Saturday, April 9, 2016

Half-Price Books in Austin


Half-Price Books and I go a long way back in Austin. In fact, the story goes back before HPB existed. Once upon a time there was a wonderful lady whose bookstore - it was called The Book Nook or something - first appeared in a small strip mall on Burnet near Hancock Drive. Not long after that she moved north on Burnet Road to Northwest Shopping Center, caddy-cornered from the Allandale HEB and directly across the street from Lamar Junior High, where in a malodorous funk of pubescent angst and bewilderment I would start studying in 1968. That placed this bookstore conveniently on the way home, and I often spent my lunch time and money shopping for books. I lost a lot of weight because lunch money was the only money I had.

This predecessor to HPB stocked a motley collection of tattered books. I bought a lot of old biology, physics, and math textbooks, which suited me fine because I had a ravenously hungry mind. They cost me between a nickle and a quarter each, and my lunch sometimes bought me as many as five books. This indiscriminate, awe-filled acquisitiveness went on for a few years, but it was always hard for an independent used bookstore to survive, especially on beat up textbooks. But then a miracle occurred for the sweet lady who brought me my first books.

HPB bought her out. Before my very eyes - for I spent a lot of time in that store and just happened to be there at the time - Mr & Mrs Price (not their real names) rolled a liquor cart into the store and we, the Prices, the staff, and the customers that evening, raised our glasses to celebrate the Dallas-based business's expansion into the Austin market. Thus began as intimate of a relationship as I've ever had with any retail business. As my intellect matured through high school and into college, HPB supported my forever eclectic tastes with a strongly diverse assortment of books that mirrored those found in a good new bookstore.

I followed HPB over the years in a slow-motion drunken swerving path up Burnet Road, then, at 183, they took a right and landed in a strip mall on the southbound frontage road. (Or is that eastbound? I never understood 183 and have avoided it.) Finally, while I was on a sojourn out West, the Burnet Road store and the University store on Guadalupe at 31st Street coalesced into a single big store at 5555 N Lamar in a space formerly occupied by a big supermarket that HEB had run out of town (there hangs another tale). HPB was bigger and had more buying power. They extended their acquisitions to include remaindered books. And as anyone who ever sold their precious library there knows, their buying policies were a bit like "The Ransom of Red Chief": "We'll take ten bucks to take these off your hands." But through these policies they found the strength to survive year after year.

HPB educated my tastes in the deeper, richer novels for which one had to mine, and their literary biography served as a map to the gold. Everyone read Hemingway and Fitzgerald - great stuff that should be read - and a lot of people read Henry Miller and Virginia Woolf, but you were digging a little deeper lode for treasure once you pulled Lawrence Durrell's Alexandria Quartet off the shelves of HPB. A Saturday with friends picking from the stacks Derrida and Foucault or the I Ching and the Tao Te Ching, followed by coffee at some coffee shop on the Drag, once the balcony of a porno theater, was quite a delicious excuse to indulge in pompous snobbery over things most of the world didn't know existed. College is a wonderful time to be insufferable.

But, as the I Ching teaches, the only constant is change. Physical media are being superseded by electronic media. I do hear the great clamor of voices insisting on their loyalty to the smell and palpability of real books, and cities as large or larger than Austin will continue to have stores that sell books, new and used, and vinyl (if not CDs). Someone will manage to continue publishing newspapers on paper. But the Luddites' credibility is weak, and I doubt they buy many books in the first place: serious readers focus more on content than on form, and the ambivalent fence-sitters might be tipped into the Kindle yard by the price advantage of a virtual book over a physical one. Ultimately reading will be a virtual pursuit with physical media as a nostalgic novelty, and that's already changing life at HPB.

A nerdy enthusiasm for electronic toys predisposes me to my Kindles. My trip as an EFL teacher around the world inspired me to shed possessions. A small library of 3000 books weighs a ton and a half, but a Kindle with 3000 books in its memory still weighs only about eight ounces. I'm now down to a few hundred real books. Huge collections of free ebooks in the public domain on Web sites like Project Gutenberg provide a huge financial incentive to go virtual. But beyond practicality, I feel guilty about abandoning Half-Price Books, so I found a reason or two to spend a little money there today.