Life's Little Charms

I am not a spendthrift, but I don’t qualify as overly frugal either. I try for a happy medium, but in fact, I don’t waste money on low-value junk food, spend excessively at night clubs, buy elaborate jewelry, nor do I run up credit card debt. But there is one thing that I can never get enough of, and that is books.

Books are a near-addiction for me. I can spend hours alone reading, and I’ll strategically turn a deaf ear to a relentlessly ringing phone so I can do just that.

Sunday night is, by and large, my favorite reading time. The typical winter reading scenario is the furnace cranked up to 74, me snuggled in one of Mom’s handmade afghans, a Detroit Red Wings game on the tube, my chocolate lab sprawled on the couch next to me, and some merlot a short reach away. If my book time is during the day, nix that merlot, for my chosen pleasure is one of my numerous java creations.

How I get to buying those books, however, is where I experience the most joy. For starters, there is one thing in this world that I find to be a huge temptation, and that is’s one-click.

One-click is exactly that. I press one button on and my credit card temporarily absorbs the shock. Hey, no problem — I get a few more Northwest frequent flyer miles for every purchase I make.

Oh how I fear those nights I’m having trouble sleeping – because I’m thinking about the next day’s client from hell — and I pop on Amazon at 3am, and the usually razor-sharp, 3pm mindset that says "nope, can’t afford it" gives way to the "aw, my shopping cart is only up to $109" frame of mind. My latest 3am one-click bliss got me a box full of goodies, including Nicholas Edsall’s Richard Cobden: Independent Radical, John Remington Graham’s A Constitutional History of Secession, Mark Blaug’s Economic Theory in Retrospect, and the especially exciting (to me anyway) A History of Accountancy in the United States by Previts and Merino.

Of course, there are those late nights where I’m still up when my alarm clock is set to go off in just a few hours, and on those nights I tend to drift over to Amazon right before bedtime — just to browse of course – and I may not buy, but I end up clicking away, filling my Wish List so it’s full for my next 3am session.

Another great time for me is a relaxed weekend afternoon during the winter, when I’m stuck inside, wishing away the gray skies, all charged up on latte, and browsing the web for every book that I plan to get, tricking myself into thinking I need to read them all right now. One click on Amazon and the books are typically at my door in three days.

Then there are those times I feel like touching and holding a beautiful binding and turning crisp pages, because then I can get a glimpse of all the various facets of a book that make it unique from the next one: the font style and size, the slipcover, and my favorite feature — the table of contents. The table of contents can make or break a book sale for me. The folks at Amazon know how important this is, for now Amazon makes available – for many of its books – the table of contents, the index pages, the inside and back covers, and a range of pages throughout the book. This is Amazon’s way of competing for sales from the "touchers" like me — those that like to look, touch, and feel, and therefore may deem cyber purchasing a bit impersonal. Being able to cyber-flip through pages on Amazon gives us touchers a sense of shelf shopping.

But sometimes, I just need to walk along the bookshelves and look at ’em and touch ’em, even if I don’t buy a thing.

I love modern bookstores, with a two-story Borders being my first choice. Good java, a coffee bar, plush chairs, a great magazine rack, and the best social sciences section on the planet. It sure beats a stinky bar full of desperate, plastic people on a Friday night.

However, my favorite place for the personal book experience is downtown Detroit’s John K. King Books, a magnificent, zillion-square-foot, four-story warehouse of used books. This is where I end up on wintry Saturday mornings. Right across the street is the MGM Grand Casino, but MGM doesn’t even whisper my name.

From the outside, John K. King looks like an abandoned factory of sorts. The parking lot is protected by high fences because it sits on the outskirts of a ghetto. On the inside, it is unkempt and smelly, and in order to see into the bookshelves, you have to reach up and pull the chains on these nasty, 70s-era, hanging shop lights — the kind that a disorganized mechanic would have in his antiquated garage. By the time you have touched a half-dozen books in this place, you’re slapping the dust off your hands and clothes. In addition, there are no elevators; you have to walk up eight flights of stairs.

Want the desk clerk to look up the availability of a book on their computer? They don’t have a computerized system. They can tell you approximately what section that book might be in, if they have it, and if it was shelved properly. If you’re looking for Mencken, his stuff is found in at least three different sections. On three different floors. Are you paying with a credit card? You can, but they will run your card through one of them old-fashioned credit card zappers and hand you back a carbon-type receipt.

Sound great? It is. The people there love books and it shows. As you walk up the stairs, at the top of the musty stairwell — for each floor – they have a huge wall directory that spells out on what floor and what section you will find a given topic: political science, history, philosophy, trains, photography, and on and on. History alone has about 20 or more subsections by era and/or region.

I always head for the "Right Wing" section first. That they name a section that is probably a negative connotation, but it’s the convenience that counts. Yeah, you’ll see the David Brock and Bill O’Reilly junk over there, but then again, you’ll also catch gems from Frank Meyer, Frank Chodorov, and Roy Childs on a good day.

Recent treasures I unburied at John K. King include Margaret L. Coit’s John C. Calhoun: American Portrait; Eivind Berggrav’s Man & State; William Ebenstein’s Man and the State; Clarence Carson’s Flight from Reality; Raymond Leslie Buell’s Isolated America; and The New Right Papers, edited by Robert Whitaker. Try finding that stuff at any other new or used bookstore.

Books at John K. King aren’t super cheap, but you will be able to find books and/or editions that you will find nowhere else, save for a lengthy web search. And that bookstore, combined with a little Borders and a lot of Amazon, makes for exactly the right recipe to feed a healthy appetite for wonderful, edifying books.

A fellow writer and good friend of mine once said to me, "I just like to be home to read my books." Amen to that.