Used Bookstores: Gateways to Unknown Worlds

My greed for adventure and wonder led me far from easily available stories

When I was in high school, I slowly realized the books currently available in the racks of the drugstores and newsstands I frequented were just a small fraction of what I wanted to read.

By reprinting a lot of long-forgotten novels in their Adult Fantasy series, Ballantine made me aware many wonderful books were written and published — and were now unavailable, even in the library.

Most book publishers included an “Other Books by <this author>” page. When I liked one book by a writer, I wanted to read everything they ever wrote.

I grew up in a small Illinois city on the outskirts of the St. Louis Metro Area, and no new bookstores considered us a market worth pursuing.

I’ve written before on how that affects my attitude toward new bookstores:

But the truth is, even if there’d been one in Alton, it would not have carried the full line of every science fiction, fantasy and horror book then in print.

And I wanted many books that hadn’t been in print for many years.

My two choices were to wait until they were reprinted (who know when, if ever?) or go seek them out.

I believe a lot of used bookstores flourished in small towns and cities that were ignored by the new bookstores because many people, like me, wanted to read more than the books they could buy at the local drugstore or grocery.

Now, thanks to the ability to sell books around the world from anywhere in the US through Amazon, being in a small town with cheap rent is an advantage for used bookstores. They no longer depend on local foot traffic driven by word of mouth.

Somehow, I found a used bookstore on the other side of town, and soon became a frequent browser.

I can’t remember its name, or the name of the owner, who was a fairly old woman.

It took me awhile to realize she didn’t know much about books — at least, not about the science fiction, fantasy and horror books I was mainly interested in.

Looking back, I have to wonder how she stayed in business for more than two weeks. Maybe she did know how to cater to some markets. Westerns? Romance? Mysteries?

It also took me awhile to figure out she maybe wasn’t quite . . . in touch with reality. After I told her I’d returned from a trip to the East Coast, she asked me if it were true “the communists had already taken over?”

Over the years, I’ve learned, having an elevator that doesn’t go to the top floor was typical for used bookstore owners, much as I loved (most of) them.

I believe it was in her store I found the two early “stars” of my collection: two 1943 issues of UNKNOWN WORLDS. That was a short-lived pulp magazine edited by John W. Campbell which had an enormous impact on modern fantasy.

Over the years, I came across a few other affordable issues of pulp magazines.

I wish the people who talk about “pulp” fiction could try to read a REAL pulp magazine. (They all went out of business in 1955 or were reduced to digest size.)

The “pulp” refers to their paper, which was truly low quality. Even 30 years after publication, I could also get a splinter stuck in my finger while turning the pages.

On the whole, however, her store usually didn’t have much to offer, and it was poorly organized.

Sometime in the early 1970’s, I searched for more sources of used books, and discovered Amitin’s in downtown, St. Louis.

Sam Amitin was also crazy, but like a fox. He operated a large used bookstore in the heart of downtown St. Louis. Unlike many used bookstores, it was well-lit and fairly well-organized.

He also kept it clean, though his constant haranguing of browsing customers to keep everything neat got on my nerves.

Store owners, if you want to keep your stores totally neat, don’t allow customers to come in and mess up your inventory.

His wife was a sweet woman who would talk to you while wrapping your purchases in brown wrapping paper and string, as though your books were several pounds of hamburger.

He also had a knack for hiring true, classic nerds and geeks to help him out.

Sam liked to brag about all the many books he had in storage, and that was a tease to me. Why didn’t he go through them and sell the good stuff? What great stuff was he holding back? What was I missing?

Looking back, I now realize all those books were junk. Sam was no dummy. He also knew what his regular customers were looking for. If he’d had anything valuable, he’d have put it out for sale.

When St. Louis renovated and redesigned Downtown, Amitin’s moved to a new location. It was on Washington Avenue, but farther west from the center of downtown.

I’m not sure when Sam’s son Larry took over the business. I believe I went there just one time.

The front of the store held a huge collection of old PLAYBOY and other such magazines. Sam sold them at his old location as well, but they weren’t quite so front and center.

(Google just showed me this newspaper clipping from 1942 reporting the FBI busted Sam for obscenity. You’d think that in 1942 the FBI would have had their hands full catching Axis spies.)

I had some older book I wanted to sell or trade in. I can’t recall the title, but it was fairly well-known.

Larry told me in a sarcastic voice, “I never heard of it.” He turned to the latest geek nerd assisting him: “You ever hear of it?”

I’m sure his father did not overpay for his inventory, but I never saw or heard Sam ragging a customer as Larry did to me.

Those skin mags and Jewish religious texts seemed to be the main components of his inventory. Since I had no interest in either one, and I saw no reason to tolerate Larry’s rudeness, I never returned.

And didn’t shed any tears when I learned of Amitin’s (inevitable) demise.

When I went off to school at the University of Missouri in Columbia, I quickly found Rock Bottom Books. It was pretty well-organized as I recall, though the owner spent most of his time with gun customers.

In the fall of 1973, I drove around parts of the US and Canada visiting friends and looking up local used bookstores. Most of them are lost in my memory, but the owner of one in Ontario Canada threw me out because after half an hour I was still looking, and not buying.

