Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Favorite Bookstores #1: The Old Man's Place

(Warning: The only reason this series exists is as an excuse for me to wallow in nostalgia. If that's not your sort of thing, feel free to skip it. The posts will appear on an irregular basis, but they'll all be clearly marked.)


I'm sure the business establishment had an official name written down somewhere, but Livia and I never called it anything except The Old Man's Place. We discovered it in the early years of our marriage. It was a low, rambling, ramshackle white frame building a few blocks from what was then General Dynamics (now Lockheed-Martin) on the western edge of Fort Worth. A hand-lettered sign next to the door read BOOKSTORE – WE READ BOOKS – WE BUY BOOKS – SOMETIMES WE EVEN SELL BOOKS. What it really was, was a junk store, but there were books in there along with everything else under the sun. Oh, my, yes, there were books.


There were several long aisles of rickety wooden shelves in one half of the building, and there were also shelves around the walls. They were filled with paperbacks, sort of arranged by categories but not too carefully. There were also shelves of hardbacks and magazines, and books stacked in the floor, and literally piles of books, most of them covered with a fine layer of dust. A lot of books that were on lower shelves were water damaged, because there had been a flood at some time in the past. Every now and then you'd find one that was in excellent condition, but most of them were beat to hell, nothing more than reading copies. What reading copies they were, though.


Gold Medals. Ace Doubles. Early Avons and Paperback Library books and Graphics and Bantams . . . I carried stacks and stacks up to the front where the owner sat on an old plastic chair by the door. He had a pricing system, I guess, but I never figured out what it was. He would glance at the books as he dropped them one by one into an old grocery sack and say, "That one's a nickel . . . nickel . . . that one's a dime . . ." This would go on for a little while, and then he would just put all the rest of the books in the sack and say, "Gimme seven dollars." Which I did, gladly.


One day I looked around a corner in the store where I'd never looked before, and there was a set of shelves containing issue after issue of MANHUNT, going all the way back to the first issue. It wasn't a complete run or anything, but there were a lot of them, and I toted them up to the front and paid the Old Man ten or twelve dollars for the whole bunch.


The Old Man, whose name was George Snapka, by the way, was a talkative sort, and he liked Livia and me. He was also a reader and fan of mystery fiction, and when he found out that I had written Mike Shayne stories we talked a lot about that. One day he mentioned that he had a lot more books over in the other side of the building but didn't let anybody go over there because there was too much junk in it and it might not be safe. Well, that was all I had to hear, of course. I pestered him into letting me explore that hitherto unexplored territory. There weren't as many books back there as he made it sound like, but I found a number of cardboard boxes full of the same sort of stuff that I'd been buying and took home a few more grocery sacks full of books.


Like I said, the books were dusty, and usually when we'd get them home, I'd get a rag and try to wipe off some of the dust. One of the cats we had then, Patches by name, was fascinated by this and would come up and grab the rag I'd been using out of my hand. Then he'd drop it in the floor, throw himself down on it, and roll around on it like it was covered with catnip instead of book dust. Years later we read that some book dust contains mold spores that can cause a hallucinogenic effect. I don't know if that's true or not, but from then on we always figured that old Patches had been getting high on that book dust.


Lord knows I can.


A few years later the store closed down. George's wife had been in poor health, and we figured he closed it down to take care of her. I thought it might reopen sometime in the future, but it never did. Eventually the city bought the property, and I knew that wasn't going to turn out well.


They torched the place. Literally. Brought out the fire trucks as a precaution and burned it to the ground, then bulldozed and hauled off the rubble that was left. The plan was to build a park there. Never happened. The lot is still sitting there, vacant except for memories.


Of course, all the books I took out of there eventually went up in flames, too, when we had our fire, but that was a lot of years later and while I didn't come close to reading everything I bought there, I read a lot of it and had the pleasure of seeing the books on my shelves. Just thinking about those days and the books I bought there and the visits we had with George puts a smile on my face even now. I know a few of you reading this may have been to that store, and I hope I've stirred up some good memories for you, too.

24 comments:

Bill Crider said...

I've been in places like that. Sometimes at night I still dream about them. Dreams are about the only place they exist now.

Rick said...

We had a couple like that on King St, Charleston. I spent many an hour looking at every title, buying some, taking them home and wiping the dust away. I miss those old places.

Tom Johnson said...

I ran into a store like that in Dallas. I thought I was in the Twilight Zone. They aren't around any more, sadly. If you do find a used bookstore (which is rare), there will be a computer on the desk, and the books aren't priced until they check eBay for the going price! Sigh. Thanks for the memories, James!

pattinase (abbott) said...

