Category Archives: Bookish Places

Jeff VanderMeer at FLP

Area X penetrated Philadelphia on the evening of Thursday, September 25. Author Jeff VanderMeer ushered in a night of the uncanny at the Free Library of Philadelphia, abetted by Geekadelphia, and an owl (the latter provided courtesy of the Academy of Natural Sciences).

The slideshow included photographs taken by VanderMeer, as well as promotional and fan art.

The slideshow included photographs taken by VanderMeer, as well as promotional and fan art.

I’ve gushed at length about VanderMeer’s recent novels, Annihilation and Authority, going to far as to collect links related to the former. (As of this writing, I’m one-third of the way through the last novel in the trilogy, Acceptance.) I was pleased to have the opportunity to hear VanderMeer speak in person. (And he signed my copy of Annihilation.)

VanderMeer did a short reading from Acceptance, from a portion I have not yet read. I considered bumrushing the podium and knocking the book from his hands, but decided that would be impolite. Fortunately, he read a few pages that weren’t too spoilery (confirmed for me by a friend who was also in attendance). VanderMeer’s tone and the pacing of his speech was flat, without inflection, hypnotic. Combined with his style, heavy with clauses, it reminded me of the surge and retreat of surf beating upon a shore. Hearing VanderMeer read from Acceptance was helpful for me; I’ve been having difficulty “getting into” this last book, and his reading made his style more accessible to me.

Chris Urie and VanderMeer discussed the novels.

Chris Urie and VanderMeer discussed the novels.

VanderMeer noted that the Southern Reach trilogy is his second attempt to write about Florida. He first wrote about the “Sebring Squid Festival,” a faux-journalistic account of a fictional festival set in a real Florida town. This story caused him no end of headaches: Packages of dried squid sent to him in the mail; notes from angry marine biologists; an offer from a BBC representative to talk about the squid for a documentary; and a voicemail from a fisherman who claimed to have caught one of the squid in Louisiana. After that call, unsure how the fisherman got his number, and given that the squid he describes is not real, VanderMeer decided to pursue a more fantastical approach.

VanderMeer discussed the novels at length with a representative from Geekadelphia. It’s clear that nature, and humanity’s relationship to it, is one of VanderMeer’s concerns. He lamented the state of environmental education (in the United States), noting that American children are “developmentally challenged” in regards to their connection with nature. He pointed to his essay “Bear versus Texting Man: Our Spectacular Disconnection,” in which no publisher showed any interest; it was “too depressing.” Much of the novels were informed by his hikes throughout northern Florida, where he encountered the boar (noted in Annihilation). A slideshow running in the background included pictures VanderMeer took during his hikes.

Arizona & I.

Arizona & I.

One of the major themes of the novels is the encounter of individuals with institutions, and the conflict that ensues, “Lord of the Flies with middle management,” he called it. VanderMeer, in his previous work, which he can’t discuss (creepy), actually found a dead mouse and dead plant in a desk drawer, wondering if they were left as some kind of message. Likewise, the smashed mosquito that Control encounters in Authority was drawn from VanderMeer’s own experiences. So, too, was the character of Whitby. One of VanderMeer’s colleagues would, from time to time, approach him and ask, “Do you want to see a strange room?” His answer was always “no,” both because he wanted to continue to be employed, but also because his “writer’s brain” didn’t want to know what was in the room–he wanted to fill it in later. Edit: VanderMeer memorably described the character Whitby as “the Smeagol of the Southern Reach.”

She was spooked, and kept trying to fly away, so I was a *little* nervous.

She was spooked, and kept trying to fly away, so I was a *little* nervous.

Afterwards, there was a question and answer period with the audience. We then headed upstairs to get pictures with the owl! Why the owl, you might wonder. Its presence was informed by the character of the Biologist (“Ghost Bird”), who has an attachment to the creature. Given the novels’ focus on nature, it made sense, once it was suggested, to have the owl (“Arizona”) present. (FYI: Barn owls can live up to 15 years.)

A good evening with an author who is having great success this year.

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Philly Book Stores: Book Trader

Bookstores have personalities. They’re characters. If you can get past the smell of moldering books and, sometimes, cat urine, you’ll find that each bookstore is beautiful and unique in its own special way, much like the patients in movie lunatic asylums. (Fun fact: Did you know that the decay of books is really “burning,” albeit at a slow pace, as they release their carbon back into the atmosphere?)

