Used Bookstores of Hawaii

Pictured left: Makalawena Beach in Kona, Big Island, Hawaii. Requires a drive in a (rental) car down a roughshod road cut through a lava field and subsequent 20 minute hike through lava field. Just ‘secret’ and adventurous enough to stay relatively uncrowded and foster a comradely wink among attendees. Pictured right: the pile of books we purchased on Big Island

I have become a connoisseur of city used-bookstores. Or, if ‘connoisseur’ denotes a level expertise I don’t actually possess — call me a wide-eyed explorer, an amateur archaeologist, an enthusiast. Big city standbys like Powell’s in Portland, OR, a veritable castle of books. Or small city eccentricities, like the naval/seafaring collection of a bookstore on the island of Alameda, CA. I wasn’t always this way. I grew up in the suburbs and naturally a bookstore was the massive Barnes and Noble or Borders (R.I.P.) in the nearest giant mall. 3 floors of glossy bestsellers, new releases, and tables piled with gift suggestions that nowadays I only see every holiday season when I am back home on the east coast and need to buy several family members Christmas presents.

Also, when I was a child, vacations were synonymous with book purchases. I’d whine incessantly until my parents brought me to a bookstore (they’d give in only because it was a special occasion, like a birthday or holiday). Then I’d spend most of the time away, usually camping in New Hampshire or Maine, reading hundreds or thousands of pages. It’s weird to think now that what prevented me from reading then was not time to read but availability of new books.

These two factors tie adult vacations closely with buying books. I was disappointed the first time I went bookstore hunting in Hawaii. Kauai, despite all its other very high qualities, has one lame bookstore and I only bought a book because I felt I had to. It was Life of Pi and I didn’t even like it. So I was wary on my return trip, this time to Big Island (a birthday present from my amazing wife).

Big Island has used bookstores everywhere. Big ones, small ones, good ones, bad ones, weird ones comprised entirely of beat up mass market editions. It’s a high-use swap culture, judging by how well-used the books are and the fact that there’s several copies of books that just came out that aren’t even in softcover yet; This makes an easy way to get cheap hardcovers of books I wouldn’t have read for years, or possibly forgotten about (in this case, Emily St. John Mandel’s much heralded Station Eleven). We bought most of our books from the sister stores Kona Bay Books and Hilo Bay Books, giant warehouses that look like aircraft hangers, converted to shelf upon shelf of books. The smell upon entry is unmistakable. They’re the kind of store that still have entire sections dedicated to mystery or suspense and have sci-fi sections that are bigger than most normal stores’ fiction sections.

A short list of the types of books only to be unearthed in musty, used book stores:

  • The book you had been planning to buy forever but only just now picked up due to its amazing cover (seen here as the 1981 version of The War of the End of the World. Something between a telenovela and Jesus Christ Superstar)
  • The book that is so ancient and tattered that it’s list price is less than its present-day used book price (My $2 purchase of the originally 35cent The Turn of the Screw)
  • The book you had never heard of by one of your favorite authors (The Cave by Jose Saramago)
  • The book that honestly shouldn’t have been this hard to find (A Void by Georges Perec — seriously been looking for this for months, despite it being his most well known book)

Incidentally I only ever seem to come home with these enormous book caches when I am already in the middle of reading a massive novel (The Almanac of the Dead in this case — it’s really good, but also 800 pages). Thus putting off the choice of choosing which of these gems I can even start.

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