Used bookstores help this reviewer find peace and relaxation


On a cold fall day in 2020, I stood in front of Books by Karen Wickliff in Clintonville, anxious and depressed, knocking on his glass door. Any passerby who saw me must have thought I was a threatening figure. In fact, I was desperate.

There have been times for me during the pandemic, as for all of us, where the pain of isolation and disrupted normality has turned into an intense need for some semblance of comfort. This particular afternoon was a real doozy; my anxiety had reached panic levels and my depression was buzzing just below. So I drove to North High Street, parked just outside the store and pulled the door handle, only to find it locked.

When the pandemic began, Karen Wickliff briefly closed her doors before transitioning to a date-only situation. But after about six weeks, a small number of people were allowed back into the store. A handwritten sign was affixed to the door: “KNICK VERY STRONGLY”.

I tapped the glass with a single knuckle, producing a faint sound. No answer. I tried again, this time with a little more force. Again, nothing. Then I knocked with what seemed like unnecessary intensity and there was still no response. How difficult was i supposed to hit that?

I glanced around furtively, then tried once more, with enough force that the resulting thud could only be perceived as rude or even threatening. This time, Karen Wickliff nonchalantly came over to the front. I feared she would scold me for my insolence, but instead she opened the door and simply said, “Welcome.”

I walked in and breathed a deep sigh of relief under my mask.

Used books at Iconic Books by Karen Wickliff in Clintonville.

In every city I’ve lived or visited, I looked for second-hand bookstores. While visiting my sister in Arcata, California, I found Tin Can Mailman. When I lived in Boston, I haunted the basements of Harvard Bookstore and Brookline Booksmith. Wilmington, NC, gave me Old Books on Front and, specifically, McAllister & Solomon. These provided me with respite from my problems, yes, but they also helped in my career. As a budding literary critic, I found while browsing through McAllister & Solomon a copy of the HD poet’s novel “Bid Me to Live”, which I ended up writing about in an essay that tin house published, an important step for me. On the shelves of Commonwealth Books in downtown Boston, I picked up a copy of “Music for Chameleons” by Truman Capote, which I wrote about for Atlantic. I recently wrote an essay for Literary Hub about how I read John McPhee’s book on tennis, “Levels of the Game”, as a model for my book on skateboarding. Guess where I bought McPhee’s book?

You had the idea. But I don’t go to a second-hand bookstore because I hope to find a jewel that will advance my career. I will seek out collections of essays overlooked by second-rate critics, anachronistic oddities, out-of-print masterpieces, and most importantly, potential resources. My job as a freelance reviewer means I never know what writers or topics I’m going to cover, so having a rich arsenal of literary history has elevated my reviews immensely. I go to second-hand bookstores less on a mission for something in particular than on a trip for pleasure. I will, in other words, be consumes.

Because full consumption is necessary to overcome anxiety and depression, which lurk just outside the margins of my attention, ready to spring when my concentration falters. Anyone with anxiety and depression will probably recognize my story. For much of my life, I assumed that constant, low-level nervousness and occasional inexplicable sadness was just what things were. In my twenties, however, I had conversations in which I realized that some other people were able to relax in ways that I was not; that they weren’t suffering from bouts of crestfallen boredom. Once I recognized the reality (and severity) of my mental illnesses, I could see, looking back, how many of my activities were, in part, coping mechanisms. In other words, I was attracted to things that somehow relieved my depression or anxiety, ideally both. Some were unhealthy (drugs, alcohol), while others were more productive (creative expression, physical activity). Now, aside from medication and counseling, my most effective and preferred method of dealing with psychological afflictions, especially in real time as they arise, is to browse through a bookstore.

A used bookstore, I should qualify. A bookstore that only sells new books can be a wonderful place, and I frequent these stores regularly too, but these stores often have a catalog of similar titles. Plus, a new bookstore updates their inventory with newly released books and the occasional backlist pick, which means once I’ve been there, I pretty much know what they have. Whereas a used bookstore can add anything to its shelves on any given day, depending on the whim of whoever brought books to sell or give away. Not only do second-hand bookstores contain surprising, rare and forgotten works; they also reward repeat visits.

To get through a particularly dark and difficult time – a global pandemic, for example – I needed a bookstore positively overflowing with books – that is, a bookstore like Karen Wickliff Books.

Karen is a lovely bookseller. Like almost every bookseller I’ve met, she’s talkative, knows her stuff, and is generous with her knowledge. But its best quality is its taste.

I could talk to him all day.

Ironically, the view at the entrance to KWB might worry someone who doesn’t share my bibliomania, as the space is cluttered with so many tall stacks of books you’d swear they were load-bearing. The shelves are stuffed to the edges, of course, but on top of that, every thin aisle is lined with stacks and stacks of volumes.

The pile of books is a must for scholars and literary people. There’s a moment in Susanna Clarke’s fantastical ode to the magic of literature, “Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell,” where one of Strange’s visitors tries to move a stack of books from a chair so that he can sit down. Strange objects, saying, “Don’t move them!” They are in a very particular order. I may never have said those words to my many roommates and partners, but I certainly meant them.

So when I walked into KWB I was home, except I wasn’t. They weren’t my books. Rather, it was my duty to sort through these not-my-books to determine which should become mine. It is a personal and delicate process, which requires patient diligence. That day in the fall of 2020, I started with my favorite subjects: fiction, literary criticism, essays, biographies. I was amazed by what I found.

Used books at Iconic Books by Karen Wickliff in Clintonville.

The inventory of a large second-hand bookstore is not like that of, say, a thrift store, which is entirely dependent on the literary tastes of the local community, because they are the ones whose unwanted books you sift through. Among mainstream paperbacks and outdated self-help books, you can sometimes find a gem or two, but it’s usually not very interesting. A great thrift store like Karen Wickliff’s is an organized affair, the result of discerning judgment and nearly four decades of experience. It had been a while since I had set foot in such a place, and I had forgotten what it was like to find so many books that I wanted to take home. As I moved from aisle to aisle, collecting a huge pile as I went, I began to mentally calculate how much I was going to spend. I had hoped that I would leave the store feeling less anxious and depressed, but now I wondered if I would leave broke as well.

There was a collection of essays by the great French critic and biographer André Maurois, an old copy of “The Friday Book” by John Barth, a hardcover edition of a seminal text in my intellectual development, “i: six nonlectures ” of EE Cummings, etc. much more. KWB is cash only, so I always think myself smart not to bring cash, believing it will limit the amount I spend. But what happens instead is I select my books, add up the total, run down the street, and shoot accurately enough to cover my tab. This time I spent $100 and left with nine books.

Returning to the crisp autumn air, excited to return home and read these excellent finds, I felt inwardly realigned by my time there. Not perfectly fixed, by any means (nothing can do that), but kind of like those stacks that we book lovers are known for and which to an outside observer might seem like a random collection of titles, but which we know to be in a very particular order. I had my stack and, at least for now, I was happy.

This story is from the May 2022 issue of Monthly Columbus.


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