Monday, June 28, 2010

My New Experimental Bookstore

I learned the value of used books in college. I wasn't one of those students who sells his course books back at the end of every semester. I kept them all. Instead, I made my money off the rich kids who couldn't be bothered to sell back their books or carry them home. At the end of each school year, I'd go dumpster diving for books tossed in the great dorm cleaning, and every year I'd come up with a couple of boxfuls, many of the books clearly never even opened. That's how I got the copy of Vivian Gornick's Fierce Attachments I still have today. I bought Michael Herr's Dispatches, which was too bad, since I came up with a couple of copies every year. Same deal with Beloved. I'd take what I wanted and cart the rest to Amherst's used bookstores, where between us a few friends and I would split around $150. I usually took my portion in trade.

Since 1996, I've been receiving free review books from publishers hoping I'd write about their latest offerings. Oftentimes I did. Sometimes, it was better for everyone if I didn't. And then there were the great books I let down, like Nick Cave's startlingly good novel of last year, Bunny Munro. Thanks, FSG, for the free book. I told anyone who'd listen that it was better than Murder Ballads

I don't get a lot of books, and usually not the ones I think I want, but there's always enough to require some recycling. You're strictly forbidden to sell review copies, but the only people I know who don't are the same people who used to throw their books out at the end of the semester or the kind hearts in Brooklyn who put them on the curb. I eventually became one of those, in part because it's hard to get a price for books in Brooklyn that justifies the time spent lugging them to the store, and in part because I was so thankful for everyone else who was doing the same. That's how I got my copies of Don DeLillo's Underworld, Jonathan Lethem's Fortress of Solitude, and some beautiful annotated editions of Thoreau's near-complete works. But before I got to Brooklyn, I think I made well over a thousand dollars off of unwanted review copies. I took most of it in trade. A lot of that trade ended up on the curb in Brooklyn. I gave about $500 worth of books, cover price, to the Monroe County public library system in Western New York after I left Brooklyn in the hope that they'd cut me some slack on my fines, but no such luck. Pretty soon I'm going to return the library's Sam Cooke box set that migrated with me to Massachusetts.

Now I live in North Cambridge, where nobody puts books on the curb and used bookstores are disappearing faster than record stores. So I have a new plan I want to try, a virtual curb.

I'm going to put some books up for trade. Not for sale, but for trade. If you want one, email me -- jeff dot sharlet at gmail dot com -- and make me an offer. I'm starting with pristine copies, but I don't need that in return. I'll mail you a $25 book for a $1 paperback if it's something that sounds interesting. And I'm defining "interestesting" very broadly. If you have a book I've been wanting, great; but if you have something I've never heard of that'd be interesting enough to pick up from a box left on the curb, maybe that's better.

This is, of course, a ridiculous, time-wasting project. It's always cheaper to buy from Amazon. But I'm hoping this will be more interesting. We'll see. This blog is half-secret -- very few people know about it and fewer bother to read it -- so the sample is a little smaller than all the used book traders of Brooklyn. But I'm hoping to find something wonderful.

Here's how I think it should work: I list a few titles. You want one, you email me with whatever you have. No obligation either way. If I see something I want, we exchange addresses and mail each other the books, book rate, in padded envelopes, at our own expenses. It's on the honor system. You tell me you're mailing me a book, I'll mail you a book and hope for a delivery.

I have three good titles to start with. Two of them I received double copies of. One of them I arranged for coverage of and another I recommended widely, so I feel like I'm doing the author no dishonor. The third I bought new, and it remains good-as.

Since I want you to trade for these books, none of the links below will take you to a bookseller.

1. Cold: Adventures in the World's Frozen Places, by Bill Streever (Little, Brown, 2009). Cloth. This is really a lovely book, so beautifully written that I overcame my aversion to science writing. Good for hot days.

2. The Evolution of God, by Robert Wright (Little, Brown, 2009). Cloth. My friend Nathan Schneider, an editor of Killing the Buddha, and I met Wright at a conference on journalism about religion, and Nathan ended up interviewing him. I took home a freebie from the conference, and then wound up with another copy in the mail. I'm skeptical of Wright's basic premise, that religion, over time, evolves into a force for good -- what's "good"? -- but I think there's a lot of interesting arguments along the way, so I'm holding on to one copy. You can have the other one.

3. Luna Park, by Kevin Baker and Danijel Zezelj (Vertigo, 2009). Cloth. A beautifully-draw graphic novel about Russian gangsters in Coney Island by the author of the acclaimed plain-old-text novel Dreamland. I'm an admirer of Baker's essays for Harper's, I love graphic novels, and I was completely absorbed as I read it -- but then it seemed to evaporate as soon as I turned the last page. So why keep it on the shelf when somebody else might linger with it longer? Extra points for a graphic novel offered in trade.

That's it to start. Write me at jeff dot sharlet at gmail dot com with something good. A free book -- no trade necessary -- to whoever comes up with a good name for this experimental bookstore.