Notes from Neil

By Neil Rajala

I hope all of my Grand Rapids readers enjoyed the giant art exhibit / carnival / street party that is ArtPrize again this year. For those of you in Lansing, if you've never been, it's time to add it to your bucket list. I can guarantee you've never seen anything quite like it. Here's what we're reading:

How to Buy Used Books

I'm going to describe my long-time technique for shopping the thousands of used titles at our stores. It's served me well, and I considered keeping it to myself, but a couple of recently acquired gems convinced me that it's time to share with fellow book-lovers. Give it a try:

1. Forget what you "want." Seriously, if you're heading to one of our Used Books departments and you have a list of titles on some kind of want list - put it down, at least at first. Part of the beauty of used books is that the inventory is always in flux, ever-fluid and changing. It's book shopping in the NOW, and if you spend your time focused on an elusive few, you run the risk of missing the endlessly fascinating many.

2. Clear your mind. Find a genre of reading you enjoy and go to that section. Close your eyes and take a deep breath, get rid of any preconceptions; then open your eyes and start to browse. Another attraction of used books is the lack of a guiding hand, so to speak. If you browse the Mystery section in the new books part of the store, for example, you're going to see authors and titles and formats that are carefully chosen according to popularity, bookseller tastes, publication dates, etc. The Used Mystery section, by contrast, has no such rules or restrictions. Whatever genre you're in, let your eyes wander over the spines for a while and you're sure to come across titles that surprise and intrigue you.

3. Pick them up. The feel, weight, even the smell of an older book in great condition is a wonderful thing. Check the date, the edition, the typography, the illustrations - all of those things tell a story about the book you're holding. If the book is old enough, the graphic elements could be of a kind that are out of fashion in newer books, adding to the appeal and uniqueness.

4. Read. If a book seems interesting but is unfamiliar, read the first page or three. You'll know pretty quickly if you want (or need) to continue.

5. Own. If everything's just right, by all means make the book yours. It won't cost much, and likely will provide you with a memorable reading experience. If you don't want to keep it forever, sell it back to us. The difference between what you paid and what we'll pay to buy it back is tiny compared to the enjoyment you received. You'll get the better end of the deal by a wide margin, and someone else will have the opportunity to experience the same reading pleasure you did.

Lighthouse Island
- Paulette Jiles.
Of all the dystopian landscapes created by authors over the last few decades, Ms. Jiles' vision is one of the most unsettling. As extreme as it is, there's a plausibility to it that chills. The human race is scrabbling like rats through a maze of overcrowding (individual cities long since merged together), severe water shortages due to an overheated climate, and draconian and brutal measures taken by the folks in charge of the mess, trying to keep some type of order. Reality TV is blasted at everybody everywhere as both opiate and emotional outlet, and books have been mostly forgotten.

But not by Nadia, orphaned at a very young age and left to fend for herself in this merciless world. The story is her journey from the heart of the oppressive urban environment to the Northwest coast. Nadia is convinced that Lighthouse Island, the star of one of the TV network's faux-"vacation" ads, actually exists, and a life of peace and freedom awaits if she can reach it. Her journey is a white-knuckler; danger at every turn, the narrowest of escapes, ingenious maneuvers and strokes of amazing luck. You'll cheer for her and fear for her, and you'll read past your bedtime.

Moosewood Restaurant Favorites - Moosewood Collective.
The Heart of the Plate - Mollie Katzen.
The "kitchen bible" is an American tradition. Better Homes & Gardens, Betty Crocker, The Joy of Cooking; every home needs one oversized cookbook that has the essential traditional recipes, cooking methods and kitchen tips. People have been giving them to young newlyweds for decades.

There's this "vegetarianism" thing going around now, though, that seems to be gaining more converts all the time. A book with several dozen recipes based on bacon may not be the right gift for everybody any more. Thankfully, this year brought us two solid contenders for the "don't eat anything that had parents" folks. Mollie Katzen was one of the founders of The Moosewood Restaurant back in the early 70's; she even hand-lettered and illustrated the first Moosewood cookbook, and continues to be one of the most thoughtful and innovative chefs in the field. And of course, the Moosewood cookbooks have become their own franchise. The new one is a collection of 250 of the restaurant's most requested recipes. For a young couple starting out, or an older one trying to eat healthier, both are a great alternative to the book that was heavily stained and falling apart in Mom's kitchen.

As always, thanks to those of you who continue our discussion via email. If you'd like to share with me the great finds you've unearthed in our Used Book stacks, I'd love to hear.

Until next week,


NeilNeil Rajala is Currently Director of Community & Business Services for Schuler Books, Neil's decade with the company has included the wearing of many different hats - and lots and lots of reading.