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I once had the opportunity to buy a truly rare comic book, and I blew it.

The opportunity came in a tiny used bookstore on Lower Main Street in Northampton, Massachusetts.  The store was quite literally so small it was difficult to turn around - it had almost certainly started life as a janitor's closet, and no, I am not exaggerating - and it was floor to ceiling books.  Most of these books were science fiction, fantasy, and horror paperbacks, and I used to stop by on a fairly regular basis to browse, chat with other patrons, and possibly recruit fellow Smithies for the great experiment known as SSFFS.

I bought quite a few books and recruited at least one person to our glorious cause, but the reason I remember this bookstore was that the proprietor, a quiet young man with glasses and thinning blond hair, was an aspiring artist.  He was doing some freelance work for the local newspapers for the princely sum of $10 per illustration, plus selling his own superhero comics for a dollar or two per issue.

These books were not exactly the best thing since Jack Kirby picked up a pencil.  The anatomy was questionable, the inking was heavy enough that it looked as if some panels had been drawn with a Bic Banana (remember those?), and the pages looked like they'd been photocopied during a temp assignment while the office manager's back was turned.  I was only beginning as a writer myself, but I knew what was good and what wasn't, and these definitely fell into the latter category.

This is why I never actually bought one of these little comics.  They were cheap, yes, but this definitely looked like a case of "you get what you pay for."  I had other ways to spend my money, like one of the Ballantine reprints of H.P. Lovecraft's more terrifying short stories.  That the quiet young artist might someday improve enough for the world to take notice never crossed my mind.

I have been kicking myself ever since

For you see, my friends, the quiet young man who was just learning to draw was a local boy from North Adams.  He was a few years older than I am so we had no interaction beyond buying and selling paperbacks, so naturally I lost track of him after I graduated from college and moved to Boston.  I had no idea that he'd continued to draw until 1986 or thereabouts, when a friend mentioned this great comic with a Massachusetts connection he'd discovered.  It was about reptiles who'd been irradiated by toxic waste, you see, and it was a simultaneous takeoff on Frank Miller's Ronin, Dave Sim's early Cerebus books, the X-Men, and Marvel's Daredevil book, and -

Oh, I didn't mention that the book was about turtles?  Or that the quiet young artist was named Peter Laird?  Or that his story, which was about a lab rate and four small pets that had been dumped into the New York sewer system before getting splashed by the same gunk that blinded Matt Murdock, was about to go viral in a way that would have made those crude little comic books worth much, much more than a dollar?

That's right.  I had the chance to buy the fledgling efforts of the co-creator of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, and I blew it.  Not only that, I haven't been able to enjoy the Turtles, their books, their movies or TV shows, or any of the other spinoffs.  It was pure snobbery (and stupidity) on my part, and the thought of how much those early comics would be worth today has haunted me for years.

Moral of the story:  don't dismiss an artist or writer's early work, lest you inadvertently scorn a future Hugo, Eisner, Pulitzer, or Edgar winner.  You never know.

Ye Wee Janitor's Closet o' Literature closed years ago (surprise, surprise), but there are still plenty of used bookstores in my neck of the woods.  Tonight I bring you ten local favorites for the next time you're in the Pioneer Valley of Western Massachusetts.  Many of the books for sale are very good indeed, but others are eminently suitable subjects for these diaries:

Bookends - Florence is an unusual little village about five minutes up Route 9 from Smith College.  Originally a silk mill village called Broughton Meadows, its early residents included an abolitionist commune that went bust trying to raise silkworms, industrialist/philanthropist Alfred Lilly, social activists like Sojourner Truth, and the family behind Corticelli Silk Thread.  Today it's a haven for writers, artists, teachers, and other intellectual types who've been priced out of Northampton proper.

That may be why Bookends, on Maple Street near Bird's and the Miss Florence Diner, has such a wonderfully eclectic stock.  Literature and art books are a specialty, but in addition Bookends has a great selection of science fiction paperbacks and graphic novels, a small but interesting stock of craft books in the basement, and a nice children's corner.  They also rent and sell used videos, DVD's, and CD's.  Very fun place.

Raven - this downtown Northampton institution occupies a basement on Old South Street, a couple of doors up from the legendary excellence that is Herrell's Ice Cream.  Fabulous history, esoterica, and religion sections, plus tables groaning with review copies passed along by the faculty at Smith, remaindered copies of recent paperbacks, and similar delights.  I don't come here nearly as much as I'd like since I do need to have enough money to pay the mortgage, but if I didn't, I could easily blow most of paycheck here.

The Old Book Store - another Northampton institution, this slightly musty basement on Masonic Street was venerable when I was a student thirty-five years ago.  The owners bought the space when it became available as an office condo in the 1980's, and good thing, too, since otherwise the landlord would have evicted them and installed some trendier (and a lot less colorful).  A truly old school used bookstore, with lots of titles from the 1970's and earlier that simply cannot be found anywhere else except estate sales or library stacks.  

Modern Myths - wonderful comic shop in a small strip mall next to Historic Northampton on Route 9, with friendly employees, a huge selection of current comics, digest reprints, and graphic novels featuring everyone from Tintin to Modesty Blaise to every superhero except possibly Flaming Carrot (and I wouldn't be shocked if he's there in a dusty corner).  I'm including them tonight because they also have most of wall devoted to used graphic novels, reprinted newspaper strips like Prince Valiant and Dick Tracy, and hardcover editions of collected Marvel and DC story arcs.  Yet another place where I could easily drop several hundred dollars on  research for an upcoming diary in April MWAHAHAHAHAHA reprints.

