A pilgrimage to bibliophile heaven

On Saturday, in between picking up parts at a hardware store to mount the large antenna I recently purchased on the roof, I went to a local used book store called the Book Alcove in Gaithersburg, MD (and don’t bother looking for them online; they don’t even have a website). It’s a great place with an amazing bibliophilic atmosphere.

The entire store is packed wall-to-wall with custom-made shelves full of books. Over time they’ve added braces made of 2x4s above the overstuffed bookcases to prevent them from falling over, so as you explore further into the depths of the shop that are hopelessly invisible from the front of it, you feel like you’re walking through a literary labyrinth, with books rising above your head to either side of you and crude arches above you.

The neat thing about this used book store that distinguishes it from the other used book stores around here is that they only buy directly from the public, not from libraries. They thus have a much older collection of books, and you can find all sorts of out-of-print, decades-old books that you would never find in library surplus. For example, I bought Vol. 11 of the 1909 Harvard Classics, Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species (given my love for the topic, how could I not?).

It’s very impressive looking what with its Harvard insignia on the front and everything, so this will make a great coffee table book, and at only $4, quite reasonable. Plus, it gives me the opportunity to regale how out of the 51 volume 1909 Harvard Classics set (the book store had most of the rest), Darwin’s work took up two entire volumes (his Voyage of the Beagle is Vol. 29). That’s 3.9% of the set, or more coverage than any other author.

The Book Alcove also has an antiquarian room full of really old books. It’s behind the only door in the store and has its own air conditioning and dehumidifier system. Perusing through those shelves is a near-religious experience for someone who really loves books. The single oldest book I found was a philosophical tract on religion, written in German, and published in 1747. As I very gingerly held the large tome in my hands, worried that the rotted half-inch-thick ancient leather cover might give out on me, I marveled at the novelty of reading ink first put to page before my nation was even born. That kind of puts things into perspective.

I also had the sad thought that most people haven’t even seen books this old in a museum, let alone had the chance of holding them and reading them. In the end I didn’t buy it, because $200 is kind of hard to justify for a book I’d have to learn a whole language just to be able to read. But it definitely stuck with me. Books are an ancient, incredibly important technology, and they stand the test of time very well. Without books, how else would I be able to know the views of a long-dead 18th century theologian? It’s my fervent hope that all of the writing I’m doing here on the Internet lasts even half as long as that book. Maybe I’ll eventually bite the bullet and just print everything out in archival ink on acid-free paper, because that’s the only information storage technology with a long proven track record.

2 Responses to “A pilgrimage to bibliophile heaven”

  1. drinian Says:

    I don’t know about that, as the oldest books extant are handwritten on vellum. Lasts much better than paper, and sometimes you can even identify what body part it came from! (Especially true in the case of human skin-bound books).

    If you’re ever in Baltimore on a weekend, check out the Book Thing, which is basically a volunteer-run free-for-all. I’ve also had fun with the Bookman’s chain (Tucson; smaller branch in Phoenix), which will sell just about anything.

  2. Cyde Weys Says:

    I always leave some little tidbit in my posts that I know to be an exaggeration just to give people like you something to comment about :-D

    So yes, you’re right (and there are doubtlessly other writing technologies that have been around longer than paper and ink), but the overall thrust of my argument still stands. Hard drives don’t last nearly as long as printing something in a format intended to last a long time. The modern version of that is archival ink on acid-free paper, which has replaced less practical, older methods such as handwriting on vellum.