Thus it’s with great pleasure that I introduce you to the Book Trader, which I would characterize as a slightly grumpy Nutty Professor (Jerry Lewis iteration). Think Doc Brown meets Uncle Fester. Or not. Maybe I’m just confusing the Addams Family’s mansion with the bookstore.

Book Trader facade.

Book Trader facade.

Location and Hours

Book Trader has possibly the best location of all used bookstores in Philly. You’ll find the shop in Old City, right across the street from historic Christ Church. Book Trader is on 2nd Street just north of Market. Old City is a highly trafficked neighborhood, both during the day and at night. The district teems with restaurants and bars, and the nightlife is lively enough for visitors to feel safe well past Book Trader’s 10pm closing time. (Although looking for used books at 10pm seems…unwholesome.) The store opens at 10am daily.

Unwholesome: "Hello, mother..."

Unwholesome: “Hello, mother…”

Prices

Prepare to be mystified! Book Trader notes, using pencil, prices on upper right corner of the book’s first page. I can read Cyrillic, I can read Hebrew, but I can’t read the Book Trader’s handwriting. Most prices appear to me to be a lower case “g” followed by two zeros. That “g” could be a “9.” It could be a “4.” Frankly, I’m not convinced that the cashiers know, either, since their typical reaction is to pause and peer at the book before announcing its price. I imagine they’re doing quick mental calculations, futilely trying to divine the book’s price by comparing it to the hundreds of other tomes that have passed through their hands over the past few days.

I complained before about the price of used books. Perhaps I’m cheap or, to put a positive spin on it, “thrifty.” Book Trader’s books are on the expensive side. I know what you’re thinking. “Booksellers gotta feed their families, too!” Yeah, but Book Trader’s kids about to go on Social Security themselves, so that ain’t it. During my last visit, just this month (January 2013), the books I looked at averaged about $7 each, which is more than I’m willing to pay for most paperbacks, especially those that are battered.

The Book Trader makes some strange decisions. I once purchased there a copy of Religion and the Decline of Magic for $1.97. The store’s owner told me, “That’s a great book, but I can’t sell it for more than that because of the underlining!” I sold it on Half.com for $15. Indeed, I knew I could get that when I bought it. The economics of used bookstores is both mystifying and fascinating.

Precious + Useful.

Precious + Useful.

In theory, Book Trader will give you credit for any books you turn into him. I was told in 2008 that the exchange rate was approximately five to six of your books in order to earn one Book Trader book. Note: Book Trader doesn’t accept bestsellers.

Selection

Book Trader has an amazing, I would say overwhelming, selection of subjects. Nonfiction may be found on the ground floor. A store-length history section is abutted by shelves on politics, philosophy, psychology, film and the arts, the sciences, and religion. There’s also several shelves of VHS tapes for several dollars each, or 3 for $4. So enjoy that. I’ve had particular success in the American history and religion sections.

Ground floor, looking out the center aisle toward the entrance.

Ground floor, looking out the center aisle toward the entrance.

Fiction may be found on the second floor. And there is a lot of fiction.

Just a portion of the fiction.

Just a portion of the fiction.

Think of the second floor as a big “U”: Mainstream fiction or “literature” comprises the “U,” inside of which are shelves holding genre fiction. Mysteries/thrillers and sci-fi/fantasy comprise the bulk of the genre shelves.

Just some of the sci-fi and fantasy books.

Just some of the sci-fi and fantasy books.

I like Book Trader’s sci-fi section, which is one of the largest of all the bookstores I’ve been to in Philly. I was pleased during my last visit to find to two Catherynne M. Valente books, including Deathless, a favorite of mine. You might not find exactly the author you’re looking for, but you’re bound to find something, and that sense of discovery is one of the reasons we visit used bookstores, right?

Character

Book Trader is a little kooky, like your uncle who insists he has definitive evidence that Jesus had an older brother. Can I see it, Uncle Bob? Of course not.

Book Trader is an experience; my pictures don’t do it justice. Just a few years ago, the store underwent a major renovation, “major” to be understood as a relative term, that involved improving the lighting. Prior to said renovation, the store was incredibly dark, in part due to the monolithic shelves and cramped aisles. I expected to have to use my phone as a flashlight in the sci-fi section, but was pleased to discover that I was able to read titles and authors without any difficulty.

