Monday, August 15, 2005

The Bookshelf

A strip mall in suburban West Virginia isn't where most people would go in search of serenity, but I always find it at Jim Sachse's shop, The Bookshelf, in Morgantown's Suburban Lanes Plaza. I first went there nearly 30 years ago, when I was learning to walk, and knocked over a wire book rack. Despite this beginning, I worked at the shop a couple of decades later, and might be working there still if it had paid anything approaching a living wage. When I'm in West Virginia now, I go out of my way (which is about the only way to get there) to pay a visit.

The shop is under a bowling alley -- the eponymous
Suburban Lanes -- and faint rumbles and crashes go on continually overhead, like a tiny and unusually-paced thunderstorm. Occasionally the alley's bar springs a leak and causes beer to drip into the secondhand section. One of the stranger duties employees had when I worked there was to sniff splashed books and decide whether they smelled too boozy to keep on sale. Fortunately, any effect the leaks might have had on the overall atmosphere is obliterated by another of the shop's neighbours, an Italian bakery and pizzeria.

Secondhand books take up about two-thirds of the shop. Old paperbacks are laid flat and stacked to fill every inch of long wooden bookcases (wire racks are long gone, possibly thanks to me) whose shelves curve noticeably downwards, straining the seams of their powder-blue paint. One of Jim's innovations is to use thin paperbacks he didn't think he could sell (ancient dimestore romances, a children's biography of Prince Charles) as makeshift shelf dividers.

The idea is that customers can bring in their old books in exchange for a discount, but the precise system is so arcane that Jim doesn't allow his employees to explain it. He claims only he can describe his policy so it makes sense; I think it's more likely that only his extraordinarily self-assured tone can persuade people to hand over their books in silent bewilderment. A certain proportion of his business comes from little old ladies who come once a month to trade paperback romances they've read for ones that they haven't, but he keeps these books against one wall and leaves the main part of the store for more interesting stuff. Because Morgantown is a university town, it attracts a more varied mixture of people than most of the state, and it seems that every eccentric, exile, polyglot, artist or mystic to have passed through the city has left part of his or her library in Jim's store. I've found books there that I'd hunted for in vain on Charing Cross Road, and I can't think of anyplace I'd rather go when trying to satisfy a vague literary hunger. The shelves are just high enough, the aisles just long enough and the books just jumbled enough that I can browse in complete bliss, hidden from the outside world, searching for an unknown treasure.

The rest of the shop is marginally smarter and contains new books. There are large sections of literary fiction and poetry, popular science, and particularly religion. Jim's a Buddhist and carries a lot of books about Eastern religions (classics and scholarly works, not dumbed-down New Age crap), but also works on Christian, Jewish and Islamic mysticism.

The sales counter straddles both sections, and is usually covered with stacks of newly-arrived books and flyers for local yoga classes and poetry readings. Frequently Jim lights up when he sees the title of one of your selections. He seems to know something about every book he sells, and will discuss the relative merits of various translations of the
Tao Te Ching, compare Florence King's work to his experiences growing up with a Southern mother, or chuckle as he recounts Herbert McCabe's first essay after his reinstatement: 'As I was saying before I was so oddly interrupted ...'

Until recently, another feature of the store was the microfiche machine that Jim used to check his supplier's catalogue, with a towel draped over the top for him to stick his head under on sunny days. Jim stubbornly kept this long after most other shops had got computers. Things are changing, though; when I last visited in July, I learned that The Bookshelf has done as complete a turnaround as
Dover Publications did a few years ago, and will shortly be going online at Now I'll be able to visit while I'm in England, though I will have to see how well a website can duplicate the experience of being there. Still, no need to dodge dripping beer.


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