Boomer’s Books

Downtown. 420 King St. 722-2666

Owning a used bookstore means looking forward to coming into work every day.

Not that it’s all dusting off old volumes and petting the cat while I and the rest of the Algonquin Round Table argue over our top five opium-addict poets.

The margins are better in a used bookstore than new, but the difference is the labor. We don’t have distributors. Sure, some books are brought to us, but the stock can vary from a first edition of Jitterbug Perfume to beat-up Nora Roberts paperbacks that I can’t even put on the quarter rack.

After sorting and negotiating an offer, we clean and de-sticker (we go through a lot of GooGone around here) and price books with a pencil. With potentially rare volumes we compare prices online (typically at half the median). Some books have to be repaired and covered in Mylar, like that Tom Robbins hardback with the goofy shot of the author in his running shorts.

When I bought the store at the beginning of the year, I’m sure my friends thought I would have plenty of time to keep writing pop-cultured inflected shorts for to reject, but the truth is one could easily spend all 53 of our weekly open hours doing nothing but processing books — over a thousand volumes a month.

In the two months that I’ve been owner I’ve read embarrassingly little: exactly six pages of Charleston native Jack Hitt’s book about his El Camino de Santiago pilgrimage and a few chapters of party boy Jay McInerney’s A Hedonist in the Cellar (a collection of magazine columns about wines I’ll never be able to afford).

The fact is, I’m trying to fill the shoes of two people who knew what they were doing. Lee and Jim Breeden started Boomer’s 12 years ago last month. They set out to be a store for readers, based on Half-Price Books out of Dallas. Looking for a large space with cheap rent, they leased this long and lean former ophthalmologist’s office from the Engels brothers, who also owned the furniture business across the street. (The building is under different ownership now.)

“When we opened, upper King Street was like Beirut,” Jim says. A former history professor at Southern Methodist University, Jim plays the curmudgeon but the truth is he has a soft spot for animals and loves greeting customers.

Lee, who worked as a fund-raiser for Spoleto and the Gibbes Museum, has a smile that lit up this place a million times, one that belied her business acumen and toughness. (Back in the Beirut days, Jim was still in Dallas during the school year, so Lee learned to deal with the occasional unsavory character.)

A used bookstore is part thrift store, part high-end antique dealer, and our customers reflect that range. Our customers are a gift. I like the Harris Teeter, but I don’t think people come in every single day and say, “I’m just so glad I found you! I adore grocery stores!”

So far, we haven’t had to rely on online sales. Shopping here is an experience, a great way to spend time. Nobody calls up FIG and asks if they deliver.

Shopping for new books is fun too, but I truly believe used books make for a better store. Not because I’m ‘keeping it real,’ or because of the gems you won’t find at Books-a-Million. It’s because we have time on our side. We don’t have to buy the hype (or copies) of Celestine Prophecy, Don’t Sweat the Small Stuff, The DaVinci Code, or even the critically-acclaimed Cold Mountain. Books being what they are, time is the ultimate test. Even The Great Gatsby and Moby Dick were financial flops at first.

The Breedens gave me a job here nine years ago, back when $6 an hour meant I could buy the canned beans instead of dry. Hoping to see the store continue to prosper, maybe even become a literary hub, they asked my wife Lauren and me (pictured above) to take it over when they recently retired. I still call every other day with questions. What kind of food does Purdy (the store cat) like? Do poker books sell?

So thank you for voting for us. This is Boomer’s fourth consecutive Best Used Bookstore award. (In 2004, it finally wrested the plaque away from Gene and Amelia Woolf, who owned the two Atlantic Books on East Bay and King, and now own a store in Asheville.) We’re going to be releasing a new name very soon, have an opening with myself and other local writers reading. I recommend parking on St. Philip — it has some beautiful spots.

For me, the hardest part about working here is being sympathetic to parking complaints. My celebrated parking skills really deserve their own Best of Charleston. It’s not your fault. It’s like complaining to Superman about how heavy stuff is.