That’s not to say that Book Trader’s “improvements” have all panned out. I enter Book Trader with dreams of browsing for hours, but am forced to flee after about an hour due to a sense of claustrophobia as the cramped conditions take their toll on my already too-fragile psyche. Piles of books on the floor contribute to the sense of walls closing in. Hold me.

Do they ever move?

Do they ever move?

Service at Book Trader is…different. Or perhaps typical of used bookstores? I’ve had a few giggles as inexperienced customers approach the cashier and ask if they have a specific book in stock, only to be answered with “I don’t know” or “If we did, it would be in the [insert subject] section…” Which is really only a slightly more polite way of saying “I don’t know.” That said, the store’s attendants are otherwise friendly and more than willing to talk about books. Just don’t expect them to be able to help you find anything. You’ll understand if you ever visit. (I did not take pictures of the box fans sitting atop bookshelves, extension cords dangling in the spaces between the shelves.)

Art in the sci-fi section.

Art in the sci-fi section.

There’s always music playing, usually bombastic classic tunes that are in no way conducive to browsing, but are perhaps better suited to storming the gates of Valhalla. It was a rainy Saturday when I last visited, and an Everly Brothers compilation was playing, a nice change of pace. The story is never “busy,” per se; you’ll be joined at most by two or three fellow browsers.

Conclusion

Book Trader is an institution, and, like an institution, has the prerogative to indulge its quirks. You don’t like it? Too bad. I suspect Book Trader doesn’t care.

If you’ve never been to Book Trader, you need to go at least once, just for the experience. I’ve enjoyed taking virgins to the store only to see them gawp in horror at the labyrinth with which they’re confronted. Then I drink their tears. Book Trader virgin tears help keep my skin looking young.

I try to visit every few months, but it never pans out the way I imagine. I assume I’m going to find books x, y, and z, but I don’t, and my patience for browsing wears thin as the shelves begin closing in on me. I’m pretty sure that, if I died on the second floor, my body wouldn’t be discovered for weeks.

Book Trader isn’t the best used bookstore in Philly, but it’s one of the biggest, and you really should visit.

Judging Books by Their Covers, Part II

I found some more winners at Book Corner.

I'm from Amish country, so I had to include this one, vunst.

I’m from Amish country, so I had to include this one, vunst.

In case you were *really* interested in gerbils.

In case you were *really* interested in gerbils.

Pro: Built-in audience. Con: Audience has difficulty turning pages.

Pro: Built-in audience. Con: Audience has difficulty turning pages.

Um.

Um.

I kind of love this one.

I kind of love this one.

Based on Strange Encounters, I think I might need to start asking readers to guess the publication year based on the book’s cover art.

 

 

 

Let’s Judge Some Books by Their Covers

I visited Book Corner over lunch today, in the process violating my vow to no longer buy books. I found a copy of China Mieville’s Looking for Jake and Ursula K. Le Guin’s classic sci-fi tale The Left Hand of Darkness. Score two for my ever-expanding library. Thanks, books.

I wanted to share a few of the truly awesome (see: awful) titles and covers I saw whilst perusing the shelves. Enjoy.

AKA, "My high school years."

AKA, “My high school years.”

I love "how to" guides. This one seem useful.

I love “how to” guides. This one seem useful.

My personal favorite. I think this one speaks for itself.

My personal favorite. I think this one speaks for itself.

If you know of anything that equals or tops these, do let me know.

 

The Next Page

Philadelphia is not a literary town.

You might think that Philly would have more of a book culture. The region teems with universities. The town is halfway between NYC and DC. And it’s a hub of academic publishing, hosting Penn Press, Taylor & Francis, Elsevier and Thomson Reuters, among other publishers.

Despite all that, Philly is a sports town, a beer town, but it is not a book town. Bookstores are rare and precious things, hidden away like Ben Franklin’s gold. They say that the man who finds Ben Franklin’s gold will live forever. They didn’t realize that women are treasure hunters, too.

In any case, I greeted with glee the opening several years ago of The Next Page, sister store to the Friends of the Free Library’s Book Corner.

The Next Page facade.

The Next Page facade.

