Robert Schrader can recall the moment when he decided to close 5th Avenue Books, the cavernous, off-white, brightly lit used bookstore that lasted longer than most on what used to be Hillcrest’s book block. (Bluestocking Books soldiers on, but the Blue Door, Bountiful Books, Grounds for Murder, and the Cook’s Bookshop and now 5th Avenue are no more.) “I came in one morning and there were eight people in the store, and I noticed that five of them — a majority of the customers — were looking at their phones. That’s when I realized that there was so much traffic on Amazon that even those people who come in here were using it as a sample store. Oh, I like this book; I’ll look it up on Amazon and see if I can find it cheaper.”
“The store hadn’t made money since 2011,” he continued, “but I was hanging on, thinking, I can reverse this. I bought from different sources, looking for stuff that wasn’t available on Amazon. But everything’s available on Amazon.” Schrader ran his closing in stages throughout February: 50 percent off on one Friday, 80 percent off the next, then $5 a bag, then $1. I visited on 80 percent day and bought, among other things, a $150 signed copy of Walker Percy’s novel The Moviegoer for $30. Waiting in the checkout line, I started rooting through a box on the floor after spotting a couple of novels by Shusaku Endo. “Hey, whose box is that?” asked a familiar voice. It was Craig Maxwell of Maxwell’s House of Books in La Mesa. Of course he had snagged the Endos before me; he’s a pro.
“I spent $1000 and got some good stuff,” said Maxwell when I visited his shop a few days later (the Endos were priced at $12 apiece). “Lit was probably the best; he had almost every author under the sun. But I found good things in the nautical travels section and the Civil War” — even though World War II is a bigger seller for him and even though “80 percent of the people who walk through the door ask for children’s literature. I know they don’t read themselves because they never look at anything around them.”
On cue, a father arrived with his son and asked for The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe. Maxwell had all of the Chronicles of Narnia but that one, and the pair promptly left to continue their search at the library. A stocky man wandered up from the back and asked for a discount if he bought 17 of the 18 Stephen King novels he’s found. Maxwell cut the price from $4.50 to $3 apiece and tossed in a couple of boxes gratis.
8285 La Mesa Boulevard, La Mesa
Asked why he maintains his La Mesa Village storefront, Maxwell paused before replying with a smile, “I just can’t see waking up at home, schlepping to the kitchen in my pajamas and having a piece of toast and then schlepping over to the computer and being ‘at work.’ I think of a brick-and-mortar store as a real business. I know that’s anachronistic, but these illusions are important to some of us.”
I returned to 5th Avenue on $5 a bag day. The quiet but exhilarated snatch-and-grab frenzy of 80 percent day had given way to a grimmer shoveling up of goods en masse by a smaller, more determined contingent. (Smaller, but also louder — as the shelves emptied, they began to echo the conversations of those scouring them.)
“Philosophy went first,” said Schrader of his liquidation, “and then mathematics. Literature got scraped really fast. And the new age and humor sections sat there. So in some ways, I have hope for society now. History is going very slowly, which surprised me. And you see that big chunk of blue books over there? It’s the encyclopedia of art, one of those standard works. It should be selling for hundreds of dollars, and at five bucks a bag, you could probably get the whole thing out of here for $20. But nobody’s bought it. What’s really surprised me is nobody wants the bookshelves” — mostly high, simple, solid things that Schrader built himself when he opened in this, his fourth and biggest location. He supposed that “very few people have enough books anymore to need them. Oddly enough, my own collection has gotten kind of small through the years. I had stuff that I thought was rare and that I had to save, but after a while I realized that there are very few things I wouldn’t be able to find again.”
I thought of Maxwell and his love for brick-and-mortar (just like the stuff that adorns the storefront of the Amazon Bookstore at University Towne Centre) when I visited during 5th Avenue’s demolition days and watched a tall, friendly musician/bouncer/bookseller named Seth pack up and cart away a couple dozen three-by-three boxes full of unsold books. (“I told him he could have what’s left if he took it all,” said Schrader.) Seth sells used books through Amazon; his storefront is SI Books.
“My brother has epilepsy, and he needed a job that wasn’t stressful in an at-home environment. My parents did a little research and found this was a nice way for him to make a profit.” Usually, Seth finds underpriced titles at places like Goodwill and Friends of the Library. But for this, his biggest haul, he asked politely. “Trade secret,” he said, winking. “Don’t tell anybody.”
“I think books are an old, outdated technology,” said Seth, “but there’s an undeniable following. You can find books where you make 200–300 percent, which may be only $5–$6 per book, but it pays the bills. I once paid 50 cents for a Japanese art book that sold for $115. You can never tell; it’s always the most obscure thing. You just need to have the reach that Amazon has. It takes effort to clean the book, process it, and get it off to Amazon according to their infrastructure, and you do pay them a hefty chunk to them, but it’s the cost of doing business.”