Thursday, March 26, 2009

Downtown stores for old books are local jewels

By Cliff B. Lewis

The used books business is a tough one these days. With big-box outlets drawing the masses to their pseudo coffee shop environments, and with online networks connecting buyers to individual booksellers, people too quickly overlook the simple pleasure of strolling through aisles of thoughtfully arranged hardbacks or the sweet dry fragrance of time on pages once-read.

Of course, a walk on Chestnut Street might jog one’s memory. On 11 and 529 W Chestnut Street are two such thoughtful and inviting bookshops.

Chestnut Street Books, at 11 W Chestnut, has been the endeavor of Warren and Mar Anderson since 1991. Before setting up shop, the couple made their final decision to move here from Baltimore after Warren had visited Onion’s Café in Lancaster City: “I had coffee and chatted with the woman who was running the place….I thanked her and went on my way, and I hadn’t gotten maybe half a block, and here she comes, running down the street, because I’d walked off and left my portfolio on the counter. And I said to myself: ‘What would be the probability of somebody doing that in Baltimore? Zero!’”

In the last 18 years, the Andersons have garnered a fluent handling of the skills required for used book-selling: An encyclopedic knowledge of literary works, authors, genres; a sharp memory for the faces and interests of repeat customers; an innate understanding of the value of different books in different places. According to Warren, a good used book store is measured by the quality of its selection: “Any idiot can put out bad books or common books…that you can hardly walk down the street without tripping over a copy; but putting out good books, interesting books that are in good shape…that’s what makes the difference between a good book store and an inferior bookstore, in my opinion.”

Unfortunately for the City of Lancaster, Chestnut Street Books will only remain open beyond July of this year. Proud of what this post-retirement project has accomplished, Warren says “the problem is that, just about the time that you have learned how to do it, you realize that you are now too old to do it.” This little bookshop near Chestnut and Queen will surely be missed.

Fortunately for the City, however, there will still remain another used bookseller—and on the same stretch of road, no less! Dogstar Books, at 529 W Chestnut, was opened by Brian Frailey in 2006. The new establishment boasts a hip and colorful atmosphere, located just across the street from the quaint Chestnut Hill Café.

Frailey opened the shop as a supplement to an online business that he had already been running for several years. The physical location served as a way to sell inexpensive books not worth the shipping cost and to keep his work interesting: “Selling online, there’s a lot of time and work, and you don’t ever have a social life. At least, when you’re in the shop, people come in and talk to you.” Since Dogstar’s opening, the shop has played host to a broad variety of Downtown social and cultural events, from poetry readings to art galleries to musical performances.

Though the market can be rough, the used books business is here to stay in Downtown Lancaster. They exist to promote good literature, good conversation, and one of the most obvious forms of recycling. It would surely be a benefit to all if we local residents would stop by these establishments next time we think of driving to the nearest big-box.