Used bookstores help tell stories along historic Route 66 from Chicago to Los Angeles

September 29, 2015 2:14 am

 Marco
P. Cremasco (28) of Sao Paulo, Brazil, browses through Downtown Books
located on the iconic Route 66 in Albuquerque, New Mexico. AP photo /
Russell Contreras

Travelers along historic Route 66 from Chicago to Los Angeles
have no problem finding their fix of fake American Indian jewelry and
vintage Elvis posters. But along this path motorists also will discover
something once declared dead: the used bookstore.
There’s the
Chicago bookstore with a cat and a mechanical elevator, and the
Albuquerque shop where lawyers and the homeless search together for Jack
Kerouac’s novels. There’s also the iconic California store that once
delivered books to Japanese-Americans interned at nearby camps.
All
are located on Route 66, or a block away, often attracting regulars
from around the corner and visitors from around the world seeking Greek
classics or a collection of Ernest Hemingway short stories. Owners say
their stores are still thriving in the era of e-readers, tablets and
online libraries.

Some, like Vroman’s Bookstore in Pasadena, California, have been around for more than 100 years.
Others, like the 5th Street Books in Kingman, Arizona, just opened recently.
“For
whatever reason, there are still some people who want an old-fashioned
book in their hands,” Laura Eisner, owner of The Book Case in
Albuquerque, a shop that opened when John F. Kennedy was running for
president. “And they get that urge when they are just passing through.”

The Book Case in Albuquerque, New Mexico, a block from the iconic Route 66. AP photo / Russell Contreras
The Book Case in Albuquerque, New Mexico, a block from the iconic Route 66. AP photo / Russell Contreras
Route 66, also called the Mother Road, began in 1926
after the Bureau of Public Roads launched the nation’s first federal
highway system, bringing together existing local and state roads from
Chicago through St. Louis to Los Angeles. Small towns opened shops,
motels and gas stations to pump revenue into local economies just as the
nation’s car culture took off.
Its importance even sparked a Route 66 song performed by Nat King Cole, and later by the 1980s English electronic band Depeche Mode.
Yet,
the route changed a number of times through the years, and eventually
became less of a destination thanks to new interstate highways.
In 2008, the World Monuments Fund listed Route 66 on the “Watch List of 100 Most Endangered Sites.”
Despite
its endangered status, Route 66 remains an attraction for tourists who
seek out its neon-lit diners and vintage motels – like the now-defunct
Albuquerque motel where Bill Gates lived while launching Microsoft.
Along the way, they can hunt through used bookstores for dusty copies of
everything from John Steinbeck’s Tortilla Flat to Ana Castillo’s Peel My Love Like an Onion.
“I
specialize in nonfiction,” said Mert Glancy, 61, who operates 5th
Street Books in Kingman, Arizona. Her store is a block away from the
storied road and is located in a building that once housed a newspaper.
“There’s another bookstore a block away that concentrates on
contemporary fiction.”
No one knows just how many used bookstore
are located along Route 66. The online bookstore, AbeBooks.com, recently
listed 66 used bookstores near Route 66 and still faced angry comments
for leaving off others.
Some used bookstore owners don’t even know realise they’re on the famous route.
Keith
Peterson, 64, owner of Selected Works Used Books and Sheet Music, which
sits a block from the beginning of Route 66 in Chicago, admitted he
didn’t know Route 66 started at Chicago’s Grant Park. His second-floor
store is across the street.
“We get a lot or out-of-town
tourists, especially during the blues festival,” said Peterson. “They
usually want Hemingway or (Kurt) Vonnegut and we are always out. Those
are hard to keep on the shelves.”
Other owners know exactly where
they are because Route 66 memorabilia surrounds them. That’s the case
for Scott J. Free, 46, a former engineer who opened Downtown Books in
Albuquerque 15 years ago. His store is a block south of the road and
near Route 66 locations for scenes from AMC’s Breaking Bad. Route 66 travelers are a big customer base, he said.
During
a recent afternoon, Marco P. Cremasco of Sao Paulo, Brazil, stumbled
upon the store during a walk along Route 66 after an Amtrak train ride.
The 28-year-old had been traveling through the United States for three
months.
“I had a big Route 66 sign in my room as a kid,” he said
while thumbing through books in the fiction section. “I’m glad I found
this place.” He sat down to read before continuing his trip to Santa Fe,
then Los Angeles.
But what keeps attracting customers? It’s the
experience of trying to find a lost treasure or out-of-print book, said
Eisner, owner of The Book Case.
“And I think people love the smell of old books,” Eisner said. “If I could bottle it, I’d sell it, too. On Route 66.”

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