying books – or anything, really – on Amazon, which is a story for another time), I’d order it from Jill at Spinster. So I took a few minutes away from work one Wednesday and rode my bike (it was a nice day: a whole 46 degrees!) the two or three blocks to the store.
“How do you spell that?”
“A-s-h-k-e-n-a-z-i, I think.”
“Does it mean anything?”
“Sort of. The Jews of Eastern Europe are called ‘Ashkenazi Jews,’ but I don’t know if that has any significance as a surname in particular.”
“Cool. So who was that by again?”
A few clicks though the computer and she had it. There was another question of spelling my last name (so I could get an email when it came through), and then I was off.
In the green Treasury book, there’s a story by Moyshe Kulbak, “Munie the Bird Dealer,” that just blew my fucking mind. Naturally, wanting to follow the rabbit hole to its conclusion, I tried to find other works by Reb Kulbak, and kept reading allusions to a novella called The Messiah of the House of Ephraim. This, of course, is collected in yet another out-of-print and/or hard-to-find book (I do try to use the library as much as possible, but they have only so much of a selection, even with the local library loans), called Great Tales of Jewish Fantasy and the Occult, and so, I went back to Spinster.
This time, Jill was at the back talking to a youngish man (older than me, but probably by no more than ten years or so), and when I walked in, the first thing she said was, “You weren’t at the seder!”
It was true (not that I had known about “The Seder” to begin with): I skipped the Seders this year in order to travel to see a grad school (I never said I was particularly observant). Apparently this man (who’s name I cannot for the life of me remember) had taken Jill along to the seder up in Washburn (where I guess all the Jews hang out?), her first.
She told me lots about the seder, the food (this we talked about for a long time, as I miss my Bubbie’s cooking terribly), and what she thought of all of it. The guy and I swapped a few notes on haroset and Hillel’s sandwiches, and then we turned to books, as I handed her a post-it with the title of my new request.
“Oh this looks up my alley!”
The guy asked if I read much sci-fi, which I responded in the negative, and then he gave me a bunch of recommendations I was too slow to write down and remember.
I suppose it makes sense that I would find out about some semblance of a Jewish community up here in a book store. We are the ‘people of the book,’ my reading habits are perhaps suspicious so far as the town might be concerned, etc. Still, I think it’s interesting and even kind of strange. One of the things I’m learning is that, with so few shops and so few patrons, you really kind of get to know the stores around here, and the proprietors, in turn, get to know you (or at least what you buy). So while it would be nice – and definitely more convenient – if there were more books by Jews in the library, were there a proper section of the bookstores around, I really enjoy my one-at-a-time, almost read-along experience buying books up here.
To return to yet another writing teacher’s advice, or rather, the advice of an amalgamation of writing teachers that I had at various points in school, largely before I realized that I liked English and History and so on, there is the always-important question of “so what?”
I probably had a better idea of a “so what” for this piece when I started it, but I’m not sure what it is now, and I’m at a loss for a good conclusion (this is what happens when you try to do too many things, string out a piece of writing over too many weeks without consistent looks and tinkers, when you try to write posts and essays in between doing what you’re supposed to consider “actual work” at your job), but I will say, minimally, that used bookstores are great, I like my new used bookstore, and I’m really excited to write more about these books.