So, if you’ve been following along on this blog for any period of time, you’ve picked up by now that I’m a sucker for a used bookstore. Not only that, but I am an expert in navigating them, a connoisseur, knowledgeable in stores up and down the east coast. Well, all that may be, but I was still not particularly prepared for the experience of…The Book Thing of Baltimore.
What is The Book Thing and why is this experience so different? Books at the Book Thing are free. Free? Free. It’s a wonderful unique thing that is very, very Baltimore. And free is very tempting when you’re trying to build a large library very quickly!
The Book Thing, as locals may remember, burned down a while back, but it’s back up and running. I never went to the original, but it is a labor of love and run by volunteers. The only catch is that you can’t resell the books you obtain from The Book Thing – that’s really it. Easy rule for me to follow!
The first time we went, it was a hot and sticky day. The warehouse is located in a northern-central neighborhood I’d hazard is in the vicinity of Waverly, but I’m open to critiques of that description (outsiders, please understand that arguing where neighborhoods end and begin is a hardcore Baltimore hobby. Please don’t try this at home if you’re a novice).
Another thing to understand is that the books are separated by category but are not alphabetized. So the paperback fiction is all together on one shelf, but it’s all willy nilly in any old order after that. That doesn’t bother me at all, because when I’m on the hunt, I start in the A section and scan each shelf til I get to Z. So I don’t really do anything differently from what I’d do in a normal bookstore.
But here’s something wonderful – other people *are* on the hunt for specific things, which is tough in an un-alphabetized world, so there’s a lot of instantaneous community cooperation happening at The Book Thing.
“If you see any Barbara Taylor Bradford, please let me know!”
“I have several David Sedarises here. Who was looking for David Sedaris??”
You hear this kind of thing being called out frequently as folks find things on the shelf and band together to assist one another. Group unity! Over books! It’s a wonderful thing.
There’s a lot more chatter at The Book Thing than I usually encounter at a used bookstore, at least in the fiction section. I guess everyone is so jazzed about getting free books that no one can contain their enthusiasm. Hey, I get it. The nonfiction section seemed, as usual, more reserved.
The wonderful thing for me is that, because the books are free, I can really take a chance on books that I might otherwise not spend money on – books I’ve never heard of, books that seem out there and odd, books that seem interesting.
For example, I found Jean Auel’s The Clan of the Cave Bear. I had never heard of it, but it looked interesting, and reading the dust jacket, it certainly seemed like a lot of research went into it. Why not? I found Maxine Kumin’s Passions of Uxport. What? I had no idea Maxine Kumin, celebrated American poet, ever wrote fiction (you wouldn’t know from this blog, but I actually am an expert in/consumer of poetry more than fiction, prior to this project). And what a weird title! It’s free, why not?! Throw it in the bag.
I found genuine treasures I had been looking for too, like Irene Nemirovsky’s Suite Francaise and Elizabeth Hardwick’s Sleepless Nights. I found a large cache of paperbacks from the 60s and 70s by Anne Tyler, Anne Beattie, and Marge Piercy. I found Perdita by Judith Rossner (I haven’t even read Looking For Mr. Goodbar and I’m grabbing Perdita!).
It’s a bit odd, I must admit, to finish your shopping and then just…walk out the door. No ceremony, nothing. And, since you don’t pay for your books, you may get through your whole Book Thing experience without talking to anyone who “works” there (or volunteers there, more likely).
Which is strange, since I’ve made such a habit of talking to used bookstore workers lately. But, if you’re there long enough, you’ll probably come upon a volunteer who calls out “Does anyone need help?” to the room. They are happy to be of service if you need them!
There are lots of bags available in the corner for your use, but I recommend bringing your own bags from home to ensure they’re strong enough to carry your treasures. And yes, to answer the other thing everyone asks me about The Book Thing – they do take donations!
We are winding down this first gathering phase, my friends – first because I need to do some reading catch-up, second because I’ve filled all my bookshelves and have quite truly run out of room for books in my apartment, and third because I need to figure out a way to publish my booklist before it starts to get REALLY out of hand!
So I am really going to be trying to limit my bookstore visits over the next several months to getting only what I need to survive…for example, Flannery O’Connor’s The Violent Bear It Away. And maybe Gayl Jones’ The Healing…and if a store has Edwidge Danticat’s Breath Eyes Memory…
I think I need a minder.