There was a used bookstore in my hometown my father liked to frequent, but its odor of furniture polish and musty cloth covers was a turn off. As a child, I was desperate to align myself with the Honeycomb Kids generation. The glossy best sellers and Playgirls
at B. Dalton’s in the Glendale Mall seemed more sophisticated, and thus more my style.
It wasn’t ‘til I was a teenager, passing through Madison, Wisconsin on a family trip, that I realized the error of my ways. I was, by then, interested in theater and art and any taste of the counterculture I could truffle up amid the Preppy Handbook craze. Paul’s Bookstore
on State Street seemed like the sort of place where that itch could be scratched. Maybe someone would take me for a college student!
I could have browsed for hours, but my mother and stepfather were eager to get back on the road — fortunately, not before I spied Elsa’s Housebook
. This slim volume, from 1974, pairs photographer Elsa Dorfman’s Polaroids of her Beat generation pals hanging out in her living room and kitchen with her memories of getting the shots. It was a vision of creative community I immediately aspired to for myself. The Housebook
’s handwritten elements, Dorfman’s homey clutter, and the long, unkempt seventies hair all held me in their thrall.
I’d never found anything like that
at B. Dalton’s.
That’s the promise of a used bookstore, isn’t it? The chance that you’ll fall down the right rabbit hole and discover the perfect thing — an out-of-print gem that wasn’t exactly heralded upon publication, or an inspiring, hopefully still living author with whom you’re unacquainted…
That’s the promise of a used bookstore, isn’t it? The chance that you’ll fall down the right rabbit hole and discover the perfect thing.
Take Lucy Sweet’s Unskinny
. Its single customer review on Amazon is an affront to the huge place this feminist cartoon anthology holds in my heart. It’s a souvenir of a used bookshop in Glasgow, and a summer spent wandering around with a baby strapped to my back, wondering what the hell I was supposed to do with myself creatively now that motherhood had rendered late night, low budget, Off-Off-Broadway theater unsustainable.
A year later, Unskinny
was one of a handful of obscurities reviewed in the very first issue of my zine, The East Village Inky
(I also reviewed a cassette featuring the music of a fellow Tompkins Square Playground parent, whose band I’d made the effort to see play live at CBGB’s early on a Monday night. We lost touch shortly thereafter. A few years later, I was listening to Morning Edition, only to hear Bob Edwards describe him as one of Argentina’s hottest musicians! Maybe he still is! Fortunes rise and fall for small potatoes and big bananas alike…)
One of my most beloved used bookstore finds is a copy of People One Ought to Know
, a collaboration between the not-yet-famous Christopher Isherwood and Sylvain Mangeot, his 14-year-old tutee. Sylvain drew pictures of animals. Christopher turned them into poems (that I, unbidden, still recite: Admiral Duck is so conceited / his army always gets defeated…
I jotted a note on one of Tompkins Square Books & Records’ business cards at the time of purchase. 24 years later, it’s still stuck under the back flap:
I bought this book for my baby daughter, India, on an unseasonably warm evening in March, my 33rd birthday.
Why is People One Ought to Know
forgotten when Berlin Stories
lingers in the public’s mind?
Oh right, Cabaret
Anyway, it would’ve made a great zine.
There are a handful of copies on the Internet. Maybe I should buy them all. Hoard them for gift giving. I’m certainly not relinquishing Baby India’s copy (which, for the record, resides on my bookshelf, not hers.) When we were moving from the apartment where we’d lived for 16 years, I did the math — divided a generous estimate of my remaining years on the planet by the number of books I had vague plans to reread, then multiplied the result by the moving company’s charge per box. This opened the floodgates to a spectacular literary purge. Any title that seemed as if it could be easily found in a library or bookstore was sent packing to find happiness with a new owner, even if the story within still sparked joy.
Any title that seemed as if it could be easily found in a library or bookstore was sent packing to find happiness with a new owner, even if the story within still sparked joy.
Don’t worry. I hung onto enough to fill some 20 sturdy liquor store boxes with the labors of my fellow small potatoes, as well as some interesting or sentimental editions by bigger, better known bananas. Elsa’s Housebook
made the cut, as did Unskinny
and People One Ought to Know
. Also, all those beautiful Richard Brautigans and any paperback bearing the logos of multiple used bookstores in India or South East Asia rubberstamped on its inside cover. They’re a far better talisman of the shoestring backpacker adventures documented in No Touch Monkey! And Other Travel Lessons Learned Too Late
than the cookie tin of fuzzy, faded photographs taken with a twentieth-century point-and-shoot.
Sometimes l get an apologetic note from someone who’s scored No Touch Monkey!
or one of my other books secondhand.
Why so apologetic? Not sure. Do their nostrils smart from the perceived stink of the remainder bin?
More likely, they’re begging my pardon for not paying full price. Please! No need! Yes, secondhand purchases do nothing to enrich my personal coffers, but they gladden my spirit, and it’s not as if I fattened Lisa Hanawalt
’s pockets when I sprang for a half price hardback copy of My Dumb, Dirty Eyes
at Book-Off the other day.
I’m hunching Lisa, whom I loved since Coyote Doggirl
, another previously owned triumph, would be pleased her book has found another reader (and that she has a lucrative television career).
If you’ve ever purchased — or find yourself with the opportunity to purchase — any of my written works in a used bookstore, do so in the knowledge that I want you to. Keep a small potato feeling relevant! And an indie bookseller in business!
Looking at it from the other end of the telescope, if or when you tire of owning my oeuvre, I’d be honored if you’d release it to a used bookstore, without guilt, even if the inside covers bear inscriptions from well-meaning friends who mistakenly believed you’d treasure their gift forever.
Let me be some young thing’s Elsa’s Housebook
÷ ÷ ÷
is a performer, playwright, and author of eight books, including No Touch Monkey! And Other Travel Lessons Learned Too Late
and most recently, Creative, Not Famous: The Small Potato Manifesto
. Ayun was a member of the NeoFuturists in the '80s and '90s. She co-founded Theater of the Apes
with her husband Greg Kotis, and prior to the pandemic, hosted its monthly book-based variety show Necromancers of the Public Domain
. Ayun is the Chief Primatologist — and sole employee — of the award winning, hand-illustrated zine, The East Village Inky