THE PROBLEM with a secret is that once you tell it, it isn’t one anymore. The Bryn Mawr Book Store in Cambridge is under the radar, and I like it that way. It’s quiet, it’s small, it has a gazillion books, its prices are low, and it doesn’t have that picked-clean feeling you sometimes sense in a used bookstore, as if all the good finds have already been found. There. I’ve told you. (Now I’m wondering if I should head back over and buy that hardcover copy of “Speak, Memory” before this column runs in the newspaper.)
A visit to the Bryn Mawr starts with a glance at the little white bookshelf just inside the front door, which is stocked with small old hardcovers, mostly of English novels. The logic of shelving them there, rather than in the regular hardcover fiction section, is at once unfathomable, mysteriously correct, and quintessentially Bryn Mawr-ish: You know to look there for books of a certain type and feeling, an old Everyman edition of “Robinson Crusoe,” or the Maude translation of “War and Peace” in a small fat volume, or any novel by Joyce Cary.
The Bryn Mawr is a happily abundant mixture of old and recent, serious and fun. If you’ve just discovered a novelist, you can go there and scoop up nice editions of his earlier novels for about five bucks apiece, unless the Bryn Mawr is having one of its “HALF PRICE ON ALL HARDCOVER FICTION” months, in which case those novels will be even cheaper, or gone. If you’re nostalgic for a book you had as a child, the Bryn Mawr may not have it — but as you look for it, you will find some other childhood book you loved and forgot about. If you want the diary of Samuel Pepys in seven volumes or the works of Robert Browning in nine, you’ll find them; and if you want the complete works of Thackeray you’ll have several different sets to choose from. If you forget your reading glasses, don’t worry. They have loaners.
The Bryn Mawr is stocked entirely with donations, which can range from a bag of books to an entire library given by the heirs of an old professor. Living near the Bryn Mawr is like living near a beach. You walk there to see what the tide has brought in. There’s “Tiffany Table Settings” and “A Documentary History of Anarchism.” There are plenty of Adams and Roosevelt and Kennedy biographies but not a lot on Reagan. And where else could you find a beautiful little dust-jacketed copy of Robert Louis Stevenson’s “Travels With a Donkey in the Cevennes”?
Many former used bookstores now exist only online. The Bryn Mawr hasn’t ignored this trend, with its listings of very good, and sometimes very expensive, collector’s items on Abebooks.com. The Web presence is good for the collectors, and good for the store’s overall financial picture.
But as nice as it is to go online to find the very book you’ve been looking for, sometimes you want the joy of finding the book you didn’t know you were looking for. In a physical bookstore, you spot a book, take it down from the shelf, handle it, read a few pages, read a few more. It’s a flirtation, a courtship.
If we want the used bookstore to survive as a place, we need to go and shop there, just as we’ve learned to support independent bookstores rather than ordering online. (And OK, yes, I am grinning, having figured out that my Bryn Mawr habit is not just hedonistic but also good for society.) In the age of the depersonalized online store, and the impersonal chain store, the Bryn Mawr is poignantly, idiosyncratically, irrationally human. I once bought a decorating book there, which someone had given someone else as a gift years before; “Let’s not get carried away by all the ideas in this book!” was scrawled on the flyleaf. I kept it for a long time, and eventually gave it back to the Bryn Mawr. Then after a few years I missed it and bought another copy there, but this one didn’t have the inscription. I still check whenever I go in, hoping that other copy will turn up again some day. Knowing the Bryn Mawr, I’m pretty sure it will.