Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Finding Russia in Hyde Park

If I had any readers, I’d expect someone to ask questions like these: Fur Coat, where do you find good Russian history books? Is the art of hunting for Russian history books an art or a science? What advice do you have for would-be collectors? For me, the key is to live in a University town, someplace like Hyde Park, where students cast off old books every time they graduate and move out of town, and where professors eventually die, leaving the richest treasures to be shipped off by the heirs to booksellers. In Hyde Park, for instance, you’ve got Powell’s, a store with a solid Russian history section that stretches from floor to ceiling, as well as auxiliary section on Russian literary criticism.

At Powell’s, you start here, but when you’ve mined the usual places you browse the literature, poetry, and film sections as well. Powell’s best kept secret is the fact that book-sellers regularly discard un-bought books in brown paper bags and decaying boxes outside the front door. This free bin is hit-or-miss but one can find some good things there, especially theoretical or religious treatises that have long since gone out of print.

Old editions of Russian novels find their way into the bags and boxes too. One might complain that the books are in poor condition, but I think that just adds character to them. In fact, old books have character and often contain ancient inscriptions, dedications, and odds and ends that were left behind long ago. In one book, I discovered a Moscow subway pass from the 1960s.

Hyde Park has other avenues to Russian history. Across the street from Powell’s is a lesser used bookstore. Unfortunately, some of their stock is vastly overpriced. I’ve visited one book, the Keeper of Antiquities, for about three years. It’s a hard cover English first edition but, even so, it doesn’t seem worth $30 when the book (like all books unfortunately for those who love the thrill of the chase) is widely available online.

Hyde Park also has the famed Seminary Coop Bookstore, which is wonderful if a bit too gloomy and subterranean for my taste. Buying new Russian history and literature books seems unfair somehow, and definitely too expensive. But if one doesn’t mind the price, Hyde Park also offers Borders and 57th Street Books. But better to stick with used books; and even better to stick to the extremely cheap used books you find at Hyde Park’s annual charity used book sale, where $1 dollar texts fill hundreds of boxes.

At one sale, I found a wonderful text called The Soviet Experiment by a man named Suny, who, happy coincidence, worked in Hyde Park… Sadly, one of the best places to find a Russian history book at a fire-sale price is no more. While the Blackstone Library once put old books for sale on a regular basis, the Chicago Public Library has centralized the system and now only sells its books at Harold Washington.

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