Where can you find a Sartre novel in the original French for a fraction of its university-bookstore price or the published musings of a group of '70s Burlington poets? Where are luridly packaged books from the era of June Cleaver shelved alongside the works of Shere Hite and Nancy Friday? Where do bibliophile-employees seem to know the exact location of every tome?
The answer, of course, is at a used bookstore. While everyone appreciates cheap lit, the truly obsessed are accustomed to searching for rare reads on tippy shelves along cramped aisles in dark rooms.
That's what makes Burlington's North Country Books such an anomaly. Not only is it centrally located -- at the top of Church Street -- but its roughly 60,000 books have room to breathe in 4000 square feet of dry, carpeted basement that gets glints of daylight through an atrium stairwell. So you can peruse those early editions of Judy Blume without bumping into the latte-toting grad student looking for Levi-Strauss.
North Country, which is coming up on its 10th anniversary, has made its home in Richardson Place for eight years since moving from Cherry Street. "How can you afford this space?" I ask Joel Dumas, well-known to customers as the guy with dark curly hair and glasses who's always behind the desk. He calls himself the "face of the store" --owner Mark Ciufo is the "heart."
Dumas gives me a crash course in the economics of the used-book business. To stay afloat, he explains, a store like North Country needs to cultivate multiple markets. "We cater to everyone across the board. We sell everything from $1 mass-market paperback science fiction and mysteries to sets that are in the multiple thousands of dollars," he says.
Because of this diversity, Dumas prefers to call North Country a "used collectible" shop, rather than as a "used" or an "antiquarian" bookstore. Most of North Country's local customers are people who don't want to shell out the bucks for a new trade paperback. "We're not going to get walk-in customers wanting to spend $4000 on a signed set of Conan Doyle," says Dumas, noting that the collectibles tend to be snapped up by dealers from New York or Philadelphia.
Another --and key --piece of the financial puzzle is the Internet. Thirty percent of North Country's total sales occur in cyberspace, where juggernauts like Amazon and ABE Books act as middlemen. Dumas maintains a database of thousands of books for his online clients. He worries, though, that the trend will encourage store owners to close their brick-and-mortar shops altogether. "Why deal with the overhead when you can sell the books online, and your only overhead is out of your basement? It's sort of compromised the independent aspect of stores like this. But it's financial reality."
Dumas likes the idea that a used bookstore helps titles circulate through a community, from owner to owner. He's proud of the fact that "In the 10 years that Mark has been the owner of this store, we've spent $500,000 back into the Burlington community, because we don't buy our books anywhere else. We buy from our customers."
Who are these Vermonters selling obscure historical monographs and signed editions of Yeats and Frost? Dumas ticks off a list of likely book sources: "people who are moving, people who inherit their parents' collection and don't want to deal with it, students who don't need their texts anymore." The best score is a connoisseur's private library. "If someone's a music professor and we buy a thousand books from them, it's going to be a thousand books in their area that are well-chosen," says Dumas. "We don't have to get rid of half to get a few good books out of it."
Unlike store owners who buy publishers' remainders in lots of a thousand, Dumas and Ciufo always know what they're getting. And they have to know what it's worth, because they don't buy on consignment. Dumas says he buys books at up to 50 percent of their value, then sells current or reissued titles for half the cover price. Rare books go for what the market will bear.
There's an Antiques Roadshow aspect to his job, Dumas acknowledges -- people bring him the dusty spoils of their attics, hoping that "very, super-old books" will turn out to be first editions. Last winter, after the Free Press covered the profitable local sale of a signed first edition of Gone With the Wind, North Country's phone started ringing off the hook. "Ninety percent of the calls end up in disappointment," says Dumas, who had to explain patiently that most 1937 copies of Mitchell's best-seller are worth less than the price of a restaurant meal.
If sellers sometimes need an education, buyers are apt to ask for one. A large part of Dumas' in-store job is making recommendations to customers who aren't sure what they want, and he likes the challenge: "It's sort of like being a cook in a large kitchen. You're able to find the right spice."
Finding the book for someone who knows exactly what he or she wants -- and has already dug through 20 stores in search of it -- can be even better. "You experience the vicarious thrill of providing someone with something they've been after for a long time," says Dumas. "A book from the '40s on African history would mean nothing to most, but for one person it's going to be the thing they've sought after."
Such are the strange communions of book people: separated by their individual interests; united by the experience of having their lives transformed by words on a page. "We fall under the spell of certain things in our lives, and books are that for me," says Dumas, who's been working in this business since 1984. He credits an English teacher at Burlington High, Mildred Aiken, for getting him hooked on the written word in a course entitled, "Man's Search for Meaning," after the Victor Frankl classic.
Today Dumas likes to send customers on their own searches for meaning by recommending authors such as the German novelist W.G. Sebald, who died in 2001. "It created a snowball effect," he says, a little amazed at his own influence. "People started coming into the store and saying, 'You're the guy who recommended Sebald to my brother's girlfriend Cindy, and I'm reading it now.'"
While the hunt for obscure and out-of-print titles may seem esoteric to some, to others it's a matter of finding kindred spirits among the unjustly forgotten. "One of the magical and fantastic things about a bookstore like this is that there's nobody dictating to us what we have to push, what we have to sell, what we have to end-cap, what we have to display," says Dumas. "We don't have to sell x copies of a bestseller. We can give opportunities to books that didn't cut it in the big chain shops -- maybe were represented by one copy that was returned, never to be seen again, and fell out of print. We're sort of a rebirthing place for these books."
Despite the recent loss of two local second-hand shops -- Bygone Books and Book Masters -- North Country and its Church street neighbor Crow Book Shop keep chugging along. There's definitely a labor-of-love component fueling their continued viability. "It's what I'm about, is books," says Dumas. Sartre or Sebald would agree.