Nebraska & My Problem

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I have a problem. Not that it is inherently harmful or detrimental or that it shall become your problem. It is certainly not a problem in the “please help me fix this” sense of the word, if you follow. It is more like a benign obsession. For books. Specifically, used books. I am newly addicted to used book stores. OK, I know exactly what you’re thinking: Boring. [Flip the channel].

I am currently sitting in the sunroom, of which there is plenty of sunshine this fine morning, of the McDaniels family, the kind and gracious folks who are hosting myself and eventually Randall Goodgame for our thus far tumultuous tour in eastern Nebraska, of which we have yet to play a single concert. Things already got off to a rocky start before either of us have played a single note (one last-minute show cancellation, one lost guitar). I’ll spare you the details. All I know is that I fell asleep last night to starlight clear skies, and I awoke this morning to iris-blue skies. But somewhere in the middle of dream’s proceedings it snowed. A lot. I can no longer make out the pavement of the street or any of the lawns in this quiet Lincoln neighborhood, occasionally littered with the cawing of crows or the blare of snowblowers. Atop the deck balcony, all piled in white shoulders, sits a good 2-3 inches of snow. It is a strange thing to wake up to, if you’re like me, an unaccustomed soul to the downpours of winter. It passed through the night, this visible ghost, unleashed its bravery, and ebbed away to some other unsuspecting land. I digress, snow does that to me. Now, back to my problem.

At some point near about when the calendar conspired to 2008 I somehow morphed into a used bookstore hound. I am borderline obsessive about it. I suppose I should have seen it coming. My dear wife laughs at my preposterousness, but not fellow songwriter and friend, Andrew Peterson, who very nearly shares the same degree of passion and obsession and is quick to join me on used bookstore jaunts. It is good to have friends in your life who share and understand one’s own similar quirks and foibles. It has gotten to the point now where when I travel to far off cities, instead of searching for movie-plexes or malls I scour the yellow pages and internet for local used bookshops. I suppose this might be considered a good thing. I don’t know if it’s a newly-obtained old man tendency (of which I have quite a few) or if I have simply turned into someone worth ridiculing. All I know is that I am hooked to the point of obsessive-compulsion. I dream of, and wake up thinking about, used book stores. Like I said, I have a problem.

It is the elusive hunt for those rare, personally treasured authors’ works which gets the antiquarian blood flowing and the heart palpitating much akin to the eager anticipation of seeing a loved one after a time apart. The thought of stumbling upon any work – specifically, first editions – by Frederick Buechner (always my first priority), Annie Dillard, Wendell Berry, Kathleen Norris, J.B. Phillips along with a few others is enough to get the adrenaline pulsing and the heart rate up a notch or two. The outlandish beauty of such a search is that I never, ever know what I’m going to find in these papered stores, and that is exactly what I love about it, the impeccable unpredictability, and is what draws me in time and time again in city after city past shelf after ever-blessed shelf.

I am coming to the not-so-well-defined conclusion that a truly great city should not necessarily be defined exclusively by its housing market, economy, mass transit system or other mind-numbingly boring sterile data, but also by the number and quality of used book stores which inhabit its incorporated borders. This may be a tad far-fetched for many of you, I realize, but, still, I can’t help but think there’s an inherently good quality to which a city, however large or small, affords the value of literature, to the written word, to the rare, collectible and unwanted. One man’s trash is another man’s treasure. Flea markets, antique stores, dumpsters and used book stores all have this in common. A quality used bookstore is a window into the heart and soul of a city. Just look on the shelves and you’ll see what people read (and discard), what is taken in, what is tossed out, and is very nearly a quiet and pensive pulse of its civilians. I mean, how can you NOT want to enter shops with alluring names like The Yellowed Pages, or BookMan BookWoman, or A Novel Idea, or my favorite in Nashville, the obvious, unglamorous and simply named Books?

Yesterday at a great shop in downtown Lincoln, for example, I bought a first edition of Frederick Buechner’s Brendan. It is a book I never imagined I would ever happen upon, and yet there it was, its clean spine staring me in the bearded face. An audible “Oh my gosh” escaped my lips when I saw the book sitting on the ground-level shelf, apparently – obviously – awaiting my arrival. “I am sorry to have kept you waiting, my love. I am here now to rescue you from these dusty shelves and ces autre livres. Come and find peace, rest and admiration in the temple of my home.” Seeing this book on the shelf, I was beside myself in a near out-of-body experience; such is the degree of nerd-dom I have attained. There are far more dangerous obsessions in life, to be sure.

I have a dream of building my Buechner collection of first editions of his entire authorial work. On the shelves they shall long rest, be read and perused, perhaps eventually one day to become my son’s treasured possessions as well. To pass on a love for the written word is my hope for him.

