Thursday, July 10, 2008

Booking Through Thursday: Doomsday

This week's BTT topic was spurred by a real tale of destruction. Over the July 4th weekend, the Bunch of Grapes bookstore in Martha's Vineyard was badly damaged by fire. I never visited the store, but I've heard a lot about it over the years and I can understand the grief felt by the owners and loyal customers.

So, the topic:

One of my favorite bookstores burned down last weekend, and while I only got to visit there while I was on vacation, it made me stop and think.

What would you do if, all of a sudden, your favorite source of books was unavailable?

Whether it’s a local book shop, your town library, or an internet shop … what would you do if, suddenly, they were out of business? Devastatingly, and with no warning? Where would you go for books instead? What would you do? If it was a local business you would try to help out the owners? Would you just calmly start buying from some other store? Visit the library in the next town instead? Would it be devastating? Or just a blip in your reading habit?

Well, this may be a little off-topic, but these questions put me in mind of one of my favorite – no, make that my absolute all-time favorite bookstore, Brock's Books in San Antonio, Texas. It was the most wonderful place, located on Commerce Street in downtown San Antonio and run by Mr. Brock (I don't think I ever knew his first name – Alan?) in the most haphazard manner you can imagine.

The store was a large warehouse-type space filled to overflowing with used and rare books. Three stories, I believe – the street level and a basement, and I think there was at least one "upstairs" level. And when I say overflowing, I mean it – books were everywhere. On shelves that reached nearly to the ceiling and were placed so close together you had to sort of squeeze between them. Books were piled in precarious stacks on the floors and counters throughout the building – collapses and avalanches were a frequent danger. Books spilled out onto the sidewalk on tables of bargain books and "specials" and even freebies.

Mr. Brock generally didn't price his books. Well, he was too busy chatting (and arguing – he could be prickly) with the customers for that. You picked out what you wanted to buy, and took it up front and he'd name you a price. Usually an unbelievably low price. But the price could be different on different days. Or for different customers. It was his store and he ran it his way. But if he liked the look of you, you could pick up some real bargains. And there was no way of knowing what you might find – every visit was a treasure hunt.

It could be a scary place at times. The basement was vast and badly lighted. You never knew what might be lurking around the next corner. And in the winter, the place was heated by gas space heaters that always seemed to threaten imminent disaster. I guess the fire that led to this BTT topic shows that my fears had merit.

Unfortunately, Brock's closed back in the late 1980s – a victim, I suppose, of urban development like so many of the old downtown businesses. I believe a multi-level parking garage occupies the space today. Its closing came long after I had moved away from San Antonio, so I didn't experience a sudden wrench – more of a nostalgic feeling of loss and regret.

Nowadays, I buy mostly new books. There's a decided lack of good used-book stores in our area. So if I'm looking for anything other than current titles, I usually look online. And for the new stuff, I suppose I tend to shop at Borders, mainly because there are several stores nearby. And I plead guilty to using Amazon, too – I almost always check their prices before I buy anything anywhere. If someone were to open a really good independent book store close by, I think I'd probably shop there. But the real estate around here is some of the highest priced in the country, so that's not likely to happen soon.

And although I love using and hanging out in libraries, I've never really become a loyal patron of our local public library. Its collections are not the best, and it's just far enough away to make getting there something of a hassle.

But yes (to get back to the original question), I'd be devastated if my favorite bookstore closed down, for whatever reason. (I'm even mourning in advance for the Border's stores that may be shutting down in the near future, as they re-tool their empire.) And I thank whatever gods may be for the fact that I have free access to the books I want to read – so far, no one's building any bonfires or jailing book-sellers in this country. So I'm sure that eventually I'd find another place to call my own. Reading life goes on.


  1. Wow, you've brought back memories for me, too. I had a professor who took his classes to these multi-story used/rare bookstores in Cincinnati. They had a wonderful aura about them... Thanks for posting your memories of Mr. Brock!

  2. Sounds like you've had an experience similar to my love for Bookman's Alley. Isn't it lovely finding such places?

  3. There was also Rosengrens and a little bookstore there on Main Ave just as it ran into Monte Vista -- I don't remember the name but it was a little bitty place that eventally was taken over my our tax man. I bought a book on William B. Travis there. I still have the book, the building is still there but, of course, the bookstore is just a memory. I will try to take a picture of it the next time I am there. I tried the last time but A was tired of taking pics so we just drove on by.

    There was a bookstore here, downtown that is supposed to be haunted but I don't know if it is still in business. I think not. I will have to check on that.

  4. Brock's Books sounds like an absolutely fantabulous place to have shopped! It's like a place that could only exist in fiction, because it would be to wonderful to be real. :-D

  5. How I wish we had a place like Brock's Books in this town. :(

  6. Brock's Books sounds wonderful! It reminds me of The Strand in New York City, which is the most wonderful bookstore I have ever been to - wall to ceiling books crammed into tiny little aisles on multiple floors. I'd love to have one of those close by, but I think it's getting rarer and rarer.

  7. I can easily see why this would be a favorite; what a comfortable place!


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