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Sunday, February 25, 2007

Navigating Through a Sea of Books to Safe Harbor

At the risk of losing some business to our competition, we would like to direct your attention to Half-Price Books. This store started out with two small collections in 1971, and now is all over the United States. One location recently opened along one of our common travel routes, and so we stopped. After all, just a visit to a bookstore, without any obligation to make a purchase, is among the necessary acts of devotion for every booklover. (Although Saint Duckett smiles more favorably upon those who do purchase.) We had all to do to escape without more books than we brought.

The concept is any kind of printed or recorded matter for half-price. They have a liberal buying policy. Consequently, no two of their stores are alike. One brings in one's books or records, drops them at the buy counter, and then shops. In the mean time, the friendly staff appraises the books, and then calls one over to make an offer to buy. Somehow they know just what to offer to be sure that it will not exceed what one is actually going to spend in the store. (One can actually sell books and receive cash without having to buy anything, but this was not our experience.)

We overspent because the Silent Partner does not have the willpower to resist a purchase of any kind. We could easily have walked out with twice as many books as we brought, but instead limited ourselves to two: one for a fellow book lover, and another for ourselves. We will soon be making plans to return to the store at a later date with more books to sell, and without the Silent Partner.

The book we came away with was on the clearance shelves for one dollar: The Sea Chart: The Illustrated History of Nautical Maps and Navigational Charts, by John Blake.

This is a map of the world drawn by Nicholas Desliens in 1542. Though not all of the world was known in England at that time, this map is striking in its unfamiliarity. When and why it was accepted that north would always be up, or at the top, we don't know. Apparently neither did Desliens: once we invert the map, the world familiar to us reveals itself.

For some reason old maps and old books make a nice couple. Another volume we snatched up at a sale a while ago is a large beautiful edition which we are unable to name or describe, as it is entirely in Russian. The language does not detract at all from the appeal of the maps and charts. We own less than a handful of these map books, but they are terribly attractive, a melding of text and image. Musical scores have much of a similar appeal, if they are in manuscript, even when they are also in a language we cannot read, though understand perfectly when heard.

The Sea Chart ends appropriately enough for us with the chart made by Frank Worsley locating the Endurance by astrological fix in the ice that trapped and carried it back away from the South Pole in Shackleton's ill-fated expedition of 1914-15.

Half-Price Books has the space and scope of a Barnes and Noble or Borders. It is certainly a used-book superstore. And they buy books from their customers. All that's missing is a fireplace and a coffee shop. Go there armed with a full arsenal of credit cards, or an iron-clad will.

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