Picture of the exterior of the Tacoma Book Center.

The Tacoma Book Center: So Many Corners

A tousled-headed man wandered into the horror section of the Tacoma Book Center with an armful of books and a chagrined look on his face.

“Jeez,” he said, looking around the stacks, “another secret room? This place has so many corners, I keep getting lost.”

His turn of phrase struck me as strangely poetic. So many corners. It’s the sort of vaguely surreal wording you might find in a Borges poem, or a Tom Waits song ­ – the sort of thing that simultaneously hints at multiple layers of meaning and no meaning at all.

“I find something new ever time I come here,” I said. “I think this place grows at night.”

We shared a chuckle. He looked at the book in my hand, Clive Barker’s The Great and Secret Show. “Is that any good?”

“This is a great book,” I said. “I’ve read it three times already.”

“You’re browsing a book you’ve read three times already?”

I busted up laughing. The irrationality of what I’d been doing hadn’t struck me until he stated it, but even funnier was his knowing grin – the smile of man who understands the hopeless absurdity of being an out-and-out book nerd.

It was an encounter that encapsulated all that I love best about the Tacoma Book Center.

In age where the big bookstores have all the soulless glamour of a Las Vegas casino, the Center has character.

I’ve always thought of it as the Eric Hoffer of big bookstores, rough hands and an aching back, muddy boots, but way smarter and more vital than the well-manicured University guys could ever hope to be.

I can imagine the Tacoma Book Center standing on Steinbeck’s Cannery Row, just down the way from Lee Chong’s grocery.

Far as I’m concerned, there are few-if-any places in the world as magical as libraries and bookstores. And the Center isn’t just a bookstore; it’s a good bookstore, in the parlance of Pirsig’s Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. It’s got soul.

It also happens to have 500,000 books.  Yes, you read that right: half a million books. You can get lost in its stacks. I have gotten lost in its stacks.

Every time I go to the Center, I find myself wondering how many people have browsed those shelves before me, exploring all those sleeping worlds waiting to be born inside reader’s heads. Where will their ghosts go after the building is gone? I don’t know. Nobody does.

The sad truth is that the store will someday be gone; or at least will house something other than books. Larry, the Center’s owner, told me the other day that, while the rumors of the death of print have been greatly exaggerated, the industry is having a hard time finding young blood willing to take the business up. The great old stores are dying with their founders.

The fact is that less people are reading print, and when they do read print, they buy their books online. So, even if the books themselves survive, the old way of selling them in physical stores may not.

Well, in response to that I will borrow a line from E.E. Cummings and ask: who cares if some one-eyed son of a bitch invents an instrument to measure Spring with?

Maybe it’s true that the brick-and-mortar bookstore has already been given a death sentence, but, as of today, at least one still stands. It’s on the corner of East 26th and East D Streets in Tacoma, within spitting distance of Freighthouse Square.

I love the store and everything it stands for. So do many others. I run into them every time I go there, this ragtag band of literary devotees. For us, the magic has never faded.

Even if the books are dead, their bones still sing to us from the catacombs.

Bah, that’s a bunch of fatalistic nonsense. Those attuned to the frequency of the Word know what the analysts cannot, which is that no good thing can ever die (thanks Mr. King).

Check out the Tacoma Book Center. You can find books online, but character? Soul? Supplies of that have been running low for years now, and nobody’s restocking the shelves.

Besides, you just might find some good conversation while browsing the stacks. Look for it in the horror section…if you can find it.

First edition hardback copy of Cormac McCarthy's novel Suttree.
My favorite novel ever written. Tacoma Book Center has a first edition of this baby. Gaze upon it, children, and dream.

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