Book Castle

Nothing Like Musty Serendipity

My eyes still grow wide each time I step into Book Castle’s Movie World, and I can’t help but grin at its reliable smell of old books. This place feels right, an antidote to all the talk of the demise of books and the rise of e-books. I have long felt an urge to seek out independent bookstores and save them from getting swallowed up by book giants like Barnes & Noble and Borders. Little did I know that Borders itself would eventually suffer the same sad fate, swallowed up by even more formidable forces.

My earnest bookstore crusade has led me to several used bookstores and none have captivated me quite like Book Castle (or Movie World, if you prefer). About two years ago, my best friend gave me a vintage copy of collected short stories from The New Yorker. She told me she had just stumbled across it at a used bookstore in Burbank and gushed about how much I would love this place. I paid a visit soon after and have been a loyal patron since. This bookstore on San Fernando Road is a bit out of the way from my San Gabriel Valley home. So each visit is a bit of a pilgrimage that includes a trip to Porto’s Bakery less than 10 minutes away, where I can happily stuff my face with mango mousse and potato balls.

At Book Castle, the organized clutter consists of old magazines, newspapers, movie posters, and cardboard cutouts of Tim Burton characters. And of course, there are books everywhere–piled high on the counter, stacked on the ground, stacked vertically or horizontally to fit the space constraints. It helps to come in with an open mind because I never know what I’ll find until I’m on my knees digging through boxes or using the wooden ladder to reach the “tall people” shelf. I am only 23 years old, but appreciate old-school serendipity. I can’t go more than a few steps without finding something quirky, like a red puffy dinosaur book in Korean. Come on, how can anyone not stop to look through the red puffy dinosaur book in Korean?

The aisles are narrow so two-way traffic is hard to maneuver. The cramped space allows for a lot of small talk with fellow patrons, who range from kids going through the bargain books outside to older folks asking Mitch if he carries that film they watched when they were young. Mitch is the guy behind the counter. A man of few words, but ask him about any book and he’d be able to tell you off the top of his head whether he carries it or not.

The atmosphere is both focused and relaxed, reflecting the mingling of patrons hunting for that one rare edition and those more on the serendipity plan. There’s nothing like that Eureka moment when your eyes settle on a particular gem, and you carefully remove the book from its neighbors with Jenga-like precision, willing the others not to topple over. I always flip through, inspecting for heavy markings and my pet peeve of dog-eared pages. Often these old books do not pass the test. But sometimes they do. I remember my excitement when I came across my best finds to date, a gorgeous copy of Moby Dick and an illustrated hardcover of Animal Farm. I’m no collector, and those editions might not be rare at all, but I couldn’t stop turning each book from cover to cover and running my fingers over the spine as I walked out of the bookstore, smiling stupidly at my luck.

It’s borderline obsessive but I can’t help it. To borrow a line from Mr. Murakami, I love it and can’t let go (coincidentally spoken by Kafka Tamura while he is reading The Arabian Nights). I can’t seem to let go of my love for print. Holding an e-book will never make me as happy as holding a paperback. Don’t get me wrong, I understand the appeal of e-readers-travel-friendly, environmentally friendly, convenient–but I know that world is not for me. I want that feeling of physically searching for a book rather than typing the title into a search bar, and instantly adding it to my electronic collection. I want that feeling of knowing I can open up a book on my bookshelf at any time and browse through my penciled-in ruminations and underlined favorite quotations.

Nostalgia for childhood visits to the library where I checked out as many books as my little arms could carry is probably why I’m so reluctant to let go. Books have always been and still are at the top of my birthday and Christmas lists and the thought of their decline makes me want to fight for their survival. E-readers, online media and all things threatening the survival of physical books will continue to exist, but while I sit cross-legged on the floor of this bookstore, safe in the mini fort I’ve built of books, those threats seem so far away. They don’t belong in this soft-lit space where I am wrapped up in time by old magazines, VHS cassettes, projector slides, and the yellowed pages of the children’s books I used to read.

Jennifer Lee is Program Assistant at Zócalo Public Square. Her writing has been published in Kiosk: A Magazine of Literary Journalism and Pasadena Magazine.

*Photo courtesy of StarbuckGuy.


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