I've been to bookstores like that too. There is one on Cape Cod, in fact. My problem is after a few minutes, the dust gets to me so it's always a grab and go situation. And usually the dust and smell comes home with me.

Cullen Gallagher said...

Bill, I've also had dreams about stores like that. Except I've never visited one personally. An entire row of Manhunt magazines!

Prashant C. Trikannad said...

Great nostalgia piece, Mr Reasoner. Old and secondhand bookstores in Bombay have all but vanished to be replaced by MacDonald, KFC, Pizza Hut and ATMs. Some irony! I used to spend hours at these quaint little bookstores not to mention the neighbourhood circulating library where I got my daily dose of Richmal Crompton's Just William, Nevil Shute, Mickey Spillane's Mike Hammer, A.J. Cronin, Arthur Conan Doyle, Frank G. Slaughter, Raymond Chandler, Lloyd C. Douglas, Erle Stanley Gardner, Pearl S. Buck...and FWD's Hardy Boys and Alfred Hitchcock too. It's a shame these stores are closing down. Current and future generations don't know what they have missed.

George said...

There used to be a dozen used bookstores in Buffalo. One by one, they've closed. It's a sad situation. But it's great to read about your adventures at The Old Man's Place. Like BORDERS, places like that won't exist anymore.

Ron Scheer said...

Thanks, James. Nicely remembered. For me it would be the Gotham Book Mart on 47th Street in Manhattan. Wise Men Fish Here. Great place to take a break from the office on 6th Avenue. It is no more, of course.

Keith said...

I'm starting to realize how blessed I've been to have lived near a bookstore like that pretty much my entire teenage and adult life, and often two or three at once. Most of them are gone. Of the bigger ones, I know Ye Olde Fantastic Book Shoppe in San Angelo is a shadow of its former self, if it's even still open. Recycled Books in Denton is the only one I'm aware of that's still going strong and it isn't what it used to be. With so many writers and publishers going to electronic publication, I'm afraid this type of bookstore will soon vanish completely. There are a couple of small ones here in Lubbock. I think I'll visit one today.

James Reasoner said...

Recycled Books is probably the best one still around here, although I find some pretty good stuff now and then at the Half Price Books in west Fort Worth and the one in Hulen. It's very hit-and-miss, though. Recycled has the best science fiction section in the area, and the mysteries aren't bad. I try to get up there two or three times a year.

Like Bill, I dream about the great used bookstores that used to be. I've had dreams about one particular bookstore that doesn't exist, as far as I know. I've never been there, but I can see it as if I had, both inside and outside. It's full of vintage paperbacks and pulps and great old hardbacks. I've started to wonder if it's my particular version of heaven, and that's where I'll spend eternity, rooting around through stacks of dusty old books.

Prashant C. Trikannad said...

Each time I chance upon a rare used and secondhand book, I wonder who's had the heart and the nerve to get rid of it in the first place.

Rick Hall said...

The 'good' junk shops are gone.
But there are good used book stores out there. It takes some nosing around, and a few references, but they can be found.

Walker Martin said...

Trenton, NJ had a place like James' bookstore, called ACRES OF BOOKS. In the 1970's I spent many a lunch hour rooting through their pulps, paperbacks, and hardbacks. I worked in a business office nearby and often I would arrive back to work after lunch with my suit and tie dusty and full of pulp chips. The lady that ran it said they had moved from Buffalo, NY.

I like your story about the MANHUNTS selling for a low price. Twelve years ago I sold my set for $500 and immediately regretted doing so. I recently found another set for $2500 which just goes to show the good old days are really gone!

Cap'n Bob said...

Keep these reminiscences coming. I loved hearing about this place. In my area, there is one store like that. There's another that sells pb's for a quarter each, but he has very few of them.

Martin O'Hearn said...

I can still tell which books I bought at the Brattle Book Shop in downtown Boston back in the Sixties; the owner, George Gloss, priced the paperbacks in pen on the covers with a circular flourish around the 20 or 25 cents. Urban renewal forced him to move a few times, and each time he gave away most of the piles of stock.

The Brattle still exists, and still in the family, but it morphed into a perfectly respectable upscale used bookstore. No more pen, but no more half prices on the old paperbacks!

Graham Powell said...

There's still a bookstore like that in Fort Worth. It's called Back Door Books and is crammed into the upstairs of what used to be Barber's Books on the corner of Throckmorton and Eighth (it's now a sandwich shot).

