The Book Pages: What you find in the best used bookstores

Some smelled like cat pee. Others were moldy and dank. Most were filled with wonders.

Used bookstores, that’s what I’m talking about.

Along with library fundraisers, thrift shops, yard sales, and other second-hand options, that’s where I did the bulk of my book shopping growing up. (I found plenty of treasures at my library’s “Buck a Bag” sales.) And used bookstores are still where you’ll often find me.

Do you have any favorite local stores from the past or present? There used to be a cluster around Vroman’s Colorado Boulevard location in Pasadena, and I’ll always remember the one with the pungent kitty litter smell that existed where the pizza place is now (it smells great these days, don’t worry). I remember finding a copy of Rabelais’ “Gargantua and Pantagruel” that my more erudite cousin had been looking for, and being surprised by a spectral bookseller who perked up suddenly when I bought a P.G. Wodehouse paperback.

Brand Bookshop in Glendale was a favorite; its owner Jerome I remember as a kind, slightly harried man with a great voice. Then there was a long-gone store in South Pasadena whose owner asked me if I collected books. When I said, “No, I just read them,” he’d nodded sagely as if I’d said something profound.

These days, one of the things I love about bookstores, especially the ones here in Southern California, is how many don’t seem to view each other as competition, but as friends and colleagues. Look on Instagram, for example, and you’ll find local bookstores liking and commenting on each other’s posts.

This is roughly the number of books I try to cram into my bag when going somewhere overnight. (Getty Images)
This is roughly the number of books I try to cram into my bag when going somewhere overnight. (Getty Images)

Of course, not all bookstores are cheery. Something reminded me the other day of a used bookshop in San Francisco I used to visit years ago called The Writer’s Bookstore. I’d stop in every time I was in the city back then, which was fairly often in those days as I had close friends living there.

The owner, as I remember him, was a gruff middle-aged guy who, let’s say, didn’t obsess over customer service. When a one-word answer wouldn’t do, he might say less. While he was kind to me, I suspect this wasn’t always the case.

One afternoon, I was in there with a stack of paperbacks in my arms including some Patricia Highsmith and Martin Amis reissues among them. Other customers in there milled about, all of us with our heads down like grazing cows.

Suddenly, the door burst open, startling the livestock, and a man in a nice suit took two steps into the store and stopped – his car was double-parked outside with its hazards on.

“Do you have the new Grisham?” his voice rattling the rafters like Michael Buffer before a wrestling match. Prior to his entrance there’d only been the sound of pages being turned and possibly some classical music at a low volume.

While it wasn’t impossible that a second-hand copy of a new book might be for sale – I’d often found plenty of relatively new books there – I’m pretty sure the novel he wanted had come out, like, that week so it was unlikely to be lying around waiting for him to pick it up. But the double-parked shopper stared expectantly, assuming, I think, that the humble shopkeep would understand that this needed to be handled quickly

The proprietor did seem to understand what needed to be done and walked out from behind the book-piled desk where he rang up sales.

“Out!” he yelled, pointing his finger at the man with such force that it seemed to knock him back.

“I–” the Grishamite said, apparently not used to this brand of customer service.

“Out!” repeated the owner, advancing a bit as if it to eject the man, who looked ready to say something, thought better of it, and bolted out of the store.

Then it was quiet. The shopkeeper, possibly a little embarrassed, looked around but nobody said anything. Though the silence was a little awkward after, it was, to be honest, preferable to a guy standing in the doorway yelling. (I’m not suggesting people should shout at each other more; we’ve gotten too adept at that. I’m all for treating people with respect – especially since some poor clerk at Barnes & Noble might have been next to get Grishamed.)

I lugged my stack to the counter, and I reminded the bookseller that he’d recommended a book for my father – who was famously hard to buy for – and he remembered the book and that I came up from Los Angeles. It was probably restorative, and I think he gave me a discount.

This memory is more than 20 years old so pardon any burnished edges but that afternoon sticks out in my mind pretty clearly. The store isn’t there anymore. I don’t know this for a fact, but I’d heard that the owner passed away and there was an attempt or two to keep it going. I think I visited a rebooted version and it was all different. Not bad, just not what it had been.

But bookstores have personalities, as well as quirks, and here it is years later and I still think about it (mostly) with fondness and gratitude.

Something else that’s different now? Hardly any bookstores smell like kitty litter these days. Change can be good.

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Bargain Book World's newly expanded Lake Elsinore location. (Photo courtesy of Bargain Book World)
Bargain Book World’s newly expanded Lake Elsinore location. (Photo courtesy of Bargain Book World)

I’d love to hear from you about bookstores you’ve frequented over the years, or from booksellers and what it’s been like supplying us with reading material.

In fact, I did get an email recently from a used bookseller, Adele Canetti, the owner of Bargain Book World.

“We are a fourth-generation mother/daughter business partnership; my daughter/partner is currently on maternity leave with her first child. My family’s love of books goes back generations and my mother taught me to read at age 4. I grew up in Anaheim where my family visited the public library every Saturday,” Canetti wrote, adding that she and her younger brother checked out so many books. “We read/devoured every one of them.”

Bargain Book World has three locations at the Shops at Mission Viejo, MainPlace Santa Ana and a newly expanded space at the Outlets at Lake Elsinore – totaling 17,000 square feet of bookselling space between the three locations, according to Canetti.

We chatted briefly on the phone as she helped customers, and Canetti, a financial planner, said she hoped to spread the word about the stores.

