I have always loved paper pages, cover art, and the heft of a book in my hands. At least twice in my life I thought about opening a book store, but somehow the moment
was never quite right. Then, in 2001 I found myself working one winter in a wonderful place that sold used books. It was temporary and part time, but I have never
known happier employment.
William James Bookseller in Port Townsend, Washington, was known far and wide in the northwest because it had quality books—lots of them. The owner, a serious, kindly man whose name was Jim Catley, was a bit compulsive, which is a good trait for someone in the used book trade. He was in the store on Tuesdays and Thursdays buying books, but on the other days the shop was entrusted to two
women, me being one. Jim came in at night so as to have
uninterrupted time shelving the many books he purchased each week. All were alphabetically arranged in their appropriate section—there were thousands and thousands in a large space with 12-foot ceilings. Jim always checked the day’s receipts, and somehow,
even with an ever-evolving inventory, he usually knew where every book was.
He never bought books that weren’t in good condition, and he could smell mold and tobacco smoke as soon as a polluted box of books came through the door. He knew important copyright dates and could spot a valuable book, be it about history, religion, boat building, art, fishing, or gardening. Watching him buy books was fascinating. He would go through a box or bag of books, dividing them into three stacks: the
ones he wanted to buy, the ones he didn’t want, and the ones he needed to think
about or check on the—then nascent—internet. When he’d made his decision, which did
not take long, he would offer two prices—one if you wanted store credit, the other
if you wanted cash. The store credit amount was higher. Most people in town chose
credit, and each of them had an index card on file that showed the waxing and waning of their book credit. People would sometimes stop in just to ask how much credit they had and then go away without getting a book. It was sort of like money in the bank. Then, too, people would just wander off for years on end, some never to return. Their index cards would sit and wait. Jim never tore one up.
If the owner didn’t want to haul away the rejects, we would put them on the sidewalk for anyone to take away. Free! People loved that you could get a free book right in front of a book store. You might find a copy of Huckleberry Finn that had been read in the bathtub or a book of amazing photographs by someone you’d never heard of. There were old dictionaries and dog-eared mysteries, dated cookbooks, and many hardback editions that Jim knew wouldn’t sell if the paperback version had been published.
On weekends I opened and closed the store. I vacuumed before I opened and after locking the door each evening, I carefully lined up all the books that had gotten moved about during the day. I have to say that being alone with all those books was sometimes a little spooky. I always put on good dancing music to enliven the silence of the books and the ghosts of their previous lives. During the day I was busy selling books—often way over a hundred a day. Sometimes customers would want to tell me why they were buying a particular book. It was by a writer they loved, or their father would love the book
about planes, or a first edition of Cannery Row was irresistible. People who came into the bookstore, or picked up a free book on the sidewalk, felt uplifted, thought their day was better because of a book. The gray and chilly days of winter never seemed too bleak when viewed from inside William James Bookseller.
Just before we left Port Townsend, ever-escalating rent and the sale of used books on the internet forced Jim to try to sell the business. For awhile it looked hopeless, but at the last minute, a man who loved books and didn’t care so much about the bottom line, came forward and saved this special place. It is still doing business, not a small feat in these electronic times. If you are ever in Port Townsend, be sure to pay a visit.