Secondhand Treasure Haunts
Customers of Used-Book Shops Are After More Than Bargains
By Margaret Webb Pressler
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, June 27, 2004; Page F06
I probably never would have set foot in the Georgetown Book Shop in Bethesda if I hadn't wanted to talk to owner Andy Moursund about the business of used-book stores. But meeting Moursund and witnessing his passion for acquiring not only books but knowledge makes me think I may just wander into more used-book stores in the future.
It's not that I don't go to bookstores, because I do, and I love them. I like to hang out at Borders, browsing, taking my kids, looking for presents and, of course, buying books.
Used-book stores are something else. They seem impenetrable and intimidating to me. But an e-mail from Moursund a few months ago telling me about his world of books made me wonder about the differences between the two types of retailers. I was curious, too, whether most customers are like me: Do new- and used-book stores attract the same customers?
It turns out that used-book stores operate in their own little universe, more or less outside the world of new-book stores. Shopper crossover between the two is minimal, and the motivations of shoppers are often quite different.
It also happens that used-book stores are getting eaten alive by the Internet. It's a shame, because we need more people like Andy Moursund in our lives.
The most obvious difference between used-book stores and regular book shops, of course, is price. Beyond that, the used ones differ in that they often specialize in particular subjects, depending on an owner's passions. Moursund has military history as one emphasis, for example, while other shops can be found around Washington that specialize in psychology, maritime history, Americana, politics, science fiction and art.
"I'd rather be really good in four or five subjects than mediocre in a thousand subjects," Moursund says.
There are plenty of inspired, knowledgeable people working in regular bookstores, of course. But the owner of a used-book store tends to view his or her shop as a knowledge center, not just a business. Moursund wants nothing more than to share the facts and ideas in his books, and his own head.
"You have to see a social perspective to it beyond making a living," Moursund said. "Otherwise, it would get boring."
This kind of attitude is typical of used-book dealers, said Barbara Meade, co-founder and co-owner of Politics & Prose, a vibrant independent bookstore in Washington.
© 2004 The Washington Post Company