There are few things like a used bookstore. There’s the distinctive smell, probably a cat slinking around, old records in the corner, or maybe a weird sculpture. Piles of books are scattered or spilling off the shelves, the atmosphere is nearly always subdued and warm, with most likely an aging owner presiding over their domain from behind the counter or in an office. Even the light takes on a dusty, gentle quality.
But for all these commonalities, used bookstores are as diverse as the offerings on their shelves. And despite how disastrous the advent of Amazon has been for physical stores, they still crop up behind more corners than you might expect.
We visited several of Rochester’s used bookstores, browsing the shelves, interviewing the owners, and getting to know what every shop has to offer.
Small World Books
Small World Books is a bookstore, but it’s also a museum, events center, concert hall, and Rocco Pellegrino’s home.
Pellegrino, an amiable and quietly passionate booklover opened the bookstore on North street around 15 years ago, when he retired from working for the state. He’s owned bookstores around Rochester for decades, but this one’s lasted longest. For the past four years, Small World has hosted concerts and other events, like a recent photography exhibition, that seem to bring the most people in.
Pellegrino said his favorite thing about the store is “being able to buy new books, explore new writers, […] talk about literature.”
He was then asked about his fascination with literature.
“I don’t think you can explain love for something,” Pellegrino said. “It just happens.”
North Star Books
North Star Books, a little literary outpost in a quieter corner of downtown, is lined wall to wall with important-seeming academic texts, poetry books, and novels. There are a few records in the middle of the room, mostly jazz and mid-1900s European music, and the shop’s atmosphere is cozy and contained. The owner, Barry Voorhees, opened North Star almost four and a half years ago and continues to curate the space, but most of his sales are online now. His excitement when a customer comes in is welcoming and fun, reflecting Voorhees himself.
Slightly off the beaten path, we were taken with the store’s impressive array of sci-fi and fantasy books. The store also has classic literature, romance, and religion, among other things. It comes with the nostalgia that most used bookstores have, but the atmosphere is also decidedly no-nonsense.
This clean shop with an academic air has resided near Eastman for around 21 years.
Owner Franlee Frank has a long history in bookselling. The Brooklyn native worked at bookstores during college. She remembered that they were popular enough to stay open until midnight. When she worked as publisher’s rep, she would travel to Rochester for several days for work. Back then, she said, it was a literary town.
She suspects this is why a handful of bookstores remain, but pointed out that there are no new independent bookstores in Rochester. That makes it all the more important for her to stick around.
Though she mourns the devaluing of humanities education and physical bookshops, she said she’s satisfied with where she is.
“It’s not a get-rich-quick scheme,” she said. “But I made up my mind about that long ago.”
Rick’s Recycled Books, on the other hand, might be ask close as it gets to a get-rich-quick scheme, on a used bookstore scale. The store’s stock is impressive. Owner Rick Briggs said that he stocks the place by going to large sales.
“I’ll drive to Pennsylvania, I’ll drive to Delaware, to big sales and buy six, seven hundred books at a time,” he said. “And that keeps you going for a couple weeks.”
Briggs said most books in the store cost somewhere between $2.50 and $4.00.
“I go more for volume, high turnover, then I do for trying to make a lot of money on a particular book,” Briggs said.
He gives credit on other books to customers who bring books back to the store.
Briggs said the method’s worked for all his 20 years in bookselling. He doesn’t see that changing soon.
There’s something valuable about going out and buying (or just browsing) used books. It’s more convenient to look online, maybe, but the experience of shopping for books is much more about what you’re not looking for, and stumbling upon something really excellent where you least expected it is what used books are all about.
Rochester’s used bookstores aren’t competitors in the traditional sense of the word. Together, they make up a network of literary oases that serve sci-fi buffs, history fans, home cooks, artists and musicians, and more or less everyone else who cares to open a creaky door and find a refuge in a musty tome.
Shweta Koul, Efua Agyare-Kumi, Kevin Canty, Vennela Pandarboyina, and Wei Zhang contributed reporting.