As one who has always preferred stores that sell used and rare books to those that sell new ones, I mourn the impending demise of a minor monument of the breed. At the end of this month Dauber & Pine, which has been in business on New York City's celebrated Book Row for about half a century, will close its doors for good on an inventory that over the years has nurtured the libraries--and the minds--of tens of thousands of book lovers.
By the time the store shuts down, its inventory presumably will have been reduced to a battered selection of titles that only their authors could love. A couple of weeks ago The New York Times reported that Dauber & Pine's tables "are nearly empty, and once-jammed shelves hold only a few books that have toppled on their sides," and surely its stock has gotten quite a lot thinner since then. The store's habitue's, many of whom are far older than it is, are likely to have picked it cleaner than it's ever been by the day its last rites are read.
For anyone who has known Dauber & Pine, or any of the other stores of similar character that once flourished in New York and most other big cities, the mere thought of its cluttered tables, shelves and passageways cleared of books defies credulity. Dauber & Pine was a used bookstore of the old school, one in which the stock was stacked wherever space permitted and the task of sorting it out was left to the customer. A person who came to the shop with a specific purchase in mind might be steered in a promising direction by a clerk who happened to have seen the title in a batch of new arrivals, but it would be up to the customer to do the dirty work of the actual search.
Dauber & Pine was not a place for the fastidious. So far as I know its floors never made the acquaintance of a vacuum, nor were its tables and shelves favored with the attentions of a feather duster. Not merely were books permitted to keep the dust they came in with, but they were encouraged to acquire their full measure of the mollygrubs and collywobbles that were manufactured on the premises. In proper time, if a book did not have the good fortune to find a purchaser it would also obtain its due portion of the excellent mildew in which Dauber & Pine specialized, especially in its enormous basement.
One went to Dauber & Pine with old clothes and high if unclear expectations. It was a given that at day's end a steaming shower would be required, complete with washcloth and nailbrush and, in extreme cases, Lava soap, but beyond that nothing was known. This prevailing ambience of mystery was, of course, precisely what made Dauber & Pine and the others of its departed breed such temples of bibliophilic joy. A day spent stooping over its tables and reaching into its shelves might produce a surprise of utterly unexpected dimensions--that first edition you'd been hunting for years, or a clean reading copy of a title you'd loaned and lost--or it might produce nothing except a coat of grime and a vague sense of having encountered every dreadful book ever published; but it always produced a conviction that the day had been well spent.
This was not merely because that day had been spent in the company of books but because it had been a day devoted to the pleasures of serendipity. Unlike the new-book stores or the antiquarian shoppes, where Wolfe follows Welty as surely as day follows night, at Dauber & Pine you never knew what would nestle against what. A battered copy of Halliburton might snuggle up to a 1939 catalogue of automobile parts; under a book-club edition of Shellabarger might hide a second printing of Cabell; a faded pictorial guide to the byways of Vienna might lean against Volume 9 of an outdated and incomplete Collier's Encyclopedia.
One went to Dauber & Pine not with confidence but with hope. It might not have had the Faulknerian concordance you needed--or, to be more accurate, it might have had the book but you couldn't find it--but on the other hand you found it impossible to resist the temptation to shell out 50 cents for that "Baltimore Sun Almanac," 1905 edition. It's entirely true that most of what Dauber & Pine stocked was junk, but no one with a taste for garage sales or flea markets can deny the considerable if peculiar joys to be derived from stripping off the chaff in search of the wheat.
But in the two decades since I was a regular at Dauber & Pine--not to mention Shulte's, grandest of them all, and others bearing names long since forgotten--too many people have spent too much time picking over the used bookstores, to the point that they have been picked clean of the genuine bargains and astonishing surprises those stores once contained. That first edition of "Mosquitos," in search of which I poked through shelf after shelf of battered books, was probably tracked down some time ago by a clever little antiquarian dealer who now displays it prominently in the "Modern First Editions" case (glass-covered, and padlocked) in his bookish boutique. Alphabetically in its place--first comes Dos Passos, then Faulkner, then Fitzgerald--it can be my very own for, oh, $1,250.
The used-book business has succumbed to the age of "collectibles." These days the first folks in line at those school fundraisers aren't bubbling bibliophiles, but canny dealers who hope that the alums who donated books to the sale didn't realize what they had on their hands--but who seem to be increasingly frustrated by what they find because, as it turns out, the alums are just about as canny at the game of collecting as they are. In a world in which everybody is canny and savvy and energetic, there's nothing left for the big old stores such as Dauber & Pine to sell. There's plenty of room in the old-book business for the antiquarian with his high-priced firsts, and there's room for the used-book dealer who's willing to go to the trouble of arranging his titles alphabetically by category; but there seems to be no room left for the dealer who'll buy and sell anything, toss it anywhere he finds an empty space, and take his chances on doing enough volume to make a living.
"It's sad, it's very, very sad," Murray Dauber told a customer the other day, according to The Times. "There's not much room for a place like this any more. But nothing lasts forever, dear." He was right on all counts. The truth is that the life given to Dauber & Pine was far longer than that granted to most independent bookstores, and anyone who shopped there must be grateful that it lasted so long as it did. But we will miss it: its books, its clerks, its mildew, its dust. Especially its dust.