[Editor's Note: Douglas Perry reads from his book The Girls of Murder City: Fame, Lust, and the Beautiful Killers Who Inspired "Chicago" at 7:30 p.m. on Tuesday, August 17, at Powell's City of Books. Click here for more information.]
I never do this by choice. The simple fact of the matter is that my house is not getting any bigger, but I keep buying books. So now and again,either some of the books have to go or I do.
Let me be clear right up front: This is not the lead-in to my Oprah-like e-reader epiphany. I don't own an e-reader. If you're into your Nook or Kindle or iPad, that's great. Whatever works for you. But for me, physical books carry meaning that isn't transferable to a gadget. My packed bookshelves enliven my home and order my cluttered mind. The tactile pleasure I get from turning pages and rubbing my finger across an embossed dust jacket would have kept Freud busy. And then there are the memories of where I was and who I was with when I plucked a particular volume off a shelf in a musty old used bookshop and decided to take it home with me.
For that last reason in particular, I suffer much angst whenever I release a book back into the wild. And yet recently I let one go without a qualm — The Used Book Lover's Guide to the Midwest, which provides a comprehensive listing of used bookshops in the region, circa 1995. I picked it up a couple years after moving to Chicago and immediately put it through its paces.
I used to trawl used bookshops quite often. After graduating from college, I moved to Chicago to start my journalism career. I got to know the city by climbing on the El every weekend and then hoofing it around a new neighborhood. Whether I was in Ukrainian Village or Rogers Park or Hyde Park, I always knew I'd be able to find an acceptable coffee shop or diner. The prize was finding a good used bookshop. And in the 1990s, there were a large number of them. Within a few months of moving into my tiny studio apartment in Lake View, I could stick a mental pin in almost every one. The Used Book Lover's Guide helped me find new places further out than the El went.
A lot of people go to a favorite bookstore — myself included — for the warmth of the place and the serendipity of stumbling upon a great book they'd never heard of before. That's why I believe physical stores will survive even after we've all been implanted with microchips that are connected 24/7 with the Google cloud. But there was another reason that I obsessively visited used bookshops back in those long-gone Chicago days: I had a list of desired out-of-print books in my head.
Maybe I'm weird, but I've found there are few feelings of triumph and good fortune to match coming across an elusive, long-sought book. I found my first edition of Robert Penn Warren's All the King's Men deep in the bowels of Bookman's Alley in Evanston, Ill. I unearthed a perfectly preserved copy of Kenneth Tynan's He That Plays the King at a tiny shop just off Charing Cross Road (of course!) in London.
That experience ceased for me about 10 years ago, thanks to used-bookshop aggregation sites and online megastores. I can now find a copy of He That Plays the King any day of the week — week after week, month after month, year after year. There's no reason to save for a trip to Merry Old England anymore. This is great for many reasons. I happily jump on the Internet whenever I must have a particular book, new or out of print — and that happens quite often.
At the same time, though, I do miss having that list in my head. I do miss the thrill of the chase. As wonderful as cyber-bibliophilism can be, something seems somehow wrong with a world in which I no longer have any need for The Used Book Lover's Guide to the Midwest.
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Douglas Perry is co-author of The Sixteenth Minute: Life in the Aftermath of Fame. An award-winning writer and editor, his work has appeared in the Chicago Tribune, San Jose Mercury News, The Oregonian, Details, and many other publications. He lives in Portland, Oregon.
Books mentioned in this post
Douglas Perry is the author of The Girls of Murder City: Fame, Lust, and the Beautiful Killers Who Inspired "Chicago"