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How I Found Great Used Books . . . and a Dose of Grace

Photo by Nathalie Stimpfl / Unsplash

Except for my garden, which is a blend of hobby and post-apocalyptic planning, I don’t have any hobbies.

I have a lot of things I do occasionally, like travel, watch football, and drink at a bar. I also exercise and pray regularly. I don’t think the former rise to the level of hobby, and the latter don’t fall to it.

I have one thing that could be a hobby for me, if I were able to do it more often: Shopping at used bookstores.

I live in a small town, away from the great metropolitan centers and at least an hour away from any university libraries. In order to do any research, I must rely on my own library, which I have been building since my early twenties. As a guy with a zillion kids, I can’t spend a lot of money on books, so I’ve built my library largely with used bookstore finds.

The used bookstore is like a slice of magic for me (this is nauseatingly exaggerated, of course, but I’m trying to make a point).

First off, they’re usually in cruddy sections of a city; not the crime-ridden or seedy sections, but usually off the beaten track and in poorer neighborhoods. So finding one is usually like stumbling across a treasure island.

Second, the bookstore itself could be good or bad: Some bookstores are those horrible Harlequin romance stores with mounds of trashy fiction; others are full of comic books, train books, and other crap. But there are some that have the trashy/crappy stuff, but also have sections of history, philosophy, religion, and literature. And there are others that have almost nothing but books on those subjects. Within these categories, there are also high-priced and low-priced used bookstores.

When you find a good used bookstore with reasonable prices, you’ve found a gem. When I walk into a used bookstore, I quickly take in my surroundings, looking for indications that it offers more than trashy romances. If I see it does, I plunge into a serene sense of urgency: I want to find some out-of-print or normally-expensive books (the urgency), nothing else matters (the serenity). I smell the musty bindings and the only question is how long can my feet and knees take the standing.

But that’s just the start of it. The third part of the magic is finding the books you want, or maybe stumbling across books that you didn’t even know existed, but, upon glancing through it, want. And if you see it’s reasonably priced, well, it’s excitement time.

I call this experience “magical,” but that’s just a cliché—and an inaccurate one. The right word is “grace,” which is the opposite of magic.

Magic is the attempt to control mundane affairs with use of the spiritual. It’s an attempt to gain power.

Grace is just the opposite: Grace is unsought and unearned; it just falls on you, and you accept it, graciously. You put yourself in position to receive grace—like by praying, or going to church, or receiving sacraments—but you don’t earn it or even look for it. You just put yourself in a position where it can come . . . wait.

It’s kind of like the motherly advice that girls used to receive: Don’t marry for money; rather, hang out where money is, and marry for love. That’s why so many women went to nursing school.

A good used bookstore offers pockets of tangible mundane grace. You go into a used bookstore and see what it offers. You ramble over its shelves until you see a heretofore elusive title; utter “I can’t believe I found this!”; see a reasonable price; and put it under your arm, heart-pace quickened.

It’s just the opposite of a new bookstore or, worse yet, shopping on the Internet. New bookstores and the Internet offer efficiency, but they offer no grace. You go into the new bookstore or Internet, make your demand for a book, and, boing, it’s there and you can grab it for a price. It’s much more like a magical/power effort than shopping in a used bookstore because it involves a precise desire (“I want this book; Where is it?”) and an immense exercise of control—through the computer or sales personnel and excess money.

I’m not condemning the purchase of new books. I buy new ones frequently, both in bookstores and over the Internet. Sometimes you want a particular book and you don’t have time to browse through ten used bookstores on the long-shot chance you’ll find it (and, quite frankly, pushing through a used bookstore with a set purpose would violate the spirit of the act). But I am saying that used bookstores offer us something intangible, something that can’t be measured by the standards of efficiency, that the new bookstores and Internet stores can’t.

If someone tells me, “You saved $2.00 on that book by finding it in a used bookstore, but how much time did you waste?” he’s missing the point entirely. The enjoyment is in the grace, in the not-taking-control.

The person who can’t see that is a spiritual cripple.

I often fear that most people can’t see it anymore. We intuitively look at the efficiency, even if a deeper intuition tells us to seek something more, and warp our souls on it. The resulting warp makes us disinclined to look for things we should simply accept—like grace.

Opting instead for the things we can grab—like money.