If I wanted to be a licensed New York Sightseeing guide, I had to pass a test. I knew little about the test except that for a single fee I would get two chances within a year to pass the test. I developed a strategy. I would read as much New York City history as I could, take notes, then review the notes, and take the test. Having taken the test and failed it, I would know what I needed to bone up on, and I should be able to pass the test on the second try.
The Strand was integral to this plan. Each time I was near it, I would go to the bookstore’s extensive New York City section. I would scan the titles for something that looked interesting or about which I knew little and then look at the price. If the book cost less than $10, I would buy it. If it cost more than $10, I would re-shelve it. A glance at a bookshelf behind me as I now write indicates that I bought sixty or so books this way.
A day before I was to go into the hospital to have my right shoulder replaced, I took the test to take my mind off my coming months of pain and inconvenience and self-pity. I answered multiple-choice questions on a computer, and I got my result a few minutes after completing the test. Do you think I would be telling you this if I had not passed? I now have a card with my smiling picture that announces I am a licensed guide, and the Strand gets part of the credit for that.
Having re-established touch with the Strand, I continue to go there regularly. I still buy New York City history books, but I also look for books that will be useful for the spouse when she leads a book group. Other bookstores are also in my life. The Mysterious Bookstore in Manhattan’s Tribeca seems to have every mystery story ever written. Often when a friend convinces me that an author unknown to me has an enjoyable mystery series, I head to Reade Street, and I find it at Mysterious. But I confess there is another reason I love that bookstore. The walls are lined with shelves ten, twelve feet high or maybe even higher. Attached to the bookcases is a railing. And attached to the railing is one of those ladders that slide along the railings. I always wanted one of those, and this is as close as I get to having one. And the ladder is not just for the store employees; I get to climb it. When I am looking for something there, I am disappointed if I the book is not above my standing grasp. I want to climb that ladder.
Whenever I am near Unnameable Books in Brooklyn’s Prospect Heights, I go in and almost always find on its shelves of used books something to buy. I was there two days ago and bought three books, with each one reminding me of some advantages of used books and their stores. Of course, there is the price. One of my purchases was of a book that I had first seen in the book shop of the New York Public Library, where I was doing research. Although the book had been well reviewed, I was not sure that I wanted to read about the subject matter, as indicated by its title: Rats: Observations on the History and Habitat of the City’s Most Unwanted Inhabitants. But now at Unnameable, I found it at a fraction of the list price and consequently thought I might give it a try.
The stocks of used and new bookstores often overlap, but they will also differ. I will find books in a used bookstore that look like they may interest me that I would not find in a new bookstore. In that last foray in Unnameable, I found a history of science published in America a decade ago about the advance in scientific knowledge at the end of the eighteenth century. I read a few paragraphs and thought it was well written. I have started reading and enjoying it. I doubt that I would have found the Age of Wonder in a new bookstore.
And used books sometimes tantalize me with mysteries and glimpses of stories not contained in the book. A few recent examples to come. (To be continued.)