The shelves look like they were bought at various yard sales, and most of the books are piled on trestle tables, but there's some good stuff to be found.

I have what I call "magic bookstore" dreams, too, where I go to a bookstore and find every book I ever wanted.

Larry E said...

I used to visit a grocery store/used bookstore run by a guy named George and his wife in Joliet IL. A nickel for each one you bring in and a dime for each you buy. Comics were just a nickel. Thanks to George, in the 60s, I met Mike Shayne, Sam Durrell, Nick Carter,Shell Scott, Matt Helm, & Clark Savage Jr. along with a slew of westerns & science fiction. As the 60s rolled into the 70s, every section dwindled in size except, much to my mother's delight, the Harlequin section. Towards the end, there wasn't anything in there I hadn't already read. In the 80s, the store was demolished for a casino.
I've found other used bookstores, but none with the ambiance of that old grocery store or the joy of discovery I felt with my purchases.

wayne d. dundee said...

Another fond memory triggered,James ... Like you, I can't remember what my favorite used bookstore was really called, but *I* always called it Dirty Larry's. It was run by a crusty old gent named Larry Simons who I got to be pretty good friends with. He was always shaggy, unshaven, often shoeless, and seldom failed to have a cigarette jutting out from under his droopy walrus mustache. His "book store" was a converted second story apartment so he had ROOMS of books. He had thousands of paperbacks and everything else from adult mags to comic books (including a sealed copy of a very early Superman). He lived in near squalor but if he'd really wanted to he could have led a whole different life style. The store was musty, dusty, reeked of cigarette smoke ... oh yeah, it was pure Heaven

James Reasoner said...

Graham,
I've been to Back Door Books once, and while I liked the old-fashioned feel of the place, I didn't find a single thing there I wanted to buy. I really ought to try it again. I loved Barber's Books and will be writing about it later on in this series.

Anonymous said...

Your blog was great, James. Enjoyed it. I hope you don't mind if I tweet it. Thank you. Brought back my memories of the thrill of going into used bookstores.

Ed Lynskey

Cap'n Bob said...

I was inspired to go to the place in Steilacoom I mentioned earlier after reading your post yesterday. I walked out with a small box of books at the cost of $71.71. Included are The Trailsman #'s 2-25.

Anonymous said...

Great essay, James...like many here, it brought back a lot of great memories of similar stores that I've been to that, like yours, unfortunately no longer exist. But the memories of spending hours rummaging, reading, treasuring hunting and getting high on book dust are still strong.

~ Ron C.

Todd Mason said...

The northeast might just have a stronger tradition of secondhand bookstores...there a good if rather disorganized one (in the manner of a smaller version of NYC's the Strand or DC's Second Story storefronts) on the outskirts of Bryn Mawr, but the bargains aren't as good (but there are dollar and plenty of $2 paperbacks). It sits across the parking lot from the Borders that was highlighted in the Michael Moore film THE BIG ONE when it (briefly) unionized...I'm hoping, for their sake, that that's one of the spaces that is taken over by Books-A-Million, as several of the vacating Borders properties supposedly will be. Among a small slew still going strong for now in Philadelphia and 'burbs.

Second Story Books' customer-access, well-organized warehouse in the DC suburbs (and several other places around DC, albeit most of them mayflies...but not, of course, Richard McKay in Centreville or Hole in the Wall Books in Falls Church).

And, though not stores per se, the library sales...

And the one store in Portland, OR, that was selling (fifteen years ago) all the magazines from the '40s for $5 (including 2 UNKNOWNs in fine shape), '50s for $4 (I picked up some F&SFs, GALAXYs and BEYONDs), '60s for $3 (MAGAZINE OF HORRORs and STARTLING MYSTERY STORIES issues), and so on...huge sets of some titles...sure wish I could remember that store's name...

Creature said...

Hello:
I've talked about book stores I've been in with friends for a long time so I'm looking forward to this series of memories. I've written a few of my "bookstore adventures" up in one form or another over the years.
I think it's interesting how no matter how many books collectors have there are always certain pieces that stand out in the collection because of where they came from or how the were obtained. I have several books and comics that I can do that with.
I think "bookstore adventures" are always worth telling and they seem to spark the spirit of adventure in many who read the tales. My own tales of Bookstore finds are certainly not over as we still luckily have several long running bookstores in our area, many from which I have purchased books and one in particular that became a focal point in a movie I made a few years ago; "Dark Dimensions."
Yep, I love "bookstore adventures" and the treasures they Yield.
Have a Great Day!!!
The "Creature"