Books call my name. Strangely, they somehow seem to know it. As a kid I hung out at the Westminster Public Library, the perfect milieu for a self-proclaimed, early-onset book geek. Books understood me when my classmates didn’t. While other girls my age wandered in packs down the aisles of the nearby Kress department store, I perused the aisles at the library. Alone. Every Saturday morning I pedaled my old Huffy bicycle to the nondescript, one-story ’60s box that housed the library. But under this plain beige exterior hid a magical world of words and pictures; a world I had to be a part of.
I walked gingerly through the stacks trying not to let my tennis shoes squeak on the gray-speckled linoleum, not an easy task for an energetic kid. I whispered to the librarian with the proper reverence in my voice, and each week I checked out the maximum number of books allowed.
With a bit of effort I could shoehorn two oversized tomes on astronomy and four Cherry Ames novels into the wicker basket of my bicycle. I checked out my favorite, “Cherry Ames, Dude Ranch Nurse,” more than once. OK, four times. Each time the elderly librarian—who isn’t elderly to a 10-year-old?—would stamp the due date on the checkout cards, slip them back into the pockets inside the book covers, raise her eyebrows higher than seemed humanly possible, and deliver her standard, and somewhat frightening, admonishment: “Remember, do not deface the books. Other people will read them, and they do not want to see your scribbles.”
The librarian was the guardian of this enchanted place, so I took her warning seriously. I’d shake my head solemnly, look up at her and say, “No, Miss Black”—not her real name—“I would never do that.”
“Good,” she’d say sternly, before handing over my books.
Fifty years later I still frequent the library, but—confession—I no longer go there to check out books; I go there to check out the used-book sales. I’m addicted to used books; their intoxicating smell—so grandmother’s attic—makes me 10 again. And some of the best parts about used books are the ephemera left by past owners, bits of deeply personal thoughts and private intimacies, revelations that serve as calling cards to introduce themselves to future readers. With some books, I’ve learned more about the past owner than I know about my friends.
I’ve found an Old Maid card, a ticket stub from a James Taylor concert, a handwritten recipe for buttermilk biscuits, a yellowing PSA Airlines ticket, a newspaper clipping of a wedding announcement, a well-read love letter written in perfect Palmer-style cursive, a black-and-white photograph of two smiling children posing with their goat, and one secreted report card. Looking at the grades, I could see why little Eddie hid it. When I finish and eventually pass on these books, I leave the souvenirs for the next reader to discover.
Many of my used books have names and dates written in them, some have imprinted initials, and my favorites have inscriptions—such as the dictionary I found with, “To my darling niece, Linda, on her high school graduation, June 1968.” The inscriptions always close with: All my love, Best wishes, Happy Birthday, Congratulations, or Your loving friend. Nothing rude or sarcastic is ever written there. You won’t see something snarky like: “Read this diet book—you need it.” Used books are happy places, worlds filled with only good friends and good wishes. After reading some of these charming salutations, I felt as though a dear friend had written them to me.
Despite what the librarian drummed into my head about defacing books, I’m thankful that book owners are rebels with blatant disregard for rules. I’m fascinated by what people wrote in the margins, which passages they underlined, which words they highlighted. The best used cookbooks have pages stuck together with bits of old cookie dough. That is the sign of a really good recipe—though in some books dubious stains and sticky pages would be a bit disconcerting.
I did buy one romance novel that had a sticky spot that a prescient reader had circled and beside it written: strawberry jam. A few pages along, I found another circled spot and “peanut butter” written beside it. How considerate, I thought. The owner knew that her book would one day find its way into another pair of hands. With just those few scribbled words, I felt like I knew her.
Library used-book sales were once dusty, pathetic affairs that unloaded worn out works with missing pages and broken spines. It was like a visit to the Island of Misfit Books. But today, the used books are not tattered retirees from the stacks; most come from public donations. My favorite libraries for sales are the Orange Public Library and History Center—407 E. Chapman Ave. in Orange, two blocks off the circle—and the Huntington Beach Central Library and Cultural Center, 7111 Talbert Ave., which sits beside a lovely lake that is great for reading and duck watching.
At the Orange Public Library, you step back to a simpler time where small-town values are taken seriously. In addition to the Friends of the Library Bookshop, this library has outdoor shelves stacked with books that cost 10 cents. Beside these shelves is an honor box where you put your dimes. In all my years of going there, I have never seen anyone take a book without paying. The reason, I like to believe, is that readers are upstanding people.
The Huntington Beach Public Library has a permanent sale in the lobby where the books are mostly priced from 50 cents to a dollar. The used-book stacks are well-organized, so you can find your favorite genre or author without pawing through mixed-up piles. And there is usually a helpful volunteer who can steer you in the right direction or suggest a new author.
My husband hates to see me come home with yet another giant bag of books. He tells me our house will sink if I bring in any more—Huntington Beach is not far above sea level—but how could I pass up the “Collected Works of Oscar Wilde” for a dime?
A friend once looked at my growing home library and asked, “Have you read all those books?”
“No, of course not,” I said. “Who wants a library full of books you’ve already read?” I want books I look forward to reading, volumes filled with new worlds and new adventures, books about interesting people and unending love, but most of all—sorry Miss Black—I look forward to reading all those handwritten notes from new friends.