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.
at 6:06 PM