I did not find it odd or even a sign of our somewhat low socio-economic status that the family did not have books in the house when I grew up. I read a lot of books, but I saw little point in buying them. Books came from the library. Once I read a book, I thought then that I would never re-read it, but if I did, I could check it out again. Buying a book was just a waste of money.
Even so, I did buy at least one book. I was a member of some Junior Astronomy club in those post-Sputnik days and subscribed to “Sky and Telescope” magazine. I understood little of what was covered in the issues. In the reverse of the “Playboy” line, I got it for the pictures, which I found mesmerizing. The magazine gave me the fantasy of building my own telescope, and there was an ad in the back of “Sky and Telescope” for a book on how to do that. The Mead Public Library of Sheboygan, not surprisingly, did not have that book, and I had not heard of interlibrary loans back then. Instead, I decided to buy the book. There wasn’t a real bookstore in town, but a store that mostly sold greeting cards and knick-knacks had a rack or two of paperbacks, and I learned that I could order a book there. After saving allowance and grass-cutting money, I acquired a book on how to grind the lens for a reflecting telescope as well as other important stuff for the telescope-building business. (I never did build it, but my parents bought me a telescope. My chief discovery was how quickly the earth seemed to rotate when I looked at a heavenly object. The image would stay within the viewfinder for only a short time. I learned that I needed counterweights and a clock drive, and all that was beyond me. But, still, I remember how thrilling it was to see the mountains and “seas” of the moon.)
Prange’s, the local department store, had a shelf or two of books, and there I spotted biographies of sports heroes that were not in the public library. This presented a quandary. I did want to read them, and unlike the telescope book, which I thought would be a reference I needed, I did not want to buy them. My solution was to–I don’t want to call it shoplifting—let’s say, whisk a desired book out the store. As soon as I finished it, I would smuggle it back in and carefully place it in the exact spot it had been in before I had “borrowed” it. This was probably the height of reading being a forbidden pleasure for me, and I never got caught doing this.
College changed these patterns. I bought the books for my courses, and now I wanted to retain the books. Having read Tocqueville, Dostoyevsky, or Kant, keeping those books seemed like a symbol of emerging intellectual maturity. I imagined that they kind of person I wanted to be would have a personal library. I didn’t sell the college books back. I still have a few of them.
I mostly remember university bookstores in those days of my formal education although I have a faint memory of Kroch’s and Brentano’s in downtown Chicago where I went to law school. It was not, however, until I began my post-education life in New York City that bookstores really came into my life.
Barnes & Noble was the most important bookstore for me in my early New York days. B & N had but one location then—on 5th Avenue near 17th Street—selling both new and used books. I remember it as a warren of rooms and shelves. If I said to a clerk as I entered–in days long before computer inventories–that I was looking for a particular book on Chinese history, the employee might reply, “If we have it, go to our Chinese section. Walk through this room and turn right in the next room and when you get in the next room after that, go past the Roman philosophy racks, and you will see that the bottom two racks of the next bookcase are Chinese history.” And it was amazing what they had. (To be continued.)