Saturday, July 26, 2008

Why We Do What We Do

As evidenced by my earlier comments about discounting used books for the Summer Book Sale, not every buy made at the Used Books Desk turns out to be either as remunerative or rewarding as one might have hoped. Not all used books sell. There are books—good books, even classic books—taken into stock in a spirit more defiant than optimistic. Any honest bookseller, if pressed, and given a sufficient accumulation of regret and dust, has to admit as much. And yet, we can't help ourselves. Something "really interesting" comes across the buying desk and, knowing we ought not to, we buy it anyway. Someone, surely, will want that lovely set of Robert Browning...

Books in languages other than English can be a tricky thing, even in a large urban bookstore. It's safe enough, to stock a clean used copy of Don Quixote in Spanish, or to put out a short shelf of Simenon in French. But what about the intriguing Czech novel in German? Or The Grapes of Wrath in Italian?

And then, something wonderful can happen. A young man looks over the Recent Arrivals case at the Used Books Desk and, from all the wonderful chaos of titles therein, he plucks out a volume of Schiller, in cloth covers, in German! Moreover, he's excited to see that there are multiple volumes, as well as volumes of Goethe, and even Goethe and Schiller's correspondence. He may be back.

These books in German were bought from someone whose mother subscribed to a German language book club. They are uniformly handsome books, well made and beautifully kept by the previous owner.

How likely was that enthusiastic student of German? How many Americans in their twenties are reading Schiller, let alone Schiller's prose? And how lucky for us that that volume of Schiller was out on the shelf waiting the day our customer happened by?

Suddenly I feel perfectly justified in stocking Bagehot's The English Constitution, "Tchekhov" in Russian, and Charles Kingsley's Alton Locke, in two volumes.

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