I'm delighted to welcome my wife, the wonderful Eldritch Soda (I tried to get her to change her name to Eldritch Dean, but no luck, sadly) to talk about her former workplace, The Friends of the Library bookstore in Rockville, Maryland.
The front of the store is crowded with piles and carts of to-be-examined book, movie, and music donations. The aisles between bookcases are narrow, with even more carts full of books for sale that won't fit on the shelves. It's been about a year and a half since I've been there, but in my memory I swear some of those bookshelves are so tall they touch the ceiling. And every bookcase is absolutely groaning, heaving, full of books. To a certain type of reader, the Friends of the Library bookstore in Rockville, Maryland, is heaven, full of unexpected treasures and community connections. I both volunteered and worked at the store, shelving books as a volunteer and then sorting and pricing donations and helping customers find what they wanted as a paid employee.
The store was divided into many different sections, and because of the small space, some unexpected juxtapositions occurred, enough that when I was in library school I considered writing a final paper on the store. The store's unusual layout (like a Warfare subsection that only went up to the Middle Ages, with more recent warfare materials shelved with their respective wars, or a Religious Studies section that included everything but Judaism and then a separate section entirely on Judaism) also let us highlight very specific subgenres and emphasize connections, as well as putting some books in multiple areas (like The Diary of Anne Frank in the Memoir and Judaism sections),which made these cross-genre books easier to find. We had evolved. We had escaped the clutches of Melvil Dewey and the Library of Congress to form our own paradigm.
We were usually so pressed for space that new additions to each nonfiction shelf were just put where they could fit rather than wrestled into any sort of order. (The same was not true for fiction, by the way--I think customers might have mutinied if we'd tried that.) The lack of any required order also allowed for some whimsy--I still remember amusing myself one day by putting James Surowiecki's book The Wisdom of Crowds directly next to a book called The Folly of Crowds. (Google claims the second book doesn't exist, which just demonstrates even more the magic of used bookstores--you can find books that Google hasn't even noticed there.)
In addition to these juxtapositions, I loved how the store, more explicitly than the Barnes and Noble a few minutes' drive away, was able to reflect the community it served, on a very granular level. For example, this part of Maryland is home to a large Jewish population (hence the separate Judaism section), and Judaism wouldn't get anywhere near as much room in most other bookstores or in libraries. As expected from a used bookstore located just outside Washington, DC, the store also received many political books. I never spent much time at our sister store, now in Wheaton, Maryland, and currently closed due to the pandemic, but given the varying demographics in different parts of the county, I can only assume that similarly idiosyncratic sections, ones which differ from Rockville's, can also be found in the Wheaton store when it's open.
The primary function of this bookstore and its sister store is to raise money for Montgomery County Public Libraries, but many US library systems as well as some libraries in other countries have a similar group. If you're interested, see if there's anything you can do to work with your local group.
BIO: Eldritch Soda is a writer, pop culture critic, and poodle enthusiast. Find her at her blog or on Twitter at @eldritchsoda.
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