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