Book-Buying in Middle America, or, A New York Dealer’s Visits to Three Middle American Cities


Born in New England, and a New Yorker by adoption, I have lived all of my life on the northeastern coast. I have flown across the country numerous times, both for business and for pleasure, but until recently I have rarely set foot in that vast tract known as “Middle America.”

In the past few months I have made brief forays to three non-coastal, Middle American cities. Each time I was there for a purpose other than book-buying, but I did try to carve out some time to scout the local bookshops, both used and new. The first city that I visited was Dallas, Texas. I flew into Dallas in early December, and had one long afternoon at leisure. I had hoped to have the opportunity to visit some bookstores, or book-related places of interest, so I put out a query or two on the bookseller listservs. It was disheartening to learn that the only used bookstores of possible interest were at least an hour’s drive from downtown. Since I did not have a car at my disposal, I arrived at the hotel and hoped to place myself in the capable hands of the hotel concierge. I told him I was interested in bookstores in Dallas, and he sighed and said that there were none. When I told him that I had finished my book on the plane ride down, he recommended the hotel gift shop which it turned out carried only the latest Grisham, Patterson and some paperback romances. The closest bookstore to downtown was a branch of one of the two major chains, and it was a 20-30 minute trip via public transportation. He pulled out a map and circled the major downtown attractions that were within walking distance of the hotel.

The first stop on his tour was the original Neiman Marcus store. It was so close to the hotel that I decided it was worth a look. When I walked in, I felt like I had entered a movie set. It was only a few weeks before Christmas, but there was nobody in the store. I needed some shaving cream, because the baggage scanners strictly enforced the three ounce limit and tossed out the tube in my carry-on bag. I had three sales clerks helping me with one small purchase and I think it was their major sale of the day. Needless to say, there was no book department.

I left the store and headed over to the main tourist attraction in downtown Dallas, the Sixth Floor Museum. This museum is dedicated to the Kennedy assassination and is located on the actual sixth floor of the former Texas Book Depository where the shots were fired from. The exhibition hall looks like an expansive SoHo loft with large blown up photographs and video monitors playing newsreels from that weekend in November, 1963. I was 12 years old then and remember that Friday vividly. It was an eerie feeling to walk around the museum. About a ten foot by ten foot area near the window overlooking the grassy knoll has been preserved with the original flooring and stacks of textbook boxes. It is sealed off by a glass wall. I watched the old newsreels of the early years of the Kennedy administration, the Pablo Casals state dinner, Carolyn playing in the Oval Office, and Jackie speaking Spanish in Mexico. Then I stared out the window and saw that the traffic pattern and that grassy expanse have remained pretty much the same as they were that day. It must be sad for a city to become known for such a tragic event. If I was a poet, I would write a haiku about Dallas. Something like . . .

The Texas Book Depository

The musty book boxes
stand like gargoyles
scaring the book people away.

Shortly after I returned, I received a call from a new customer who wanted me to overnight a book to someone in the New York area, who for a fee would go to a reading and have the book signed. This customer was willing to spend $20 to have a $16 book sent by Federal Express to someone else who would charge a substantial amount to have the book signed and then mail it to him. As it turned out, this customer was from Dallas. “We don’t get many authors to come down here to read,” he lamented. I was not surprised.

Two weeks later, I found myself in Kansas City, another Middle American metropolis. This time I made sure that I had a rental car at my disposal, and I had done some research on the internet and found a used bookshop not far from downtown that specialized in Irish books. I was excited because in addition to being a book dealer, I am also a Joyce collector. This shop was in an upscale strip mall that was both clean and well lit. The Irish offerings, however, were scanty and disappointing. I did manage to find a small carton of items that I was interested in purchasing for resale. The proprietor gave me a nice discount, and we had an interesting conversation about the book business. He also mentioned that there was one other used bookstore in town that was a “must stop.”

He gave me the directions and I hurried uptown to arrive before closing time. This shop, Spiveys, is not in an upscale strip mall. The building is at the intersection of two narrow streets, and one must search for a place to park. It is neither clean nor well lit. It smells of tobacco, and cat and dog and dust. What it has is books, thousands and thousands of them on two huge floors. They are stacked from floor to ceiling, in alcoves and under tables. There are old books, newer books, common books, and scarce books. It reminded me of the last of the stores on Fourth Avenue in Manhattan that I used to frequent when I first moved to New York, and alas have all closed down. This is one of the great old-fashioned used bookshops left in the United States. I could have easily spent several days there.

