"How many cities have revealed themselves to me in the marches I have undertaken in the pursuit of books!"
-- Walter Benjamin, "Unpacking My Library"
It should be said from the start that going to used-book stores is, at best, a useless pursuit. It is reversionary, unhealthy even. Used-book stores are filled with books, dusty, old, sinus-polluting books and, as if that weren't enough, with the kind of people you make a conscious effort to avoid during the day -- ne'er do-wells, layabouts, semi-employed dissertation candidates and self-proclaimed bibliophiles who consider writers such as Walter Benjamin, dead since 1940, their real friends.
Used-book stores are not where you absorb relevant knowledge; they are not where you go to bone up on Steven Pinker's latest thoughts on cognitive theory, to peruse the newest campaign biographies or to sneak a cheaper copy of "The Da Vinci Code" so you can affordably keep up with cocktail conversation.
If you like to make the most of your life, used-book stores can seem an absolute waste of time. That is precisely what makes spending time in them so worthwhile.
For devotees of the used-book store, Los Angeles has quietly become one of the last bastions, for L.A. has become one of the last great American book towns. New York may be home to the publishing industry and Lewis Lapham's thesaurus, Chicago still has Saul Bellow, but in both those cities high rents and the Internet have driven many of the venerable used- and rare-book stores out of business.
But here, the book business is thriving. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, the greater Los Angeles area is the largest book market in the country now with 21.5% of the books sold by independent bookstores, the highest percentage in the country.
In social as well as economic terms, L.A. is a wordy town as never before. Witness last year's "Writing Los Angeles: A Literary Anthology," from stuffy Library of America, and last month's "The Misread City: New Literary Los Angeles." The Los Angeles Times Festival of Books now is the largest event of its kind in the country. Look at the lineup of authors the West Hollywood store Book Soup attracts, and at the recent national syndication of the impossibly literate radio show "Bookworm," a KCRW-FM creation.
For truly devoted book nuts, however, for those who know what they're doing is hopelessly archaic and love it, the used-books store still is the center of the universe. Because -- before you get too hopeful about the state of civilization -- books are, let's face it, on their deathbed. As an art and a business, they're obsolete. They have been for the better part of a century. They may continue to be for a century more. That is their charm.
Borders and Barnes & Noble would want to deny this. But it is at the used-books store, the least sensible of all businesses, a place perpetually teetering on the brink of bankruptcy, where you can drink in the utter futility of books without a $4 latte chaser.
Take, for instance, what probably is the best establishment in the greater Los Angeles area -- certainly the most voluminous -- Acres of Books, on Long Beach Boulevard in Long Beach.
The name is not an exaggeration. Acres has, by a conservative estimate, 750,000 books on its bowed, rotting shelves (the number probably is closer to 1 million). "More books than anybody in their right mind needs," acknowledges Jackie Smith, who has worked in the store since 1976 and now owns it (her husband's grandfather opened it in the 1930s).
You'll find everything from Kakfa to books on games to play with your cat, studies of Mesopotamian sexual practices to the early novels of Henry Fielding, and in every condition from mint first edition to dog-eared and ragged.
You'll discover, as one reporter did, the first volume of Evelyn Waugh's very hard-to-find one-volume autobiography (he planned three, but then died), "A Little Learning." And for $5, hard-bound, no less.
Disregard your claustrophobia and the justifiable fear of getting smothered beneath the Pisa-like spires of books, and have one of the helpful Sonic Youth clerks help you to the section on "Hackysack, Yo-Yo's and Juggling." Nearby, look over the three full shelves devoted to the history and study of prostitution. And don't forget the Frank Cotton Memorial Oddball shelves, named for the late head clerk of Acres, who until his death in 1988 functioned as the store's only computer. There, you find a volume titled "14,000 Things to Be Happy About," and another called "The Dot and the Line: A Romance in Lower Mathematics."