In Seattle we enter a second-hand bookstore to find a guard cat at the door. Hard to tell if he’s gatekeeper or greeter: he neither blinks nor budges at our arrival. As soon as we step inside we know Twice Sold Tales is our kind of store. Mazes of floor to ceiling shelves snake through four or five rooms in an old house. Walking in we inhale that used book smell of paper and bindings faintly laced with ink and dust. It is an aroma only found in shops with many hardbacks printed half a century ago.
The literature/fiction section begins with Edward Abbey, a good sign. A faint sound of classical cello fades. The books on books section is of ample proportions, as I can tell from Phil’s murmur of approval. I open a collection of Camus essays translated by Justin O’Brien to find: “Without freedom, no art; art lives on the restraints it imposes on itself, and dies of all others.”
Murmur of voices at the front desk, otherwise silent. We spent the previous day in popular pursuits—Pike Place Market, the throwing of fish, the Ballard Locks—places of crowds and noise and music. Now the quiet is balm. Thank God some enterprises still understand the need for it. Among the G’s, where I happen to find a seat to copy the Camus quote, I see Cristina Garcia, John Gardner, Elena Garro, Elizabeth Gaskell, Amitav Ghosh, William Golding, Grass, Graves, Greene.
A book scout, clearly a regular, brings a box the owner is mostly pleased with, and while going through it, she tells him what she needs. Toni Morrison, David Sedaris—they always sell. Oh, and Dr. Seuss, the tall hardbacks. Adults buy them.
Overheard customer conversation, several shelves away: “Oh, yes. I had an affair with that book myself.”
Later, as the scout’s leaving, the proprietor calls, “1984! I’m out of 1984. I need any of those you can find, can’t keep them on the shelf.”
We plan a bookstore day in every city we visit. It always feels like a more authentic experience of a place, used bookstores being primarily patronized by locals and tucked into neighborhoods tourists don’t visit. Our bookshop day in Vancouver took us to Gastown, which reminded Phil of what San Francisco’s Mission once was. Driving in Vancouver was even more intimidating than Seattle, so we took a cab and the bookstores we visited were within blocks of each other.
MacLeod’s has been there 45 years and is the kind of packrat place you once saw in every town with second-hand stores. Books stacked on shabby carpet in front of overstuffed shelves, piled in listing towers you tiptoe past for fear of them falling on you. It’s the kind of store that may contain buried treasures, makes you feel like you’re mining a vein. As Phil says, “the hunt is the thing.” Hidden in those mountains is a hardback copy of a first edition in mint-condition dust jacket priced at ten bucks and worth a thousand. You never find it.
Outside the shop’s cluttered windows, a scene was being filmed: one giant spot, computer board, wires and cords, the crew scruffy, mostly in black, baseball caps, headsets. Much standing around, drinking coffee, punctuated by brief action.
The Vancouver stores all have Canadian lit sections and Margaret Atwood aplenty, along with a fair showing of Northrop Frye. You don’t often find him on American shelves anymore, but his impact on the study of English literature was considerable. I don’t recognize most of the Canadian authors. Many books don’t make it south of the border, although the reverse seems not to be true. In MacLeod’s I find a book by my great discovery of the trip, the Canadian artist Emily Carr (1871 – 1945). At the Vancouver Art Gallery, we saw her work and I fell in love with her love of these northern forests. I’m delighted to learn she also wrote:
Be careful that you do not write or paint anything that is not your own, that you don’t know in your own soul. You will have to experiment and try things out…but don’t take what someone else has made sure of and pretend that it’s you yourself that have made sure of it…If you’re going to lick the icing off someone else’s cake you won’t be nourished and it won’t do you any good…
Her painting I lingered over longest was this one, “Scorned As Timber, Beloved Of The Sky.” The next day, driving through Stanley Park’s forest, I glimpsed in a small clearing, towering thinly, that very tree.