How Will the Decline of Used-Book Stores Influence Scholarship?

Peter Wood

Used-book stores haven’t entirely disappeared, but their numbers have thinned. Some have vanished into thin air. I was in Talkeetna, Alaska, last Saturday following a town map during a snowstorm to the used-book store near the railroad tracks. But it wasn’t there.

For years I haunted the Avenue Victor Hugo bookstore (misplaced on Newbury Street in Boston) until the day the owner, with considerable bitterness, sold off his inventory at a pittance and closed his doors. That was about 2004, and he complained with good reason that he couldn’t compete with the online sellers. If one goes searching for a particular book, the odds are very good that somewhere in the world someone is willing to sell it cheaply.

This has great advantages, of course, for the student or scholar who knows exactly what he wants. A few weeks ago, I wanted to reunite volumes one and three of my 1923 edition of the Thomas Shelton translation of Don Quixote with the errant volume two. It took only a few minutes and a few dollars with the help of the American Book Exchange (ABE) to get the Knight of the Sad Countenance and his faithful squire back together in one place.

The ease of finding long out-of-print books on sometimes specialized subjects makes the new global marketplace in used books a great boon for scholarship. In the late 1990s, when used book sellers began to put their inventories online, many of us delighted in the opportunity to fill gaps in our personal libraries.

The arrival of this global market, however, has some unhappy consequences. The once fairly plentiful opportunities to browse through bowed shelves full of yesteryear’s scholarship and years-upon-years of forgotten popular works have dropped away. At Tuttles Bookstore in Rutland, Vermont, I found an anonymous nineteenth-century memoir in which the author explained how his mother taught him to master his anger. The account enriched my book, A Bee in the Mouth, on changing patterns of self-control and self-expression in American life.  But it was a book I didn’t know I needed and would never have found without the lifelong habit of browsing. Tuttles closed about four years ago.

Most scholars I know of a certain age have substantial personal libraries, and many of them were built with the help of a judicious eye let loose to roam over the shelves of used book stores. These stores certainly still exist but the survivors seem more and more to cater to the antiquarian trade. They are places to go when looking for the rare, the valuable, and the collectible, and are less and less likely to provide the chance to explore the great miscellany of the undifferentiated and often undistinguished past.

How will this influence scholarship in years to come? We have, via the globalization of online book selling, a splendid way to lay hands on the books we know we want. But this facility comes at the price of making it much less likely to discover the books we don’t yet know we want.

Of course, these developments coincide with the decline of retail book stores, such as Borders, and the rise of e-books that may well detour some up-and-coming academics from ever even beginning to build personal libraries. What stands to be lost in this transition probably can’t be pinned down. It is more than the romance of old books, though it is that too. Perhaps what we stand to lose is a loosely ordered curriculum of left-over ideas that are best met—or maybe can only be met—by accident.

This article first appeared at the Chronicle of Higher Education's Innovations blog on November 11, 2011.

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