Tuesday, April 15, 2008

Bookstore Clerk Observations (From The Secret of Lost Things)

Over the last few years I've taken to marking passages from most of the books I read, even novels, so that I can more easily find the quotes again when I go back looking for them. I didn't use any quotes in my comments of a couple of days ago on The Secret of Lost Things but a few things did seem "mark-worthy," in particular some of the characters' observations about the shop's customers:

“I think what you mean is that book collecting is only meaningful if it’s personal,” Oscar clarified. If it’s just another way of accumulating wealth, instead of for the books themselves, it isn’t right. Collectors are trying to protect themselves. To separate themselves. It’s a hierarchy. That’s my complaint with Gosford. In a way I’d rather Redburn steal the books – at least I know they mean something to him. He takes a risk to get what he wants.”
I can really identify with this one because I hate the idea of anyone collecting books simply for competitive purposes or as investments. I would certainly have a great book collection if I were a multi-millionaire but I'm proud to have the simple collection I've put together over the years because each and every one of the books on my study shelves means something personal to me.

“Our business is to find homes for books with the hope they will be loved as we have loved them. My heart is broken every day I make a sale; then renewed again by the arrival of an unexpected replacement. I keep learning to love again...After nearly fifty years my relationship to books remains mysterious to me, but I know from my own collection that ownership is the most intimate tie we can have to objects.”
Now, I realize that this is a romantic version of bookstores and their owners, but don't we all want to believe that this is the way it really is...or the way we would feel if we finally got to live out our fantasies of owning our own indie bookstores?

Exclusively male, these compulsive book buyers and collectors were neurotically convinced that a day missed was a volume possibly lost, or at least in someone else’s hands. What were their lives made of, apart from books? The Arcade was their first destination, a quick stop to check on fresh inventory piled at the base of Pike’s platform; an obligatory daily search for hidden treasure. Acquisitiveness drove them, and envy – the ingredients, I suppose, of any passion.
I've seen some really aggressive collectors on occasion, but I also see a little of myself in this description, too, so I'll stop at that.

Oscar appeared outraged on Melville’s behalf, but of course he sold used books every day whose authors never saw a penny of what Pike pocketed. Even the new review copies that Walter Geist sold from the basement left an author out of any profits, because they had been sent, to garner publicity, to journalists and reviewers who hadn’t paid for them, but sold them nonetheless to the Arcade, collecting a quarter of retail price.
We all want to see our favorite writers do well financially so that they can afford the time to keep doing what they do so well, and this quote does kind of make a person think. I love used book bookstores as much as the next guy and I'm always willing to buy an ARC when I spot one by one of the authors I read but I do sometimes wonder what writers themselves think about the lost royalties...not all that much, I suspect (and hope).

At the least, these quotes will give you a bit of the flavor of The Secret of Lost Things. And maybe they will give you something to think about...


  1. Sam, I'm so glad you shared these quotes. They absolutely resonate with me. I also buy ARCs when I see them, but I don't give my ARCs to used bookstores to resell. IF I gave them to anyone, I'd pass them along to someone I thought would enjoy them or use them as a giveaway on my blog. But, who am I kidding? I rarely get rid of a book.

  2. Same here, Lisa. I seldom get rid of an ARC and would never sell them. It just doesn't seem right to do that for some reason...glad you liked the quotes. I thought they were pretty fitting - and interesting.

  3. I love love loved that very strange book. It was sort of Iriving-esque, I thought. In fact, now I wonder what I DID think right after reading it. Because sometimes, you have one impression upon finishing the book, but then it sticks with you and you want to read it again. Does that ever happen to you? Anyway, I think I would have enjoyed it even more if I weren't so Melville-impaired.

  4. I kind of agree with you, Dewey, about the Melville connection. It all made sense and his lost novel was perfect for the plot but I did tend to get a little bored with the amount of detail, especially the letters, about Melville...and now that you mention it, it does remind me a bit of an Irving novel...all those eccentric characters, etc.