norbert blei | used books / old friends

25 01 2008


NOTES from the UNDERGROUND… No.130 | January 24, 2008

Used Books/Old Friends by Norbert Blei

As much as I love the sight, smell, feel, surprise, seduction of new books; as much as I welcome a brand new hot-off-the-press-book from a publisher with my own name on it; as much as I enjoy publishing new chapbooks for others…the anticipation of tearing open the first box, How will it look? grabbing the first copy, Is it what I envisioned? checking the cover, sifting through the pages, there’s something about old, used books that call you home. Remember me? Have you ever read me? Heard of me? Been meaning to read me for the past twenty years?

Once upon a time many of us, readers for sure, writers in particular, thrived on used bookstores, old books, because that was all we could afford. Used books were treasure hunts–more so than today where everything appears easier, affordable, more accessible. If you were reading seriously, if you were on that path, some books you searched for, yearned for, were hard to come by. Certain titles almost sacred–books we absolutely had to own or our lives as ‘writers-in-progress’ would be sorely diminished. We really couldn’t survive without owning a copy of…Kenneth Patchen’s, JOURNAL OF ALBION MOONLIGHT, whatever shape it was in.

Battered, beaten, torn covers and pages, pages yellowed with age, missing, coffee-stained, under-lined, marginal notes in pen or pencil, rejected/stamped by libraries from god knows where…50¢, 75¢, $1.00. Diagonally creased/turned corner-tops of a page to mark one’s place in a story that had become ours. And those of us (who were extremely lucky) had favorite used bookstores not because of the pricing or quality of stock, but because the place felt good, smelled good, welcomed us into the silence for minutes or hours, and possessed just the atmosphere we craved—to be alone with books. And, if one were really lucky, had a bookman who was always there, sort of recognized you, and who, if he was as good as the ones I was fortunate to know, (one bookman in particular that I have written about before, “Paul Romaine” in CHI TOWN), could introduce you to authors, literary movements, languages, places in the world a writer needed to know, art and artists, rare books, first editions, political philosophies, small presses, music…a man who so loved books, that when he slowly took one off the shelf, held it in his hands, carefully opened it to something he wanted to show you, you felt he was handling something ancient, rare, holy…a sacred text that held the answer to everything you needed to know.

Occasionally someone will tell me he was in a city, or another part of the country entirely, walked into a bookstore, found an old book of mine marked down to $5. At first, I wasn’t exactly sure what the message was, but in time I came to love the fact a book of mine had attained the status of ‘used’ or ‘old’—or even ‘bargain.’ And had traveled to those places! I am more than pleased to know that a used copy of one of my short story collections in on the shelf in Ferlinghetti’s City Lights Books in San Francisco. Not to mention other works in well known New York bookstores. I almost hope no one ever buys them, I’m so pleased to find a home, be marked down (sometimes ‘up’), denoted used in those locations.


Lawrence Ferlinghetti | Photo: Mark Weber

That’s a whole other life and time-frame for something you spent a good part of your own life trying to put down in words…the best words possible. The best story or poem or essay you could write to communicate what you thought was important then—and hopefully will continue to register in the minds and hearts of others, years down the road, regardless of the price of admission. You want and need your words to live. If not on the shelves, in the private libraries of families and friends and people you never met—then that vagabond book life…torn dust jackets, marked pages, books feeling and showing time… books on the road–left on planes, buses, trains, cars and trucks, the waiting rooms of dentists and doctors, books in restaurants and coffeehouses, books in bars. Books For Sale in libraries, and garage sales…just as long as the words are still there, and the meaning waiting to be delivered.

Some of you may have received a used book from me at various times in the past…some of you may still be waiting. No promises. It’s always a spur of the moment thing. I look at a book and something clicks. Yeah, this is for…so-and-so. I often buy used books at library and garage sales. Sometimes the book is one I love and in such perfect condition that I know, just know, somebody out there should have this book. Sometimes I spot a copy and immediately associate something about that book with—a writing student who once took a workshop with me; somebody in my immediate family; an established writer-friend that THIS book would be perfect for (and I know or suspect he or she has not read); a friend who loves the work of a particular author as much as I and to my knowledge has never seen this hard-to-find book; a beginning writer who needs to know this book; a woman I once shared time with and shared a writer’s work with; someone I just met who expressed an interest in the material, ideas found in the book I am presently holding in my hand—yes, this is the right book for him/her.

Books never die. They are always out there, waiting to be rediscovered.


Sometimes I just add another copy of a book (let’s say Camus’, THE STRANGER) to the two or three other copies on my shelf. I stockpile the great ones. Sooner or later THE STRANGER will find its way from my shelf to someone who will take him in. Make him a friend. Give him warmth, care, the loving attention he deserves. Make a home for him, for keeps.



One response

27 01 2008
mark weber

I took that photo of Lawrence Ferlinghetti at City Lights Bookstore either the summer of 1978 or 1979.
I’ll have to look through the archive at UCLA and see —
I only snapped about 5 and Lawrence asked me what they were for, and I said, “Oh, just for my personal enjoyment,” and
he said, “Well, I hope you get a big bang out of them!”

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