Two final things worthy of mention: the generous McDaniel family loaned Randall and I one of their cars for the entire weekend. On the back windshield they created one of those stencil stickers that you see on car windows as advertisements. The one on this Honda reads, “Eric Peters Tour Vehicle. March 6-9, 2008. www.ericpeters.net”. Essentially, I am driving a car with my own name on it. I don’t know how I feel, or how I should feel, about that, but I figure if someone asks, I’ll just talk about myself in the third person: “Oh, he’s great if you like folk-pop singer-songwriters.” To wield such power.

Last but not least, one of the McDaniel’s sons, whom I met years ago in my touring travels, is a professional mortician. Ironically, his name is the same as that of the aforementioned book I purchased. Brendan, the mortician. Brendan, the saint. Brendan, the McDaniel. To say that one is friends with a mortician – with no intended disrespect to either the living or the dead – is a mighty unique declaration.

Profile photo of Eric Peters

Eric Peters, affectionately called "Pappy" by those who love him, is the grand old curmudgeon of the Rabbit Room. But his small stature and often quiet presence belie a giant talent. He's a songwriter of the first order, and a catalogue of great records bears witness to it. His last album, Birds of Relocation, blew minds and found its way onto “year’s best” lists all over the country. When he's not painting, trolling bookstores, or dabbling in photography, he's touring the country in support of his latest record, Far Side of the Sea.


18 Comments

  1. Roger Wagner

    Eric,

    If you come to San Diego, we have a couple of very good used bookstores — Wahrenbrocks right downtown and Adams Ave Bookstore. The former is a classic, though they had a devastating fire a couple of years ago. They rebuilt the damaged store, but are still working on rebuilding their collection. Adams Ave has a larger-than-usual collection of books on religion and philosophy. They are both regularly picked over by me, and I’ve gotten some great stuff over the last 25 years. Wandering around looking, even when you don’t find anything, is a wonderful way to spend an hour.

    We also have a terrific discount Christian bookstore (Evangelical Bible Book Store) — solid books, no trinkets.

    If you come to town you’ve got another place to stay as well (619.421.1003).

    Roger Wagner

  2. Robert McB

    I have long been a used bookstore addict. My joy is as much in the hunt as it is in the kill (i.e., finding that very special book). Unfortuately, the big chain used book stores and the Internet have flushed most of the used bookstores out of existence. There is nothing like opening the door of one of the old style used book shops (shops, not stores) and encountering that rush of smell unique to these establishments.

    My pulse quickens when I find a Buechner – first edition or not!

  3. Jenni

    I totally hear you. I once worked at a used bookstore – it was near Heaven, and thank God for the discount. But I’m a bookstore addict in general – used, new & huge, and even the library. Just to be near books!

  4. John Michalak

    I backpacked through Europe years ago, spending about a month on a break-neck tour of all the dead white-guy masterpieces I could find. My final stop was Paris, and I ended up going through the Louvre in about only an hour. I was so sick of Masterpieces that it didn’t matter how brilliant something was, I was desensitized to anything remotely creative.

    I’m about to finish graduate school and after being force-fed somewhere around 25,000 pages of brilliant reading, I’m just dead to it all (which makes my visits to the Rabbit Room a little ironic). I hope to get that desire back.

    Bookstores have always felt like home to my wife and I (they’ve made great date nights!). It’s not even about buying anything, just wandering, browsing, and letting it all sink in. It feels like a dreamy oasis, surrounded by people (the authors…and fellow readers) who understand you like few others do. Sort of a passive-aggressive melancholy paradise. 😉

  5. Josh B

    “I don’t know if it’s a newly-obtained old man tendency (of which I have quite a few) or if I have simply turned into someone worth ridiculing.”

    For some reason this made me laugh…I’m right there with you. : )

  6. Ehren

    The owners of such bookshops can be just as interesting as the books themselves.

    One store my family frequented when I was in high school was run by a tall, potbellied gentleman with a booming voice and unkempt hair and beard. He was a Vietnam veteran, had taught mathematics at Princeton, and now held forth to his customers on whatever book or author they might be interested in (as well as the latest mountain-town political gossip). Sadly, the store closed after a number of years when he was unable to pay his bills. We heard that near the end he was giving away books by the truckload (literally), instead of leaving them to be seized by the landlord.

  7. Roger Wagner

    BTW, on this subject, if you’ve not read 84, CHARING CROSS ROAD by Helene Hanff, you should. It’s delightful story about Hanff’s ordering of books from a used bookstore in London following WWII, and the long-distance friendship that arises with the manager of the store. Wonderful for friends and books and friends of books. (There was a film made from the story too (Anne Bancroft and Anthony Hopkins). Not bad, but the book is far more charming.)

  8. becky

    Ok, first of all, 2-3 inches is a paltry amount of snow for Nebraska. Unless the wind is blowing 30 miles an hour and creating 6 foot drifts, we don’t even blink at that much snow. But I’ll take into consideration the fact that you are a Southerner, and therefore unfamiliar with real winter weather.