How could I buy without looking to find something I wanted to buy? As I said, many used book store owners are nuts. I left quietly. I didn’t want to create an international incident.

In India, I found a used book cart on the street. I can’t even remember if it was mechanized. It was just a large container near the sidewalk holding lots of fairly new paperback books. They probably came from other tourists. It was good for The Sum of All Fears by Tom Clancy.

In The Philippines, I found used books for sale in a small shop in a Robinson’s Mall. The same little store also sold stationery, toys, manga and a few locally owned books. Then ten or so shelves were poorly organized, but I could quickly skim its inventory of English and American paperbacks.

I just noticed what I’ve written so far hasn’t sounded romantic or nostalgic.

Used bookstore owners tend toward the eccentric (to put a nice spin on it).

The stores are often dusty, ill-lit and poorly organized stacks or rows of books where it’s difficult to find you want.

Yet I still went compulsively, because I wanted still more.

More great science fiction, fantasy, horror, mysteries, thrillers, adventure, humor and others.

And one used bookstore did play a role in an unusual story of synchronicity.

I told Barb Then-Fitzsimmons (don’t know her current last name) I felt that Miranda, the main character who vanished that day, had turned into some kind of Earth goddess symbolized by the swans.

Barb replied she’d just read a book by Wilson Tucker where he mentioned an (allegedly) true story of a woman who disappeared from a city park, leaving behind only a swan (which was previously unknown). She suggested I ask Bob (Wilson’s informal name) where he got that.

So I did.

At the time, I was living in the Delmar Loop neighborhood of University City, which is just east of St Louis City.

One Friday evening, I arrived at the University City post office from work at 4:55, just before it closed.

I pulled a letter from Bob out of my PO box. He told me he took the incident of the woman disappearing/turning into a swan came from a book by Charles Fort.

That was a forehead-slapping moment for me.

See, I’ve read all four of Charles Fort’s books. Ace Books reprinted them in paperback when I was a kid.

Like all books about “weird” stuff, they fascinated me.

Fort spent much of his life in the New York City Public Library looking up reports of unexplainable events in old newspapers.

Events such as women disappearing, leaving behind strange wild swans, rainfalls of frogs, unexplained lights in the sky and other such strange events.

Then he collected them into books: The Book of the Damned, New Lands, Lo! and Wild Talents.

Anyway, Bob told me he had a hardcover of all four of Fort’s books published in one volume.

I’d never heard of that. And I no longer had the paperback copies I’d bought as a kid.

Anyway, from the U City Post Office I rushed across the street to Paul’s Books, a store selling new books that has long since gone out of business. I looked around, but couldn’t find any of Fort’s books.

So I asked one of the clerks. He told me Fort’s books were all out of print, so Paul’s wouldn’t have them.

But he believed he had seen the hardcover compilation Bob told me about in a used bookstore just down the street.

Just down the street? I’d been living in the Loop for several years, and I’d never seen or heard of a used bookstore anywhere nearby.

Technically, the used bookstore (I’ve long forgotten its name) wasn’t in the Loop. It was on the second floor of an old building just east of Skinker Avenue, on the other side of Church’s Chicken. That meant it was still within the border of the City of St. Louis. At that time, the Loop was University City only.

(In more recent years, Joe Edwards, the Loop’s commercial developer, has extended his empire across Skinker and into the city.)

I don’t recall any sign marking the bookstore. But I followed the directions from the clerk at Paul’s, and lo and behold, found it.

With just a little bit of looking, I found the compilation of Fort’s four books.

I bought it and left, happy, and found the story about the woman who disappeared, leaving behind a never-seen-before wild swan. I wrote the article.

But I thought about the coincidental timing. If I’d asked another clerk in Paul’s, I never would have found the Fort volume.

And I could never find that used bookstore again.

I passed that block nearly every day, but never again could spot it.

Yes, spooky.

These days I’m too busy to be a self-appointed expert, but if you’re in the St. Louis area . . .

The Book House

For quite a few years, Michelle ran her store in an old house in Rock Hill. She organized the subjects by room, and kept them well-alphabetized. I’m grateful for that.

She also had a strong inventory. She had many back titles written by popular authors, not just a few copies of their latest. And she had some interesting old books.

Plus, years ago one of her clerks was smart enough to pronounce my last name correctly. (It looks obvious, but isn’t.)

She got thrown out of Rock Hill by an EZ Storage, of all things, and is now in a commercial district of Maplewood.

The Book Rack

This store is in a small strip mall on the south side of Manchester Road, in Ballwin.

The last time I was in there, she had a good selection. It was clean and well-organized. She’s got a program where you get credit for trading in books you’ve already read. But she seems to know what will sell and what won’t, and stays away from carrying useless inventory.

Or maybe I just don’t accidentally run across interesting new books and authors as much as before because I’m older and have a wide knowledge of what’s available.

Because of that, these days I’m more likely to just go to Amazon and search for what I want.

Unless it’s brand new, there are usually many used book dealers who will gladly sell me a copy, competing on the price.

And so I rely on Amazon’s AI algorithms and Also Boughts to bring other books I might enjoy to my attention.

It’s fun to think about the magic of old bookstores, but the real magic is in the books you find in them.

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