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Feb 02, 2009

Book Exchange

Book Exchange

If you're local, you already know: The Book Exchange is closing after 75 years. 

For decades, The Book Exchange was like the pre-Amazon.com for academics, before Amazon.com came along to help put it out of business.  As an undergrad at Brown, I remember my schoolmate David -- a fellow-Durhamite -- calling his dad with a list of ~15 books that he'd need for two courses in Classics and English Lit.  His dad would buy them at The Book Exchange for a fraction of what the new reprints would cost at Brown. And David would look extra-cool because he'd be reading something old and yellowed instead of the same new Penguin editions that the rest of us carted around. 

A walk through the Book Exchange is like a physical tour of the 20th century's humanities canon.  For that, alone, it's worth the trip.

The N&O and Herald-Sun mention a long list of factors that pushed the owners to sale: internet bookstores, an extended downtown street construction that reduced access for months, and no one in the family that was really itching to run the place.  But one thing I heard in the stacks that wasn't mentioned in the press: the credit crunch.  Textbook buys require several hundred thousand in credit, and this year the credit just wasn't there.  That's what I heard.

Books are going for $10 a bag (excepting current textbooks) and with three floors of everything from Teri Hatcher's Burnt Toast: And Other Philosophies of Life (one copy only, thank goodness) to Vera Micheles Dean's The Nature of the Non-Western World (1957 paperback edition, ~40 copies), you will find something interesting. Go -- even if you worry that the choices and nostalgia will be so overwhelming that you buy not a thing. 

At checkout, dropping my hefty bag of books by the register, I noticed some boxes of Paper Mate pens nearby.  "Twenty-five cents" said the label.

I asked the clerk, "is that per pen, or per box?"

"Ah, just throw them in your bag," he said.  "They're pretty old.  I don't know if they'll even write."

"Thanks," I said. Then I asked him how he and his colleagues were doing with the transition. 

"I guess we're doing OK," he said.  "Thanks for asking."

I could see that he meant it.


Photo orientation:  you're looking north up one of the third-floor stacks.  The people in the distance are more or less right where the big The Book Exchange sign is mounted on the store's outside wall.

12:07 AM in Destination Durham | Permalink


Ah man. And here I was, looking forward to renewing my acquaintance with them in about a month.

Back in the day, the Book Exchange were my go-to guys for textbooks, required reading and study aids, to say nothing of the pleasure reading I lined my shelves with (from theirs).

They will be missed.

Posted by: Barry Campbell | Feb 2, 2009 6:32:27 AM

Thanks for posting this, Phil. I've friends in New Orleans who lost an entire personal library full of books (and the house that contained them) to the flood. I'm passing this along. Doc

Posted by: Doc | Feb 3, 2009 12:47:31 AM

Oof. I dropped by today to see how sales had gone. The place was... I dunno, like a ghost place? Two staff. Five customers in the whole building. Many books gone from parts of the store (particularly the general interest sections) but the academic press sections upstairs looked almost as full as ever.

When I was there on the 2nd, the place was packed with people. But removing books one grocery bag at a time is slow work in a store that big, and the big rush has passed.

There are still many good books there. Bajillions. My understanding is that Saturday is their last day. So go. Buy something. They still have some Book Exchange bags.

Posted by: ArcherPelican | Feb 13, 2009 12:34:59 AM

Remember Seward's Folly on Hope St?

Posted by: tim | Feb 14, 2009 8:27:33 AM

@Tim: Yep, I do remember the store -- though I didn't remember the name until you mentioned it.

The old dude who owned it was a nice teacher, himself. I remember him contrasting Bloom's "Closing of the American Mind" and Hirsch's "Cultural Literacy", while his poor old pug snarfed and snorfed with a respiratory infection (you know, the kind that happen to animals that are bred to have no nasal passages to speak of.)

If I recall correctly, he was OK with Bloom's approach but not Hirsch's scope. But I could have it backwards.

So do you remember the Dorr-war bookstore nearby?

Posted by: ArcherPelican | Feb 15, 2009 1:10:59 AM