Thursday, June 13, 2013

Bookstores Found and Lost

This weekend I went on a trip down to my old stomping grounds in West Seattle to see an old friend perform with her bell choir. I grew up there, in the seventies and eighties, when it was (even more than it is now) effectively a small town symbiotically attached to Seattle proper. My whole childhood was spent in that enclave across the river from the greater city, seldom coming over, and it was a world all its own. I have no idea if this was true, but to my recollection there was only one bookstore in West Seattle: Pegasus Book Exchange.
I'm not sure how old the store is. Certainly it was there the first time I walked by, when I was maybe ten or eleven years old, and bought something, assuredly. It was a couple miles from my house, in the Junction, which was the business district of West Seattle, and I recall it as a mostly new books bookstore, though now, it is an almost entirely used book store. I didn't expect to be passing by it, and I was on my way to the performance, and so I didn't really think I'd stop in.
Of course, I did. Not just because I had a few minutes extra time to spend, but because as far as I can recall it was my first bookstore, the first place I went to that was full of books, and where I spent money buying a book. Grocery stores, convenience stores, Frederick & Nelson downtown, I'd bought books those places, or so my questionable memory suggests, but Pegasus was the first pure bookstore I went to. I never went there very often--it was two miles from my house, as I mentioned, and I never learned to ride a bike so that was a decent distance--but I did go when the weather was nice (not often, it was Seattle) now and again, until we moved a few years later.
It's a nice little store. I browsed for a few minutes and bought a used copy of Elric of Melnibone, the first book of Michael Moorcock's Elric series. I read and devoured those books repeatedly when I was younger. I loved them so much. I haven't touched them in at least fifteen years, though, but the book leapt out at me as something I used to be so very fond of, so I bought it, stuck it in my back pocket, and moved on.
Today, walking around my current neighborhood, I sauntered past the now empty Capitol Hill branch of Half Price Books. I'm not a huge fan of Half Price, though I've shopped there (it's a bookstore, after all) but this was until two weeks ago the closest bookstore to my house, at three blocks distance. It was a huge old ramshackle building on a side street with parking lot that fronted a more major street but wasn't easily identified with the slightly offset store itself. So I think that's why it went away: too much rent for the big building and the parking lot, too little visibility.
I bought a few books there over the last couple years, the time I lived near it. Mostly bargain stuff from their big tables, because you could find some good stuff there, and I have little patience for searching through their endless shelves of used books to try to discover some hidden treasure. I know that's a joy for some people, but not something I've ever much loved; it was only in the last half dozen years I'd even look at a used book. Some of that hesitancy lingers with me still, and so I don't search through the shelves all that much.
It's a sad thing, a big empty store. They sold off their fixtures, too, so it's just a hollow space with a few scraps on the floor and one or two shelves waiting to be picked up. There were a couple or three dozen employees, and I wonder how many of them got shifted to other branches, and how many are just out of jobs. Some of them, I suppose, had to give up a life they loved, of selling books and buying them, of living surrounded by dusty tomes and stacks of last year's bestsellers and other people who were into the exact sorts of things they were.
While I was walking by, a car pulled up and the driver climbed out and leaned over to read one of the closed signs they'd left in the windows. He sighed and turned, got back in his car and drove off. Occasional customer, he must have been; they'd been very clear about the store closing for a couple of months before it did. Was he just coming by to look at the mysteries, maybe, or did he have a particular errand that he had to get taken of today? No way to know.
No one can say why a particular book store survives, or dies; why it lingers ever dwindling for two decades or goes out when it seemed to be doing fine. I can just say I was pretty happy to realize Pegasus was still there, when I'd not seen them more than a decade, and that I was only abstractly saddened by the loss of Half Price, even though I'd been there just a few weeks before they closed, and went even on the closing weekend, and sort of know a couple of employees. So maybe that has something to do with it, I guess.

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