“Maybe there’s nobody to shoot. Maybe the thing isn’t men at all.”
~John Steinbeck, The Grapes of Wrath
The Old Renton Book Exchange smelled like the dust and dreams and peace of a thousand different hands, many of those hands long dead, their belongings boxed and shelved and boxed and shelved and boxed until they arrived here, shelved once more, their pages as musty as memory. The book exchange smelled like games in a grandparents’ closet and a hand-me-down bookshelf in a baby’s room, like rocking chairs and log cabins, and the humidity that drips during a thunderstorm. The book exchange smelled like old friends forgotten since high school, the quiet space between work and play, the long nights lying in bed beside someone after a funeral. The Old Renton Book Exchange smelled like people.
I entered like a tourist.Pages like photographs, covers like landmarks. I wandered the aisles, studied a few spines, paused beside a familiar author. I glided through on an itinerary—twenty minutes, strict—and before I could memorize the aisles, before I could find the first-editions hidden like local secrets, before I could lose the smell of the bookstore like so many beachdwellers have lost the sound of the ocean’s roar, I left.
I didn’t buy anything.
Few used bookstores carry As a Friend or Housekeeping. And they charge $18 for a novel I’d read in a week, when the library offers the same thing for free. And PDFs and The Poetry Foundation bring short stories and poems straight to my desk, and if I want them tactile, my printer sits less than a yard away.
Libraries and websites leave no pages to decorate my room, to be boxed and shelved and boxed and shelved, no cracked letters stacked sideways throughout my room–but I have Amazon for that.
Amazon eliminates the drive across town the fruitless search for novels not taught in high school English classes. I can stay inside and order As a Friend for $11.68 or Housekeeping for $8.70, and in two I—sometimes the same day, here in Seattle—a truck will stop in the street and a stranger will place a brand-new book, sans illegible scribbles or bent corners or broken spines or overzealous pink highlighter straight into my mailbox. And for the starving writers, the secondhand salvagers, and the fashionable hipsters, Amazon sells used copies: pages oiled by fingers, covers faded by sun.
Amazon has bankrupted Borders and crippled the independents, and like a vulture, I’ve joined in. I bought one book, a single ratty copy of The Liar’s Club for $6.50, from the Old Renton Book Exchange while it lived. But when the diagnosis arrived, and when the Closing signs appeared, I rushed to the estate sale and paid forty dollars for forty books. Wobegone Boy, Ivanhoe, Little Bird of Heaven, and thirty-seven other bookshelf decorations that will stay as uncut as Gatsby’s library.
All of this is good capitalism.
“Get your three dollars a day, feed your kids,” Steinbeck writes. “You got no call to worry about anybody’s kids but your own.”
And Amazon, for all its bullying and undercutting, holds no monopoly. It’s the opposite, a monopsonist, a beloved monster reversing the grapes of wrath, in a sense, so product flows like honey while the sellers rot.
My own library stretches floor-to-ceiling and spans three bookshelves. It smells faintly of dust and dreams, and you can catch hints of chairs and cabins when you turn a page. But beneath that smell, beneath that smell of people, my library carries the scent of rotting oranges.