    My favorite place in Nebraska to shop for used books is at Tiede’s Antiques in a tiny town called Overton. This place started out as a small shop, and gradually grew until they had taken over most, if not all, of a city block. The proprietors purchase entire estates, and every square inch is packed with treasures. Including a very large section of books. I recommend it if you are ever halfway through Nebraska. But it would have to be on a Saturday, because that’s the only day they are open.

  9. Andie

    I totally understand your obsession with books and used bookstores. I especially love antique (first edition) books.
    Great post!

  10. c.Lates

    a friend of mine is currently furious with my dad who is a retired pastor. he sold half of his pastoral library when he retired and moved, and packed the other half up. somewhere during the move, his entire buechner collection was misplaced and never found. like i said….furious. so if you happen to find it, let me know

  11. Profile photo of Curt McLey

    Curt McLey

    @curtmcley

    I love books, but my passion hasn’t risen to your level yet, though I did find a copy of Madeleine L’Engle’s A Wrinkle in Time at Goodwill a couple of weeks ago, which I don’t imagine is rare, but thrilled me nonetheless (I paid 25 cents for it). When you wrote of dreaming about finding certain books and the intense feeling of anticipation and discovery, I think I understand. I’ve been there, but not necessarily with books.

    When I was a kid, I experienced similar feelings in my quest to find (my high brow mask is about to be removed) rare beer cans. As an adult, I’ve had a similar passion in visiting thrift stores all across the country seeking rare vinyl, specifically, early Jesus Music. I love the methodical, one-by-one movement of the records, knowing that the next album could be a rare Larry Norman, 2nd Chapter of Acts, Mark Heard, Randy Stonehill, or Love Song album. I do the same thing with books, just not to the level you describe.

    Ehren’s comment reminded me of an experience I had at a used record store in Santa Barbara, which was owned and managed by a Vietnam Vet. We knew he was a Vietnam Vet because of all of the memorabilia on display. The man was clearly drunk and made no attempt to hide it. As I expressed any passing interest in a particular record, he grabbed the record–carelessly smearing it with finger prints–and played it on the in-store stereo. It took us a good 30 minutes to extract ourselves from that situation, and I didn’t buy anything because the prices were too high. But it was fun because it added to my collection of prospector stories, which are almost as fun to share as the individual discoveries.

    On another topic, I need to reinforce Becky’s point about the Nebraska snow. When you referenced a lot of snow, I expected that Lincoln, 50 miles from Omaha, somehow got a lot more than Omaha, which wouldn’t be so unusual. But when I arrived in Lincoln for your concert, I realized it wasn’t the difference in snowfall from Omaha to Lincoln, but a southern boy’s perception of what a lot of snow means. 🙂

  12. Peter B

    Eric, you and the rest of the RR gang have convinced me that I need to add some new authors to my reading list. I shall have to see about some of these next time my wife and I wander through Half Price Books in Dallas (right there with you, John M). HPB, being a chain, isn’t quite as unique as the little gems you probably frequent, but it is an impressive collection of literature. The record section is particularly daunting.

    So Buechner, Dillard, Berry, and the rest… look out. You’re next.

    Right after the fearsome toothy cows of Skree.

  13. Profile photo of Eric Peters

    Eric Peters

    @ericpeters

    Folks, I’m thrilled that you’ve chosen to chime in on this post, albeit from a southerner. Great stuff you’ve written. Great ideas you’ve given me; all these stores make me want to get shows in these towns and visit these bookshops.

    P.S. I am perplexed that not one person has commented on the fact (not to mention the actual photo) of my having driven a car with my birth name brightly stenciled upon it. I thought that surely would have stolen the show around these parts. 😉

  14. Profile photo of Jason Gray

    Jason Gray

    @jasongray

    Well, Eric, actually, I have http://www.jasongraymusic.com stenciled on the back window as well as both side doors of my mini-van, so I didn’t find anything unusual about that part of your story. (I’m just kidding – not a bad idea, though…. I’m just kidding again)

    Taya and I are the same way – we know cities by their used bookstores and by the interesting places we get to eat. Those have become our two hobbies: adventurous eating and reading, sensual and intellectual stimulation.

    I gasped when I read that you found Brendan. I’ve been searching for that for about 10 years and have my name on several waiting lists. Add to this that you also have “The Entrance To Porlock” and you can paint me green with envy. We did however find “The Faces Of Jesus” which last I checked was going for upwards of $300. We picked it up in a little shop in Washington for $8 in perfect condition. Next time you’re in MN, we’ll have to take you to a used theological bookstore in Stillwater. It’s the largest of its kind and is an old presbyterian church that is now packed full of books from floor to ceiling. No heat! I found a number of Buechner treasures there for our library and that I bought as gifts.

    Most of my favorite books I own are used: “Jayber Crow” by Wendell Berry, “Soldier Of The Great War” by Mark Helprin, many Buechner books, “Complete Father Brown Mysteries” by Chesterton, “Atticus” by Ron Hansen. I could go on…

  15. Eric Purcell

    Eric, are you still in eastern nebraska looking for shows? I might be able to set something up in fremont.

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