Since 2020, an empty former bookstore space highlights one entrance of the San Jose Public Library.
Two years ago, the Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Library eliminated the used bookstore that was located on the university side of the building, one the dumbest decisions the library ever made. The lame excuse was that the space could better be used as a voting location, which it was for about half a second, but the room has been empty ever since. It’s just plain sad.
Technically, the Friends of King Library were the heroic volunteers that oversaw the bookstore in all its cramped and convoluted glory. The lineage of the joint could be traced back to the old public library on San Carlos Street, and the gems and deals located within this space were unlimited: Fifty-cent paperbacks. World literature, sports and medical science. Biographies, politics and travel guides. Arcane books on European history. New or old, everything was cheap. Students came in all the time.
To this day, two years later, I cannot walk by the library without raising the ghosts of many monthly book sales that unfolded outside in the California sun. Students, neighborhood people, street intellectuals, unhoused folks, record collectors, professors and all sorts of glorious riffraff regularly showed up to rifle through boxes and boxes of stuff. Sometimes one had to fight off the jerks that came with barcode scanners. Yet as any book person would say, there was a mystical, transcendental aspect to browsing. The journey was the destination.
Regarding the monthly sale, as with any grab-all it was hit or miss. During the last few years of the bookstore’s existence, I found numerous hidden treasures, along with several Instagram-worthy absurdities: a box filled with 40 copies of The Da Vinci Code. A stack of James Bond novels the length of my forearm. Boxed sets of Joseph Campbell stuff. Obscure library discards from Christian elementary schools.
One random day in 2018, inside the store, I even stumbled into a pile of books recently donated by a professor retiring from the physics department. One of the books, The Tao of Chaos: DNA & The I-Ching, was the exact same book he’d purchased from the main campus bookstore back in the mid-1990s, when I’d walked with him across campus to buy it. The book had apparently sat on his shelf ever since then. Now here it was, 25 years later, in the used bookstore, after he’d cleaned out his office. He was retiring with a pension, yet there I was, still in the neighborhood, in the orbit of the university, browsing books and writing newspaper columns. The resulting column was called “The Tao of Browsing.”
And speaking of newspaper columns, above all else, my fondest memory of the King Library Book Sale was the day I scored a first edition autographed copy of Herb Caen’s 1947 book, Baghdad by the Bay, for one dollar. Caen was the greatest columnist in the history of the world—he wrote for the San Francisco Chronicle longer than I’ve been alive—and he clobbered San Jose whenever possible. It was Caen that described San Jose as “11 freeway exits in search of a city.” He was right, of course. When a hockey franchise was first announced, Caen wrote, “The only team that will put San Jose on the map is a team from the Russian army.” On that one, he was probably wrong.
Nevertheless, were Caen around in San Jose today, he would bang out some scathing remarks on his typewriter about our main library axing the used bookstore just so the room can sit empty for two years. Pardon the pun, but it’s textbook San Jose. I can hear old man Caen laughing from his grave as I write this column.
Meanwhile, the branch libraries still carry on with their own used book sales. The Friends of the Bascom Branch Library Book Sale unfolded last Saturday. This Saturday, May 21, the Friends of the Vineland Branch, the Friends of the Village Square Branch, and the Friends of the Alum Rock Branch will all host respective book sales. At least they still care.
All I have left to say is: main branches need friends too.