Cardinal Column #4: University Bookstore

(Editor’s note: I still think of this one as the best for the first half of the year, chiefly because it was the only one that involved actual reporting in the form of a very nice chat with the fellow who ran the University Bookstore. To date, I have probably dropped at least $200 on those tables from various visits, and still have a nice little stockpile of books I have yet to read from there.

I took a bit of flack from Ben Schultz, my mentor of literary journalism, for choosing this store over the better local bookstores, and to be fair for the general browser in Madison I’d still recommend Avol’s Bookstore over the University. That being said, I still think that basement is the best place if you want to buy something quickly or be overwhelmed with choices, and I killed many an afternoon between classes browsing down there.)

Used books rock Chappell’s socks in cold WI weather

Originally published in The Daily Cardinal, October 12, 2005

The six months of sub-zero weather are almost upon us, and that can only mean one thing – it’s time to go into hibernation. Trade the lake for a warm armchair and the margaritas for Irish cocoa, pull out the heavy quilt and curl up with a decent book.

However, before you can hibernate you need to store up for the winter, and for someone like me who has to have twenty books to read at once there’s only one place to go: the used book collection in the basement of University Bookstore. I’m sure this will shock some people, as why would I choose a place that biannually takes students for an unfair amount on textbooks when so many cheap bookstores are already in town?

It’s simple – those half dozen tables and bookshelves provide one of the best cross-sections of reading material in the entire campus. On one table you can find Dave Eggers, Roald Dahl, Chuck Palahniuk and Art Spiegelman five feet apart, while the neighboring shelf has Jane Austen and H.P. Lovecraft right under Oscar Wilde. It’s pointless to go down there looking for something in particular, as you’ll get distracted within the first five minutes.

It’s also one of the easiest places to pick up a book on the spur of the moment, especially if you’re shopping for textbooks. Since you’re going to be spending a couple hundred in one sitting, there’s no problem in adding “The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test” to the top of the stack – it’s only five bucks more, you’ve got something to read for fun and it gets the clerk wondering what class you signed up for.

But where does this bizarre collection come from? According to Steve Scheibel, who handles the store’s used book purchases; the majority of titles come from college wholesalers who buy their stock from universities around the country. Once a college takes a book out of circulation the wholesalers scoop it up, offering it to used book stores in good condition and high quantity.

“It’s amazing to stand out there and look at the breadth of subjects,” Scheibel said – and it is, both in terms of geography and topic. Where else can you find a Woody Guthrie biography possibly from a New York liberal arts college, bordered by two hardcover erotica textbooks courtesy of the University of California?

The trend of used books in the basement, Scheibel said, began in 1987 following the death of Allen Ginsberg. Ordering used copies of his classic “Howl,” he was surprised to see how well they sold and started developing what he saw as a “strong college backlist” of authors students typically get into during college.

That backlist has stayed relatively constant over the years – writers such as Kurt Vonnegut, Jack Kerouac, J.D. Salinger and Philip K. Dick are always popular favorites – but there’s always some variety. Former best-sellers are also available through the wholesalers, and old book collections are often sold to the store.

“Anybody who can’t find something to read down here doesn’t want to read,” Scheibel said, and I have to agree with him. Putting this much literature in one place is no less than creating a buffet line for bookworms, and only charging half price – titles average around seven dollars each – makes the selection just begging to be raided.

Unfortunately, the table does its job too well on pack rats like myself: immediately after talking to Scheibel, I wandered over there and spent 35 dollars on Oscar Acosta and William Burroughs. Freezing to death may actually be cheaper these days.

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