|No Country for Old Books|
|Written by Gaspar González - BT Contributor|
It’s easy to find almost anything in Miami, except a great used bookstore
The first “job” I ever had was in a used bookstore. I was 11 or 12 and the bookstore, the name of which I have since forgotten, was located in a strip mall on NE 2nd Avenue, near Barry University, two blocks from my house. The owner, whose name I do remember, was Gloria. She was a nice lady who, like a lot of bookstore owners, spent most of her day behind the counter, reading, looking up only when someone walked in, and then only sometimes.
I would go there two or three times a week. Knowing I was partial to sports books, she would point me to the latest arrivals. After a few months, she asked me if I would like to come in a couple of days a week and help her around the store. Pay was 50 cents an hour.
I can still remember sorting through hundreds of books each day, making sure they were nice and straight on the shelves, arranged in alphabetical order by author. (I’d take an extra second or two with the Harlequin romances; ripped bodices were a revelation to me at 12.)
I kept Gloria company in the store for a few months before Little League and other pursuits pulled me away. But I never lost my love for used bookstores -- the slightly musty smell, the gently frayed copies of yesteryear’s bestsellers or, even better, the creaseless, neglected books no one had read the first time, but that, if given a chance, had much to offer.
I was lucky that, as I got older, I lived in places where used bookstores abounded, university towns like Gainesville, Florida, and New Haven, Connecticut, and of course, New York City.
In New York, my apartment was only a five-minute walk from the Strand, on Broadway and 12th. The store famously boasts “18 miles of books,” by which it means somewhere between two and three million volumes. I didn’t have much money at the time, but I could always go browsing at the Strand, losing myself in row after row of biographies, novels, books on architecture, music, and film.
I suppose one of the reasons I remember the Strand (and, for that matter, the dozens of other used bookstores I frequented in the Northeast) so fondly is that Miami has so few places like that.
There are some shops here and there -- Dunbar Old Books in South Miami, Fifteenth Street Books in the Gables, and the Paperback Book X-Change in North Miami Beach come to mind -- but not nearly as many as one would expect to find in a metropolitan area of 2.5 million people. And there are fewer all the time.
In the vicinity of the Biscayne Corridor, there once were a couple of shops, both in North Miami: Books of Paige’s, which was around for years at different locations, and Trader John’s Records and Books, which moved to North Miami from Hollywood around 2008.
Of the two, Trader John’s came closest in feel to my idea of a used bookstore: books stacked from floor to ceiling, often whimsically arranged (as when I found a vintage copy of Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment in the “True Crime” section).
After shutting down his shop, Trader John sold books out of his home, near Shorecrest, on the weekends. That didn’t last, either.
I suppose we should count ourselves lucky we have places like Libreri Mapou in Little Haiti, Libreria Universal in Little Havana, and Books and Books (everywhere); all can rightly be called community institutions. But they’re not used bookstores. Great as those places are, there’s little likelihood of encountering a beloved book that’s been out of print or one so deliciously offbeat you couldn’t possibly have imagined it existed in the first place.
These days, when I want a used book fix, I usually drive to Bookwise in Boca Raton. (Yes, Boca.) Bookwise doesn’t quite have 18 miles of books, but it contains at least a city block or three of used and rare volumes -- the store bought out noted Fort Lauderdale bookseller Robert Hittel’s collection when he closed his store -- and enough comfortable chairs to accommodate those who want to spend an afternoon there.
I wish there were more places like that in Miami. I’d settle for just one in the Biscayne Corridor. If you don’t think it could work, because people just aren’t interested in bookstores in the age of the iPad, think again.
I recently read about a 21st Century take on the traditional used bookstore, the Monkey’s Paw, in Toronto. The shop has managed to attract a clientele by specializing in unusual and esoteric books, titles like The Puppet Theatre in Czechoslovakia and Safety in Police Pursuit Driving. The owner, Stephen Fowler, told the New York Times he seeks out the “beautiful, arcane, macabre, and absurd.”
If that concept doesn’t sound perfect for Miami, what does?
Volume 12, Issue 8. October 2014
The Smithsonian honors a local documentary photographer
Sales, special events, and more from the people who make Biscayne Times possible