• • •

Viet Thanh Nguyen, the author of
Viet Thanh Nguyen, the author of “The Sympathizer,” is seen here in 2016. He will moderate the main panel at Viet Book Fest, a celebration of the literature of the Vietnamese diaspora, on June 3, 2023 in Santa Ana. (Oriana Koren/The New York Times)

In our book section, my colleague Peter Larsen wrote about this weekend’s book event, and I’m sharing some of his story here with you:

Viet Book Fest, which celebrates the literature of the Vietnamese diaspora, will take place in Santa Ana on Saturday, June 3, with Viet Thanh Nguyen, the acclaimed Vietnamese American novelist, as moderator of the main event.

The festival, presented by the Vietnamese American Arts and Letters Association, includes an authors panel, book signings, a poetry reading, and a performance showcase at the Frida Theatre.

The festival kicks off with an authors’ panel from 10 a.m. to 1:30 p.m. at the Santa Ana Public Library. A book market showcasing emerging Vietnamese American authors takes place from 3 p.m. to 5 p.m. at Alta Baja Market. The fest wraps up with a showcase at the Frida Cinema from 7 p.m. to 9 p.m.

Khoi Luu,  Isabelle Thuy Pelaud, Lan Duong, Van Hoang, Line Papin, Cathy Linh Che, Tina A. Huynh, Taylor Ngo and Jenni Trang Le are among those who will be there.

Signed copies of books will be available for purchase through the festival’s partnership with LibroMobile, the Latino- and women-owned bookstore.

Admission to all events is free and open to the public. For more information and to register go to

Please feel free to email me at with “ERIK: BOOK PAGES” in the subject line and tell me about what you’re reading and I may include it in an upcoming newsletter.

And if you enjoy this free newsletter, please consider sharing it with someone who likes books or getting a digital subscription to support local coverage.

Thanks, as always, for reading.

Luis Alberto Urrea reveals a 30-year-old secret hidden in his new novel

Luis Alberto Urrea's new book,
Luis Alberto Urrea’s new book, “Good Night, Irene,” is inspired by his mother’s WWII service. (Images courtesy of Little, Brown)

A Pulitzer Prize finalist for nonfiction and a Guggenheim fellow, Luis Alberto Urrea is the author of 19 books, including “The Hummingbird’s Daughter,” “The Devil’s Highway,” and “The House of Broken Angels.” His latest novel, “Good Night, Irene,” was published by Little, Brown this week. The book is inspired by his mother, Phyllis McLaughlin, who served in the Red Cross Clubmobile Service in World War II. Urrea spoke with Michael Schaub about the new novel, and here he responds to the Book Pages questions about books, reading and the 30-year-old secret within “Good Night, Irene.”

Q: Is there a book or books you always recommend to other readers?

“Pilgrim at Tinker Creek” by Annie Dillard and “Bless Me, Ultima” by Rudolfo Anaya.

Annie Dillard completely changed the way I saw the world. There was both the transcendence of prayer and the savagery that surrounds it locked in a meditative dance of brilliant prose.

I can only be blatantly clear here: my entire writing career would not exist if not for “Bless Me, Ultima” and Rudolfo Anaya’s personal influence on my thought and writing process. He opened the path for me to an understanding of the spirituality of my own elders and ancestors and what responsibilities I carried. He will always be my literary godfather.

Q: What are you reading now?

My start of summer ritual is always the newest James Lee Burke, so I am deeply enjoying “Another Kind of Eden.” I am also wallowing in the new Sam Shepard biography, “True West” by Robert Greenfield.

Q: Is there a genre or type of book you read the most – and what would you like to read more of?

I read everything, though I am partial to mysteries and nature and poetry. Those seem to always be on my bedside table. I would like to read more literature in Spanish. On trips into Central or South America, I always find time to hit the bookstore to discover writers I have not yet read.

Q: Do you have a favorite book or books?

“Braided Creek” by Ted Kooser and Jim Harrison is never out of reach. (I am looking forward to the new 30th-anniversary edition coming soon from Copper Canyon Press). Any collection of haiku by the poet Issa. And I remain smitten by Diane Wakoski’s “Motorcycle Betrayal Poems.” I also need to have “Slouching Toward Bethlehem” by Joan Didion. Always.

Q: What’s a memorable book experience – good or bad – you’re willing to share?

When I was just understanding that there was no hope and I was going to be a writer, I stumbled on used paperbacks of a couple of Thomas McGuane books. These fiendish books were “The Bushwacked Piano” and “92 in the Shade.” The first was so absurd, I laughed out loud for perhaps the first time reading a novel. The second was so alarmingly acrobatic that I immediately began writing terrible imitations of McGuane that led me to my voice.

Q: What’s something about your book that no one knows?

There is a character named Garcia in the second half of the novel. He goes by the nickname “Zoot.” Since this takes place during World War II, it should be clear that back home, he is a zoot-suiter. What nobody knows is that Garcia was the co-star of my very first novel, “In Search of Snow” — he appeared in 1994 and is still in print. In that novel, he alludes to his World War II experiences but never gives details. That backstory is explained in “Good Night, Irene.” I’ve been holding on to it for almost 30 years.

Q: If you could say something to your readers, what would it be?

Tell me your story.

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• • •

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• • •

Bookish (SCNG)
Bookish (SCNG)

What’s next on ‘Bookish’

The next Bookish event will be June 16 at 5 p.m. and include authors Mona Simpson and Peter Wohlleben, host Sandra Tsing Loh & Samantha Dunn.

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