March 5
by Ken Reynolds

Atlanta Book Exchange

The exterior of the Atlanta Book Exchange belies the treasure waiting inside. From a cramped parking area barely visible steps lead to an enclosed porch that functions as storage and display of a few-less-than valuable books. But, passing into the main shop reveals something akin to paradise.

The contents of the shelves lining the walls of the main room overflow onto the floor. Stacks of books on tables and counters create a fortress-like divider between the booksellers work area and the items for sale. Within the barrier, a woman clad in a gray sweater and her hair pulled into a librarian’s bun is busy on the telephone. Immediately in front of us another, much older, woman supports herself with her cane as she rises to welcome us to the Atlanta Book Exchange.

Sellers of used books who ensconce themselves in the midst of overflowing shelves and stacks and boxes of old books, emerging occasionally to help a customer find a book, attend an auction or appraise an estate library, are nearing extinction.

Most have fallen victim to the inevitable changes of the market. Even those who are still in business have come to depend on internet sales. Instead of reading while customers wander through the inventory, used book sellers update their catalog on the web, and pack sales for shipment.”

My regret over the loss is personal. If two copies of a used book are available, deciding which to buy involves more than price. Seeking books is a sensory experience. Shopping on-line has countless advantages, but even with high resolution photos it does not involve touch or smell — more on taste later.

This is bookstore where stacks of books teeter precariously and shelves bow under the weight of double rows. Reviews abound with descriptive terms: awesome, weird, magical, cramped, exceptional, odd and “best bookstore in Atlanta.”

Those reviewers are much younger than this writer. Observing with the advantage of enough hours to add up to years of browsing such places, the only thing I considered odd was stepping into the past. Once upon a time there were hundreds, even thousands, of places similar to the Atlanta Book Exchange. Before internet book sales there were several stores in greater Atlanta devoted to selling used books and to locating hard to find editions. They were of a completely different nature than the places that sold new books.

In Duluth, near several antique stores, in a tiny little building with rambling rooms apparently added over time, a seemingly indifferent owner used to sit in his corner niche reading while visitors browsed undisturbed. Only when a customer asked for help did his willingness to share his knowledge of the inventory emerge. In Buckhead, a two-story brick former residence on Peachtree Street verged on bursting with esoteric titles. There were others, but “were” is the key, in Roswell, Vinings, Marietta and the other towns around Atlanta and far beyond.

However, the dubious pleasure of a guided tour through a used book store made our visit to the ABE a unique used book store experience. Our delightful docent overflowed with knowledge about the contents of the shelves comprising the maze of narrow walkways through the relatively small craftsman style cottage housing the store. Her voice was at least as audible as a whisper, and she must have said far more than I heard. We realized too late that when she asked, “Have you been here before?” In our case, the incorrect but appropriate answer would have been “Yes.”

After the tour we explored and browsed the labyrinthine book-lined passageways and esoteric nooks devoted to specific topics. An occasional folding chair, a school desk (in the music section) and even a sofa gave a distinctive feel to each turn. In a corner room devoted to history there is barely enough room maneuver, but the other shoppers were considerate and quiet. Soft music played throughout the store. Although music is available while shopping via the internet, appropriate background music does round out a used book buying experience.

Around Atlanta there may be better places still in existence to enjoy an old-time used book store experience, but I have yet to find it. A word of caution: although the Atlanta Book Exchange has been in business a long time it is no longer in its old location. There is a rumor that the owner is considering alternative ways to spend his time. If a visit to a real used book store is on your to-do list, don’t wait until Atlanta Book Exchange becomes a part of the past.

Earlier, I mentioned the sense of taste. Two blocks north of the bookstore the Atkins Park Restaurant serves an excellent grilled Swiss cheese with bacon and tomato on sourdough bread. Good bookstores and good restaurants are hard to resist. I don’t even try when the two are in close proximity.

The Atlanta Book Exchange is located at 591 N. Highland Ave.

Read about Ken Reynolds on the Writer’s Bio page