Humanity can be sliced into endless categories: those who like anchovies, and those who don't; those who can watch golf on television, and those who consider it a form of cruel and unusual punishment; those who worship Madonna, and those who run screaming from the room at the mere mention of her name.
Used-book shops offer another dividing line. Some people would rate spending an afternoon among stacks of moldering books about as appealing as traffic school. Others consider used-book shops a sort of sacred sanctuary, a place where time stands still and dusty treasures await.
Count me among the latter. I can disappear for hours among the shelves, only to emerge with books whose appeal I have trouble explaining to family and friends. Among the titles on my shelves: "New York's Awful Excursion Boat Horror" (a turn-of-the-century disaster account complete with gruesome pictures), "Pennsylvania Report of Committee and Testimony, Railroad Riots 1878" (a congressional report, no pictures), and the Victorian-era "What a Young Man Ought to Know" (with its spirited diatribe against--\o7 gasp!\f7 --dancing).
It's not a collection so much as an accumulation, a record of momentary buying impulses and quirks of personal taste. And they're all books of an unpredictable kind you would never find in the chain booksellers, even those discount mega-stores.
Used-book shops are full of discoveries waiting to be made, but their wares certainly go beyond the esoteric. By far the biggest customer base for most used-book shops is not collectors but general readers, cost-conscious types who'd rather not pay retail and others in search of books that have gone out of print.
Some county shops sell only used paperbacks, offering customers exchange credits for books they bring into the store. Romance novels tend to be popular, as do science fiction novels. But Jim Schroeder of the Paperback Exchange in San Clemente said he and wife, Mary, have steady customers for everything from Western fiction to history books.
At their shop, used paperbacks sell for half the cover price, and trade-ins are two-for-one (most paperback shops offer similar schemes). At retail bookstores, new paperbacks often sell for $7 and more, Schroeder said. "That's a price that you used to be able to buy a hardback for a few years back, so (customers) are glad to come in and recycle their books, as it were."
Even shops that carry a selection of rare and collectible books rely on non-collectors for most of their business--as much as 90% for the Book Baron in Anaheim, according to owner Bob Weinstein. For prices ranging from a few dollars on up, customers can buy clean, hardcover copies of the classics, popular fiction or works that have gone out of print (most used-book shops operate a search service to help locate those hard-to-find books).
The line that divides reader and collector can be a fine one, though. Ask Art Stone of Villa Park. "I never thought of myself as a collector, never knew there was a community of collectors," Stone said by telephone. He was an avid reader, however, and decided on an impulse to take a class in book collecting about 20 years ago at UC Irvine.
"I found out I was already a book collector, and learned there should be a plan to what you collect," said Stone, who now specializes in baseball fiction, early Americana and Orange County authors. He haunts the county's used-book shops on a regular basis, and "if I come home without a book, I'm disappointed. I haven't satisfied my craving."
Orange County has a wide range of used-book dealers, from the cavernous Book Baron in Anaheim, with a wide general selection, to a handful of dealers specializing in collectible and antiquarian books, such as tiny Lorson's Books and Prints in Fullerton, and the Book Sail in Orange, which sells mostly by catalogue and is open only by appointment.
Falling in the middle range are several general used-book stores, all of which carry at least some collectible books. Cahill's, in Fountain Valley, has a large general stock in addition to a selection of literary first editions, as does the Bookman in Orange. The Book Store in Costa Mesa features a small but wide-ranging stock, from cookbooks to literary first editions. Book Harbor in Fullerton, which is back in business after being damaged in a fire a few years back, is another general shop.
Some shops specialize. Book Carnival in Orange features used and new mystery and science fiction--one of the hottest collecting areas--and hosts signings by authors. Aladdin Books in Fullerton features a general used and collectible section in addition to specialized collections in cinema and performing arts.