DeFlip Side #117: Darth Libris

DS117.mp3

Welcome everyone. I’m Christopher DeFilippis and this is DeFlip Side.

I’ve often used DeFlip Side to wax poetic—or at least prolific—about the joys of book collecting. But sometimes bibliomania ain’t all sunshine and reading rainbows folks. Like most other obsessions, it has a dark side—one that I recently turned to with the eagerness of an Anakin Skywalker intent on slaughtering a roomful of younglings. Metaphorically, anyway. A turning that stood out all the more harshly in light of the near idyllic book collecting experience I’d had just a short time prior. So let’s start there.

My wife and I recently took a trip to San Francisco and wine country, and our second day out found me driving around Sonoma Valley, hopelessly lost. Then, seemingly out of nowhere, up pops this quaint little main street, boasting a single traffic light and adorable shops. We decided to stop, and I found parking right in front of a used bookstore. I got out of the car warily, half expecting Rod Serling to be delivering a monologue nearby, and then proceed into the bookshop.

A more wonderful used bookshop you couldn’t ask for. I started peppering the proprietor with requests for some of the more obscure authors on my list—esoterically surreal works by E.T.A. Hoffmann, bawdy comedies by Thorne Smith, even an all but forgotten quasi-Science Fictional work by Johannes Kepler—and the shop owner knew exactly what I was talking about, reeling off those and similar titles that he’d once had in stock, though none were presently in the store.

Finally, inspired by the forward of Neil Gaiman’s Stardust, which I’d read on the flight out to San Fran, I asked for anything by Lord Dunsany. Jackpot. He led me not only to works of fiction, but non-fiction collections and plays. I never knew Dunsany had been so prolific. And I stared at his unexpectedly diverse collection ruefully, because I knew that I’d likely never stumble across these titles again. In the end I chose four of the prose fiction volumes—two of them first editions, all of them around 100 years old—and gladly dropped almost $90 for the bunch. I only wish I had budgeted more.

Dunsanic Goodness!

It was the dream book buying experience, filled with the thrill of unexpected discovery and shared literary passion, capped off by a haul of unique titles by a favorite author. And we even got out of town without having to consult with a bobble-headed demon fortune-telling machine. I still get a rush when I see the Dunsany volumes on my shelf, books that undoubtedly look like old junk to just about everyone else.

But since coming home from vacation, I’ve slipped from these lofty book collecting heights, sliding quickly past my standard-level book mania and descending into the black depths of greed and unbridled book lust. I’ve gone from first edition connoisseur to ruthless paperback poacher. And you can blame it all on Chapter 11.

After 40 years in business, Borders Books is in liquidation—apt terminology, because this big, wounded retail beast is hemorrhaging books like crazy. And when a bibliophile smells blood, all bets are off.

I’d been hoarding a Borders gift card from Christmas that still had about $13 on it. And despite my resolution to wait until the closeout sales got better, I finally broke and hit the nearest store.

Unfortunately, my plans to snap up every copy of Vonnegut I could find were quickly dashed. Not one title was left. So I made a beeline for the Science Fiction section, slotting myself in among the other bargain hunters, jockeying for space in front of the shelves to see what was left to nab. Of course, everything was in complete disarray and finding specific authors meant perusing every single title—a task that goes quickly from maddening to frantic when you’re convinced that everyone around you is snapping gems right out from under your nose while you seem to see nothing but the same three Charlaine Harris titles over and over. Fuck you, Sookie Stackhouse!

I prepared to write the whole enterprise off as a bust, as my focused hunt turned to desultory wandering, and that’s when I unwittingly started down the path to the dark side.

I can clearly recall every step: A guy cradling a bunch of paperbacks absently puts them down on an empty shelf in front of me as he bends over to look at more books. My eyes latch greedily onto his untended stack. And there they are. The first five books in Charles Stross’s The Merchant Princes series. I’m a huge Stross fan, and this is exactly the kind of haul I’m looking for. And what happens? The guy’s friend calls him over to check out some other books. I wish I can say that he disappears around the corner and that I wait a respectable amount of time before doing what I do next. But I can’t. The second I see that he is suitably distracted, I snatch the books and run.

BWWWAAAAHAHAHAHAHAHA!

And as much as I hate to admit it, guilty pleasure overrides my secret shame whenever I see the books on my shelf. Such is the power of the dark side. Just call me Darth Libris.

And I’ve not completely found my way back. I’ve spent the last week obsessively prowling the all Borders in my area, deliberately mis-shelving the titles that I want, so that come the retailer’s final desperate hours, I can swoop in, scoop up the all the books that I’ve “specially reserved” for myself, and skip out, paying mere pennies for each. Pennies!

But this orgy of book acquisition is bittersweet, because what does it say for the future of physical books when even a huge chain like Borders can’t keep its doors open? With no other book retailers to pick up the slack, publishing industry insiders say it will lead to fewer books being printed. Not fewer books being sold, mind you. The rise of the e-reader has ironically made reading more popular than ever. But for paper and glue diehards like me, the writing is on the wall—and will become harder and harder to find on the page. So I’ll just keep one foot firmly planted in the dark side, while I wait and see how this ultimately pans out. In the meantime, if you see me at a closeout sale lurking among the shelves, you’d best watch your books.

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