Thursday, April 9, 2015

The Peace Box

I was thinking last night about how hard it used to be to buy a book.

Remember? The only book stores in many areas were tiny mall outlets like Waldenbooks or B. Dalton, which stocked current best-sellers and classics but would have to order anything even remotely unusual. When I was a kid in Florida we had no Books-A-Million, no Borders and no Barnes & Noble, and certainly no Amazon.

Used or out-of-print books were even harder to source. We could visit Haslam's, a huge used book store in St. Petersburg. New Yorkers could go to the Strand and Portland residents could go to Powell's. But what we found in any of these places was largely just a matter of chance. (Indeed, my reading life in college was partly defined by what I could scrounge up in Goodwill and other used book outlets!)

To find specific out-of-print books, we had to go to book finders, people who advertised in magazines that they would track down whatever book you needed. I used a book finder a couple of times.

One occasion was to complete this set of four small poetry and art books by Joseph Pintauro and Norman Laliberte, from 1970. I bought three of them, "A Box of Sun," "The Magic Box" and "The Peace Box," when I went with my friend Suzanne to a used book sale in the mid-1980s. But the fourth volume, "The Rabbit Box," was missing. (According to the copyright pages, all four were sold together "with a poster and a cube" to make something called "The Rainbow Box." I never tried to follow up on the poster or the cube, whatever it was.)

Anyway, my book finder -- who I located through an ad, I believe, in The New Yorker -- was located in Alabama. I snail-mailed my request, they spent weeks looking for the book, and eventually snail-mailed me back that they'd found it at x price. I then snail-mailed them a check, they ordered the book and snail-mailed it back to me.

I don't remember how long this process took, but good grief -- doesn't it seem complicated now? When we can just hop on Amazon and order practically anything with next-day delivery?

As you can see, I've kept those books ever since. I almost never look at them but they're so bright and cheerful and kind of hippy-dippy that I love just seeing them on my shelf. They make me think of Suzanne and that wonderful book sale.

Years later, at another used book sale -- this time in New York, around 2001 -- I found the volume above. It's also by Pintauro, this time working with another artist, Corita Kent. It's by the same publisher, also from 1970, and clearly in the same vein as the other four. So I bought it too.

Anyway, it's just funny to think how difficult the process of locating a book used to be! Of course, there's a trade-off for our modern efficiency. Border's is gone, Barnes & Noble is suffering, I haven't seen a Waldenbooks or B. Dalton in ages, and book finders (as far as I know) exist no more. Snail-mail, of course, is largely passé, resulting in much smaller postal services. That's a whole segment of the economy irrevocably altered -- but admittedly, at least from the consumer's standpoint, probably for the better.


Ms. Moon said...

Yes. I remember the THRILL when a Walden's books opened up in the mall in Winter Haven.
Times have certainly changed when it comes to buying both books and music.

ellen abbott said...

I worked in a bookstore for a year in my early 20s. I loved the job but I hated my boss who was there every day. he was a mean old grouchy man and one day he berated me loudly in front of fellow employees and customers for straightening out a circular rack instead of doing something else. I can't even remember what he thought I should have been doing but in my mind I had seen something that needed to be done and did it without being told. As soon as I recovered from the shock, I walked away, got my jacket and walked out and went home. He might even have been still yelling at me. I did go back the next day hoping I still had a job because I needed that job. when the manager saw me walk in, she was so relieved I hadn't quit.

Sharon said...

I buy most of my books on Amazon now but I have to admit that I miss a book store to browse in. I've found many interesting books just by browsing the racks. I remember when I found the Douglas Adams "Dirk Gently" series and fell in love with those books. In fact, I think I need to read those two books again and soon.
Aren't there still quite a lot of bookstores in London? I remember visiting Foyles on one trip and on another trip I bought a book at a place that still used an abacus to tally up the sale. Could that have been Hatchards? Even on my last trip to London I went in a book store to browse.....and to get warm. :-)

Linda Sue said...

I walk to our indie bookstore. I love the atmosphere even though the books may be pricey, the owners have been my buddies for 32 years! It would seem a betrayal to buy from anyone else. It is the most enjoyable place to go in this town, plus they have home made pie and espresso upstairs. Comfy chairs everywhere, helpful friendly staff. They will likely retire soon...and there goes the neighborhood! Your little books are indeed HAPPY!Some things you just have to keep, right?

Elizabeth said...

I love that you have this love of books that are rare or unusual. I love this post! My sister and I have spend a ridiculous number of hours (and money) hunting down some of our favorite books of childhood. Not much brings me more pleasure than these books that come in the mail when I find them either on eBay or Amazon or that old one, Alibri.