"Lowly, unpurposeful and random as they may appear, sidewalk contacts are the small change from which a city's wealth of public life may grow."—Jane Jacobs
It was a cold Saturday morning when I claimed my table.
My plan was simple: my local library was having a flea market and I was going to try my hand at selling used books. I've always loved book tables—the whole hodge-podge of stories and information crowded together without any attempt at codification or genre sorting. I love that moment when you find a long-searched-for gem among the randomness. Besides, I figured it'd be a good chance to thin out my bookshelves.
I certainly didn't know anything about selling books. I'd read Mitchell Duneier's Sidewalk, about the booksellers on Sixth Avenue in New York, but my little foray into that world was a dilettante effort at best. I wasn't doing it to pay my rent or get my next meal. I wanted to see if readers would be interested in speculative fiction when it was on their street corner and not at the mercy of a distribution or chain store shelving system.
My biggest fear was of some parent complaining about a Samuel R. Delaney beefcake cover. Actually, that was my second biggest fear. My biggest fear was no one would buy anything. That I'd be sitting there behind a pile of books as appealing as an assortment of VHS tapes.
Roughly twenty tables lined Broadway and the walk leading up to the library. Clothes, fabric, and jewelry were the most common items for sale. I was the only one selling books. My prices were cheap: two dollars for paperbacks, three for hardcovers, and a buck for magazines and comics. The table cost me $30, and I'd be satisfied if I made twice that.
My neighbors on either side were ignoring me. One was an Indian woman selling jewelry, hand-made bags, and scarves. All the fabric made her table bright and eye-catching, and she let people browse while carefully talking up her wares. The other was a stocky Caucasian guy selling batteries and little knick-knack glass animals. He had a barker routine where he'd play the fool while muttering racist diatribes under his breath. Still, his table drew customers.
At last, someone took an interest in my table: an older couple with their two adolescent sons in tow. The man was somewhat disheveled, like he was just fresh from bed. The woman carried herself like a silent film actress. She wore a long coat, green-tinted glasses, and a silk scarf. The boys had noticed some of my comic books and started to make the international hand gesture for "Dad, give us money" (one hand tugging the father's elbow, the other outstretched, fingers bent, palm upwards). Meanwhile, the woman had spied Clive Barker's Books of Blood.
"Oh, look," she said.
That was all they needed. The four of them began to amass a pile of books and our conversation drifted from chess, to mystery novels, to the proper pronunciation of the word "daguerreotype." Finally, money changed hands.
Their attention made others stop and linger.
A young muscle-bound guy came by and asked if I had Dune. Sadly, I didn't. But he still browsed around the table, piling up a number of books, exclaiming "Dude!" whenever he found something he liked.
An old Langley Collyer reclusive packrat type paused long enough to arrange all my books so their spines were in line. He bought nothing, but I appreciated that now my books were more accessible.
An Asian woman noticed some manga and pulled out the first book of Battle Royale and an Astro Boy collection. We talked a bit about Tezuka's Life of Buddha series. I pointed to the Battle Royale and said, "You know that's not appropriate for children?"
She leaned towards me, glancing over her shoulder. "I'm buying them for myself," she whispered.
I developed an eye for potential customers, and soon had a bit of a barker's patter of my own: "Books: two dollars! Three for five! Magazines, comics, and everything in the box: one dollar! Mystery, science fiction, and suspense!" Fortunately, I had read most of the books and when asked what they were about, I could describe them as succinctly as possible.
"It's The Count of Monte Cristo in space" (The Stars My Destination).
"It's about the conflict between two immortals over hundreds of years" (Wild Seed).
Of course, I hadn't read every book on the table, especially most of the horror titles. Those were the ones my friends had given me in order to thin out their own collections. Whenever a prospective customer held up a horror novel and asked me what it was about, I'd always say "It's about a man"—(or a woman, depending on the customer's gender)—"who returns to his/her hometown, and there are ghosts in it and a haunted carnival."
One of my favorite exchanges was with a teenage boy who had a gold pocket watch dangling from his belt and a giant plastic rainbow ring on his finger (both most likely bought a few tables down from mine). He was the type who would pull out five or six books and stare intently at the covers, trying to figure out what they might be about. He'd narrowed his selection down to Ellen Kushner's Thomas the Rhymer and Tobias Buckell's Crystal Rain.
"What's a minstrel?" he asked, reading from the back of the Kushner.
"He's kind of like a wandering poet," I said. "He tells stories and sings songs."
The kid looked a bit puzzled for a moment. "A bit like a bard?"
"Yeah," I said, realizing he probably had hours of online role-playing game knowledge to draw from. "Exactly like a bard."
He bought both books.
There were also plenty of people disappointed with my selection. "I'm looking for something more popular," one young woman said. Others were looking for books I didn't have, dictionaries being at the top of the list, but also illustrated science books, and how-to-draw manuals. A few times, someone would ask me for something and I'd say no, only to find it later after they had gone.
Then there were some outright hecklers. The guy beside me had a few cronies who lingered about his table. One was a tiny man whose face had the kind of wrinkles you'd need a toothpick to clean out. He drifted by for a brief exchange:
Wrinkles: "Selling books, huh?"
Wrinkles: "You ever been to Manhattan?"
Wrinkles: "Thought so." And then he walked off looking smug. I shrugged.
Other folks were simply dismissive. "These are old," one guy said. "I hate to read," a young girl stated, pulling away her friend who was looking over the table.
Several people stopped by just to talk, some complaining about videogames, the Internet, and everything else destroying the world. My favorite non-customer was an old woman who walked by and rubbed her finger along the cover of Scaramouche, whispering Sabatini's name like it was some fondly remembered lover's.
The day wore on. Some books sold better than others. The magazines did especially well. Teenagers loved the back issues of Weird Tales, F&SF, and Talebones, and I wondered if these magazines made an effort to place themselves in schools and libraries.
At the end of the day, after I packed up my remaining books, I went home happy. Even if some people weren't interested in beat-up, forty-year-old paperbacks, the excitement of others was a pleasant surprise. From kids to teenagers, to adults and the elderly, people appeared to enjoy something as simple and primitive as words printed on a page. I was glad to have met these people, and to have enriched their reading experience.