They graciously stayed open while I, the last customer of the day, browsed around. I ended up shipping back both a very large carton of items for resale, and for myself, one very nice first American edition ofFinnegan’s Wake which had just come into the shop. I also had a nice conversation with the owner, Mr. Spivey, who is quite elderly but as sharp as a tack. We talked about New York City bookshops closing, and he had read in The New York Times about the two bookstores on the Upper West Side that were about to close. He had been astonished when he read the rents they were paying. He told me a number of stores in Kansas City had closed also, but that it was good for his business. Since he was one of the last venues people had for selling their used books, he was able to acquire some really good ones. His shop certainly attested to this.

Again, if I were a poet, I would write a haiku, something like . . .

Spivey’s Kansas City

Gateways to the west
know books are necessary
for the long journey.

The day after New Year’s I found myself in Minneapolis, another Middle American city this time way up in the northern part of the country. Minneapolis in January is only for the hardy traveler, unless one keeps to the downtown area where all of the buildings are connected by a second floor skyway. If you stay in a downtown hotel you can manage to wander around without ever having to go outside. There is one used bookstore right in the heart of the city. They were in the midst of a winter sale, which was rather unusual. The cheaper the book, the bigger the percentage discount. When I questioned the clerk, he rightly told me that it was much harder to find a good $100 book than to find a good $20 or $30 book. I readily agreed. The pricing structure was such that it was hard to find much that I could re-sell at a profit despite the sale prices, but I did find a few obscure academic Joyce books for my own collection.

There is a “funkier” neighborhood containing several used bookstores a few miles out of the downtown area. It is called “Uptown” even though it is actually south of the center of the city. It is more like the Greenwich Village of Minneapolis, with low buildings, ethnic restaurants and cafés. There are no indoor concourses or skyways. One walks on the street like in most other American cities. I easily hailed a cab from a downtown street corner and reached the area with the bookshops after a short but expensive ten minute ride. As I exited the cab a bitterly cold wind blew into my face, so I hurried across the street and into a warm, welcoming bookshop. The rents must be cheaper here, because the stores were much larger than the one downtown, and I managed to find a number of books for re-sale at both of the shops in this area, even though they were much less generous with their dealer discount policies, and arranged to have the boxes shipped back home. The only problem arose when it was time to leave. I walked over to the corner to hail a taxi back to my downtown hotel. I stood there in the wind for a good ten minutes and not one taxi passed by, with or without a passenger. So, I went back to the store across the street and was told that in this neighborhood one had to call a taxi company and order a cab over the telephone. I called a local number, and was redirected twice to other companies before I was told that a car would be there shortly. For forty minutes I kept going from the shop to the street corner and back, afraid that I would miss my last chance for a ride back downtown. Eventually a taxi cab did pull up and I arrived back at the hotel with a lot of good books and only a little bit of frostbite.

The next day I decided to go book shopping like the rest of the city, so I took the light rail, a commuter train from downtown to the Mall of America. This forty minute ride costs all of $1.50 each way ($2.00 during rush hour). The famous Mall of America is like every other mall in America only more so. It is four stories high, with a giant indoor amusement park in the middle. I think it contains a branch of every single chain store in America except for Borders books, which is strangely absent. At present there are three bookshops in the mall: Steven Covey, Barnes & Noble, and Atlantic Books. I go out of my way to avoid anything with the name Covey on it, ever since I received one of his business self-help books as a Christmas gift from a clueless department head many years ago. We all got one and were supposed to read and be prepared to discuss a chapter at the beginning of every departmental staff meeting. I read four pages, and immediately listed it as new on Half.com. I priced it cheaper than the current lowest price and it sold in half an hour. Over the next year, I found several copies abandoned by employees who left the firm, and proceeded to sell them all, but I would walk a plank before I purchased anything that he has published.

One can’t miss the Barnes & Noble, as it is on the first floor right next to one of the main entrances to the mall. It is quite large with a coffee bar and a respectable local interest section with a large selection of small press books about Minnesota and some rather obscure books by famous local authors.

The third shop, Atlantic Books, is a part of a smaller chain, and is located way up on the third floor at the opposite end of the mall from Barnes & Noble. I had never heard of this chain, so I hiked the mile or so it took to reach it, passing a branch of every chain restaurant in America. This store was in the process of going out of business, so they were having a liquidation sale of 40% on all new and remainder books. I bought some quality remainders (without remainder marks) for very cheap prices, as well as a couple of new books. If they had been willing to ship from the store I would have bought quite a few more. The clerk told me that several of the staff were banding together to open a new independent store, not in that mall where the rents were astronomical but in a small suburban area nearby. They had submitted a business plan and customer base list to a local bank and were expecting to receive the financing by the end of the month.

I boarded the light rail and headed back downtown, encouraged. If I were a poet I would write one last haiku.

Atlantic Books

Even Arctic air
can’t keep the bookstores hidden
behind a mall’s doors.

Joe Perlman operates Mostly Useful Fictions out of East Northport, NY and can be contacted at http://www.mostlyusefulfictions.com.

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