A Filer in Heaven


By Hampus Eckerman: Johannesburg. A dodgy part of town, graffiti on the walls, people hanging around street corners, waiting for an opportunity. A sign proclaiming “Collectors Treasury”. But not in a place where you want to bring up your camera or phone to take picture. No open invitation to step inside, first you have to ring the bell for the security gate to open.

Inside is heaven.

This is not an exaggeration. Inside is heaven. Directly after you enter you see the first pile of books. And they never end. They never, ever end.

It is like walking into a giant cave with winding tunnels, shelf after shelf, stack after stack. There were books of the most strange and obscure variations. I noted one book on the building of Viking ships, another on the history of dentistry. Works on all subjects, old or new. It was quite staggering. I had absolutely no idea where or even how to start.

One of the owners, I was too shocked, happy and stupefied to remember to ask his name, met me in the entrance corridor, books surrounding us at both sides.

“You’re here for books, I guess”, he said while I was trying to catch my breath.

“This is a wonderful place”, I said. “It is beautiful, it is magical, I LOVE IT!”

“And you have only just entered”, he said with a satisfied smile.

I told him that I mostly read Science Fiction and Fantasy and he said that he had some vintage stuff on the top floor, but that I perhaps should start in the cellar. So I did.

This isn’t really true. I didn’t come even halfway down the stairs before I found a large volume called The Pictorial History of Science Fiction hidden in a stack of totally randomized fiction books. Scanning all shelves and books by the stair, I then found a small pocket book of Heinlein’s The Door Into Summer, a book I had only read from my Father’s library. Then I managed to get down the stairs.

And thought I would faint.

I can only describe it as a maze. A labyrinth of books, in stacks and on shelves, alcoves and small side rooms. Sometimes in order, sometimes on total chaos. I haphazardly walked into one side room and a few books down in a pile I found the first edition of Leslie Charteris The Saint Goes West. Happy with my find, I looked to the left. Where there were five filled bookshelves with first editions.

I can talk forever how I wandered around (wondered around might be a better wording) in this amazing bookstore, but it would take me forever. Let me just add that to get to the top floor you would have to take an elevator filled with… you guessed it. Pile after pile with books.

In the end I was saved only by the fact that I had a limit to how many books I could bring back on a plane and by having booked a tour of a brewery. Otherwise I would still have wandered around looking at books, perhaps starved to death in the process. Let it be known that beer saves lives.

For more information about Collectors Treasury, read Atlas Obscura: ”Collectors Treasury”.

These are the books Hampus bought.

23 thoughts on “A Filer in Heaven

  1. Some used bookstores are magical places. Not only do they have what you want, these places of wonder help you find what never knew you needed.

  2. Hampus, that sounds entirely delightful! I’m so glad that you found that bookstore, and that you made it out alive….

  3. Hampus, where’s the Saint book in the photo?

    This is indeed an incredible place. Thanks for all the photos.

    In Baltimore, there is a place called the Book Thing that looks like this, minus the piles on the floor. You never know what you’re going to find in there. You won’t find anything valuable, because they sell those online. The reason they don’t sell them in the store is, it isn’t a store. The books are free. Whatever you see that you want, you take. I have found some cool stuff there.

  4. Jeff, I never bought the The Saint book. I was thinking of doing it, but couldn’t remember if I already had it.

  5. We used to have a used bookstore that looked like that. I think there’s a Starbucks in its place now.

  6. Wasn’t there a Connie Willis story about this store? Although the branch she visited was in New York.

  7. Everyone . . . once . . . finds a place like that.

    You remember it. You enjoyed yourself. But there was never enough time, not enough space, not enough money.

    You want to go back, but it never quite works out . . .

    And then finally you do.

    It’s gone.

    There’s only one chance, I guess.

  8. I came across a place like this in Maine once. It’s still there, too.

    As for places you only get to visit once, there is a pub with a tree inside in Central London. More than twenty years ago, when I was a student someone took me there. I had a bit too much to drink, stumbled around Soho until I passed something I recognised (the Prince Charles Cinema), headed for the nearest tube station (Leicester Square) and went home. Later I tried to find the pub again, checking out the streets near Leicester Square and the Prince Charles Cinema. But I never found it.

    In the years since then, I have talked to several people who’ve been to that pub. None of them knew where to find it either except “somewhere around Leicester Square”. I guess it’s a pub you only get to visit once in your life.

  9. Cross Street Books in Ypsilanti looked like something like this. Books everywhere, clogged aisles, never knowing what you’d find. I remember calling a member of a horror APA I belonged to and telling her “This store near me has a copy of Montague Summers’ The Werewolf, you want it?”

    “YES!”

    I found one of HRE Davidson’s rarer books there, saw a complete run of Nancy Drew from the 1940s and two shelves of nothing but Judy Bloom. That’s not getting into all the graphic novels, art books and coffee table books.

    Sheldon (the owner) kept talking about getting everything inventoried and put on computer and then online, but it never happened.

    I miss that place. Thank you for sharing, Hampus

  10. @Ahrelia: I’ve been there! I used to live in Ann Arbor, and discovered Cross Street Books by chance one evening. Each time I went, there were more books stacked in the aisles than the time before.

    I never saw another customer there, and the hours seemed random, so I kept expecting to find its doors shut forever. But it was a place of wonders and maybe still is.

  11. It almost sounds like you stepped through to Hay-on-Wye — but when I was there (1987), none of the stores were quite that crammed.

  12. Reminds me of “Here’s a Bookstore” in Brooklyn – much smaller, but just as crowded. Such a selection! And they let you use the bathroom! Yes, the door doesn’t quite shut and they have a plump cat snoozing in the corner, but they let you use the bathroom! In fact, I must plan a long voyage back this weekend to see what’s turned up in the stacks – I’m on the hunt for all 90 of Tanith’s Lee’s novels.

  13. The Bent Cover in Phoenix was a lot like this. The owner, June, never quite managed to catch up with filing newer inventory, so there were stacks up against most of the walls and shelves. (More books? Great! But it did mean a lot of the store was inaccessible to Hilde’s wheelchair.)

    When June passed away suddenly, the store was behind on rent, so the landlord changed all the locks and let the store, with all its books, sit there for over a year. Some of June’s former employees were able to scrape together financing, re-open the store, and keep it going for two more years before finally closing for good. (Never got over there during those two years, so don’t know if the aisles got cleared.)

    Further back in time was Al’s, on Van Buren street near downtown Phoenix. Al’s had about 300,000 books in inventory, with almost every available inch of wall space and most of the floor space covered in shelves, bookcases, and tables (with more shelving under the tables). Books were sorted only by category, so trips there involved a lot of browsing. The aisles were clear, but so narrow that if two people were moving in opposing directions, one would have to back out to let the other pass. (Fire codes weren’t quite as strict, or as enforced, as in later years.) I bought a LOT of old 50’s and 60’s SF and fantasy there; back then you could fill a grocery bag of books for about five bucks. (Of course, back then my having five bucks to spend happened a lot less often.) I hadn’t been to Al’s in several years when I drove by the spot in the early 80’s, and saw to my dismay that the space was now occupied by an appliance store. It had seemed like Al’s had been there forever, and would *be* there forever. I was really surprised that Al’s closing hadn’t been a hot topic among Phoenix fandom.

  14. @Hampus Eckerman: Wow, that looks and sounds scary and wonderful. 🙂 Thanks!

    @ULTRAGOTHA: “YOU FOUND MT TSUNDOKU!”

    LOL!

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