Monday, October 30, 2006

Books! A Brattle speciality!

There can be few innocent delights quite as enjoyable as a trip to the Brattle Bookshop on a fine spring day.

Thanks to global warming, that's exactly what we here at stevereads experienced today, since it was nearly 70 degrees in downtown Boston on the 30th day of October (about 35 degrees warmer than normal).

But we've learned to put aside thinking about the viciously incongruous changes in the weather (especially since New England is currently embarking on a season formerly known as 'winter,' when daytime temperatures can routinely be expected to dip below 50) and just concentrate on the fact that the absence of cold, wind, or rain means that the Brattle's bargain carts will be out in all their glory.

Some of you have visited these carts with me in the past, and most of those who have disdained them at first glance. This is understandable: the books are arranged in no special order, and they have a (literally) weatherbeaten look about them. You'll find no rare first editions here (the shop's proprietor, Ken Gloss, simply doesn't make those kinds of mistakes), but if you're not a book-snob and you're patient, you will almost certainly find treasure.

A big part of searching the carts involves ENGAGING with them. SO many friends over the years have experienced the same thing: they FIGHT the carts, obdurately waiting for the good books to shout out, grudgingly picking up one or maybe two in the course of fifteen minutes - only to look up and see me with a bulging armload. It's not that I'm a book-slut; it's that I squat down and dig around - I don't only listen to the books, I ask them questions.

Of course, another part of the difference is that at any given time I'm carrying around in my head a MUCH longer list of book-requests and potential book-recipients than most people. This, plus the extremely varied nature of my own reading, mean two things above all others: 1) I'm always going to enjoy myself browsing at the Brattle, and 2) I'm always going to WANT more than I can BUY.

The key is winnowing. As you're prowling the carts, you pull everything you're seriously interested in - hence the bulging armload. Don't leave anything on the cart thinking you'll come back to it: not only will you need all your potential choices in hand when winnowing-time comes, but anything you leave behind could be snapped up by somebody else (or completely blocked by a grunting, talking-to-himself Bill Knott). Then when you've gathered all the potential buys, be ruthless. Which are whims? Which are motivated by some trivial detail (cover design ... ulp ... edition size ... double ulp ... UK edition ... triple ulp...)? Is everything you buy something you'll REALLY read, or something a recipient will REALLY read?

Inevitably, there'll come times when even after you've winnowed for all you're worth, you're holding more books than you can buy. It happens to me all the time. It happened to me today.

The Brattle bargain shelves are segregated into $1, $3, and $5 sections. Even when I've got ducats aplenty in my pockets, I totally ignore the $5 shelves. And it's on the $3 shelves that the fun begins! I scan the $3 shelves not in order to buy but in order the HANDICAP which volumes might get marked down to $1 before some scab comes along and snatches them up. It's on the $3 carts that temptation is strongest, because there's always a voice in the back of your mind (even at your poorest) saying 'Aw, screw it - it's only $2 more ... buy it now!'

Usually, I'm adamant against that voice. Today I browsed all over, picked out a whole bunch of things - Michael Grant's little Penguin volume on Roman classics, a nice-looking edition of Ambrose Bierce's 'Devil's Dictionary,' a satisfyingly plump trade paperback of Elizabeth George's "Deception on His Mind," a handy little dictionary of world rulers, a UK edition of Flanagan's 'Tenants of Time, a study of American birds ...

In the end, I was the bitch of the $3 shelves. This time, anyway.