Location and Hours

The Next Page can be found on a lonely stretch of Chestnut Street, tucked away on the 700 block between Jeweler’s Row and Graduate Hospital, just west of Old City and Independence Mall. Sadly, there’s little else in the neighborhood to recommend it to visitors aside from gum stains on the sidewalks, discarded cigarette butts and heavy traffic. Oh, and there’s a Cosi.

The hours are 10am to 6pm, Monday through Saturday. You probably wouldn’t want to visit the store any later than 6, anyway. It’s not a dangerous neighborhood, but it’s a little spooky when normal working hours are over and office workers flee Center City for the safety of the suburbs. Besides, you don’t really have any reason to be out at night unless you’re looking for Franklin’s gold.

Prices

I’m not sure if it’s the rent or the expectation that things should be higher priced in Center City, but pricing at The Next Page isn’t as consistent as it is at Book Corner (where there is a $1/$2/$3 flat rate for mass market paperbacks, trade paperbacks and hardcovers, respectively). Expect prices at The Next page to range from $3 to just over $10, with the average price hovering around $6-$8.

Staring down the center aisle toward the exit.

Staring down the center aisle toward the exit.

I visited the store with a friend once and remarked that I thought the books were overpriced. The clerks were eavesdropping on our conversation. I didn’t quite hear what they said to one another, but I caught, “I don’t think they’re overpriced,” and, “it benefits the library.”

Far be it from me to suggest to a merchant what they should charge their customers, but, in my opinion, $6 for a used paperback is overpriced. This is especially true of books that were popular just a few years ago and thus of which there is now a surfeit of copies, for instance In the Woods.

I often overhear the clerks discussing the pricing of books, which I believe they sell online, too, and I get the impression that they expect The Next Page to be the Friends’ cash cow. I wonder if the prices The Next Page charges reflect the “market value” of the used books they’re selling, or if they might raise more money for the library with lower prices that would result in more moved product. You’re welcome for my brilliant financial analysis.

Selection

Content is king at The Next Page!

Fiction comprises about a third of the store’s space, but is extensive, including literature, science fiction and fantasy, horror, and an especially large mystery/thriller section. You’ll find a wider range of authors and titles here than you will at Book Corner, and you’re more likely to find recently published books. I snagged a copy of The Golem and the Jinni (2013) for $8 in June. Good book, good price.

The fiction section.

The fiction section.

Nonfiction, too, is well-represented. There’s a large history section, as well as sociology, psychology, business and so on. Again, you’ll often find newer, or “new-ish,” titles. I read a lot of religious history and have had great success finding books by biblical scholar Bart Ehrman.

The selection rotates more frequently here than it does at Book Corner. That’s due in part, I think, to the fact that the Friends siphon from Book Corner the titles that are newer or in better condition to sell at The Next Page.

Character

The Next Page is a different beast from Book Corner. The latter is what I think of as a “traditional” used bookstore: a little dark, a little dusty, crates on the floor and an aging hippie moving stacks of yellowed books from one corner to another, like Sisyphus in Hell.

"The dank, Moe, the dank!"

“The dank, Moe, the dank!”

The Next Page is not like that. To quote Hemingway, it is a clean, well lighted place, although you won’t feel the need to drink yourself into a stupor and lament your lost youth. It’s a more formal space for a different neighborhood. There’s art on the walls that customers can by: what appear to me to be nineteenth century naturalistic prints. There’s usually some inoffensive music playing, although I was subjected to some Enya yesterday and still don’t feel clean. “Orinoco Flow”…shudder.

The sci-fi and thriller section.

The sci-fi and thriller section.

Foot traffic is minimal. A surprisingly large number of customers stop in to ask if the store has this or that title in stock, suggesting that folks who work in Center City are unfamiliar with the concept of used bookstores. The clerks endure questions such as these with good humor, going so far as to look titles up on Amazon. Bully for them. Sometimes ya just wanna smack a man who asks for “that book, you know, the one with the blue cover.”

Conclusion

I complain about The Next Page the way an old man complains about his wife: I’m curmudgeonly and carry the murderous rage that I imagine builds up over 40 years of marriage, but I’m still with her. She’s my gal.

The prices seem high to me, but it doesn’t keep me away. I don’t buy something every time I visit, but I always seem to see at least one or two titles that I’d like to get. And I do still buy from The Next Page with some regularity.

There aren’t a lot of options in Philly. This is one of the better ones.