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.