Grey Matter/Troubadour Amalgamation of Books - Troubadour used to be a stand-alone bookstore on a lonely stretch of road near the Hadley/Whateley line.  Then the owner, a genial fellow named Bob, learned that the building had major structural problems, so he decided to share shop space with Grey Matter Books, an antiquarian bookstore that did most of its business online.

The result is this extraordinary amalgam of the valuable, the interesting, and the mindblowingly weird - and no, for once I'm not exaggerating.  If you want to know about subjects like circus performers, the history of Tijuana Bibles, extinct and peculiar 19th century religious sects, memory palaces in Renaissance China, and the history of science fiction fandom, this is the place to visit.  

Gabriel Books - Gabriel is a book lover's dream:  crowded to the point that it's a miracle the fire department hasn't shut them down, they have everything a book lover could want.  Rare first editions, gorgeous Arthur Rackham versions of the Ring Cycle, novels in French and German and Italian, novels and textbooks and history and esoterica and political science and fine's a real treasure, and well worth the struggle to find a parking space on Market Street.  Best of all, there's a stunningly well preserved 1950's pizza/checked tablecloth Italian joint, Joe's, about fifty yards down the street if you get hungry and/or want to see what Northampton was like before its current incarnation as an arts town.

White Square Fine Books and Art - this comparative newcomer, which occupies a storefront near Nashawannuck Square in Easthampton, White Square specializes in books on fine arts, first editions, collectible rarities, and actual, genuine art.  It's owned by a retired Smith alumna and her husband, neither of whom seems at all put out by the artsy crowd that's migrated from Northampton to Easthampton as housing and studio prices went up.  Almost too clean for a used book store, but worth checking out nonetheless if you're looking for high quality art books or first editions.

Whately Antiquarian Book Center - huge multi-dealer store in the booming metropolis of Whately, Massachusetts (population not quite 1500).  This store, which may cause the inexperienced book seeker to go into sensory overload and/or the dance of St. Vitus from the sheer size of the place, occupies three floors of a former schoolhouse.  They boast of having between 35,000 and 40,000 used books, and they're probably right.  

One downside:  thanks to this basically being a co-op, it can be very, very hard to figure out where to look for that special book on crocheting cat cozies for fun and profit.  They used to hand out guides, but if they've stopped, ask for help.  You'll probably need it.

Montague Book Mill - another huge old bookstore, this time housed in a 19th century gristmill in the thriving metropolis of Montague, Massachusetts (population a little over 8400, most of them living in the village of Turners Falls, although a few hundred still live in the old Spiritualist enclave of Lake Pleasant).  Their slogan is "books you don't need in a place you can't find," but 40,000 books, bathrooms papered in ephemera like a news clipping about Norman Mailer nearly murdering one of his wives, a cheerfully laidback ambiance, and the gorgeous setting near a waterfall make it worth the visit.  Best of all, there's terrific restaurant, the Lady Killigrew, attached to the bookstore so hungry readers can fortify themselves before making the long, confusing trek home.


These are some of the best used bookstores in the Pioneer Valley - what about your hometown?  Surely there's something equally treasure-laden in your neck of the woods!  Come share the wealth with your fellow book lovers!


Readers & Book Lovers Series Schedule:

DAY TIME (EST/EDT) Series Name Editor(s)
SUN 6:00 PM Young Reader's Pavilion The Book Bear
2:00 PM What's on Your E-Reader? Caedy
2:00 PM Bibliophile's Wish List Caedy
Sun 9:30 PM SciFi/Fantasy Book Club quarkstomper
Bi-Monthly Sun Midnight Reading Ramblings don mikulecky
MON 8:00 PM Monday Murder Mystery michelewln, Susan from 29
Mon 11:00 PM My Favorite Books/Authors edrie, MichiganChet
TUES 5:00 PM Indigo Kalliope: Poems from the Left bigjacbigjacbigjac
alternate Tuesdays 8:00 AM LGBT Literature Texdude50, Dave in Northridge
alternate Tuesdays 8:00 AM All Things Bookstore Dave in Northridge
Tue 8:00 PM Contemporary Fiction Views bookgirl
WED 7:30 AM WAYR? plf515
Wed 2:00 PM e-books Susan from 29
Wed 8:00 PM Bookflurries Bookchat cfk
THU 8:00 PM Write On! SensibleShoes
Thu (first each month) 11:00 AM Monthly Bookpost AdmiralNaismith
alternate Thursdays (on hiatus) 11:00 PM Audiobooks Club SoCaliana
FRI 8:00 AM Books That Changed My Life Diana in NoVa
alternate Fridays 8:00 PM Books Go Boom! Brecht
Fri 10:00 PM Slightly Foxed -- But Still Desirable shortfinals
SAT (fourth each month) 11:00 AM Windy City Bookworm Chitown Kev
Sat 12:00 PM You Can't Read That! Paul's Book Reviews pwoodford
Sat 9:00 PM Books So Bad They're Good Ellid

Originally posted to Readers and Book Lovers on Sat Mar 08, 2014 at 06:00 PM PST.

Also republished by Community Spotlight.

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