I picked out a trade paperback of the O.F. Moshead edition of Pepys' diary, mainly because of Ernest Shepard's utterly charming illustrations. I already have this edition in hardcover (where it's called 'Everybody's Pepys'), but this is hands-down my favorite edition to give to people, so I reasoned it was good to have a spare lying around. I know, I know - this is in direct violation of the Steve Library Accord of 2005 (no book purchase shall henceforth be made on behalf of speculative future recipients, since this leads to 80,000,000 feckin books covering every square inch of the the apartment)

I also picked out the big fat Running Press trade paperback called 'The Unabridged Mark Twain,' even though I've variously bought and sold and bought again this same volume countless times over the years, and I couldn't tell you why. All four of these Running Press volumes (the others are Poe, London, and Shakespeare) are well worth keeping for the sheer overabundant bounty they offer, so I made a mental vow not to dump this one EVER (even though its moronic 'opening remarks' are by that moron of all morons, the moronic Kurt Vonnegut).

The third thing I plopped for today was a nice trade paperback of Cecil Woodham-Smith's biography of Queen Victoria, which I bought because it's a nice sturdy trade with a Landseer painting on the cover. Woodham-Smith's version is a lot less bloated and plodding than Elizabeth Longford's, and it's a lot less acidic than Lytton Strachey's - it's in fact a lucid, delightful read all by itself.

I walked away shamed but happy - the $3 shelves had won this round, but for less than $10 I'd loaded up on three fat, fantastic volumes. It's only my expertise negotiating the $1 carts that made $9 feel like a lot of money. You gotta love a bookshop like that.


lockep said...

[A big part of searching the carts involves ENGAGING with them... It's not that I'm a book-slut; it's that I squat down and dig around - I don't only listen to the books, I ask them questions.]

Jesus Christ, did somebody call for a frakkin' "book whisperer"?

Please, sir, stop, um, fondling the books...

Kevin Caron said...


john cotter said...

I guess I could call Steve a 'bibliomancer,' if the word didn’t already mean something else. But I get him on the Brattle tables. Because the two of you (Locke & birthday boy) live far from civilization, you won't be familiar with the pleasures of which he speaks. I was at the Brattle only about a month ago with a friend who looked at the dollar tables and essentially saw a big pile of dirty trash waiting to be hauled away by the 2nd shift trash crew. I told her I could find her a great book--or at least a book worth buying--on any shelf she picked. She thought she could make a fool of me. But Steve had taught me well. The books I found, it is true, were dusty, spine-cracked, & smelled pretty bad—but when she saw me emerge rise from the oil-slick blacktop with a complete set of penguin pocket-sized Evelyn Waugh… well, let’s say she looked at me with new eyes. I felt a trace of the glory Steve must feel when he delivers lucky books from this musty purgatory: I felt like Poseidon.

Kevin Caron said...

Bah - too think that you could ever accuse a man as cheap as me of not appreciating the wonder of Brattle Bargain Bookshelves. I'm the guy who finds things worth purchasing in the 50 cent bin at the Lafayette Public Library, for chrissakes.

Anonymous said...

At a thrift store's 1/2-off book sale today I had two great finds: an American Library edition of Emerson for $1.50 (hardcover) and Gore Vidal's "Burr" (Panther trade paperback) for $0.50. Wow.

jeff e. said...

Oops, that last comment was from me.

Kevin Caron said...

Gore Vidal's American empire novels are a staple of cheapass bookbuying for me - I started with a hardcover copy of Burr that I got for a buck, then picked up Lincoln, Empire, and 1876 for 50 cents each.

I picked up Azimov's first two Foundation novels for a buck, out of curiosity... Enjoyed part one, but part to was a disapointment. Should I bother with the third book? I bought The Brothers Karamazof for a couple quarters, too.

I happily found a Martin Amis book for 10 cents at a thrift store not long ago (insert Steve's 'you overpaid' or somesuch here).

steve said...

sure you don't mean 'Martin Amiz' there, pilgrim? I mean, as long as you're on GOD'S OWN LONGEST STREAK OF AUTHOR/TITLE TYPOS ...

Kevin Caron said...

Sigh. And I caught all of them, only after you post the damn thing, it doesn't let you go back and edit. I've been waiting for the day where I get picked on for flagrant typos! That's what I get for posting after midnight.

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