You Just Can’t Beat That Old Book Smell

Nancy Drew

This weekend a friend and I visited some used/antique bookstores around Pittsburgh! I was hoping to add a couple of volumes to my 1960’s Nancy Drew book collection. I’ve been collecting them for years, and I have about thirty of books so far; I’m hoping to have all sixty-four of the yellow-jacket originals someday. I didn’t end up finding any Nancy Drew books for my collection during this particular trip, but I enjoyed visiting some new book stores, anyways. I forgot how much I love that old book smell!

City Books

City Books

The first bookstore we went to was in the South Side, on Carson Street. There are a lot of run-down buildings on this side of town, in desperate need of some TLC. I wasn’t really sure what to expect from Carson Street during the day; it’s claim to fame is its thriving nightlife amongst a slew of bars and seedy nightclubs. We found City Books nestled in between an abandoned building and a sketchy-looking bar; however, as soon as we crossed over the threshold, we left that world behind and we felt like we stepped back in time. I breathed in that musty book smell and took in the sight of beautiful, leather-bound tomes from floor to ceiling. Two old men sat at a table near the window at the front of the store, commiserating over politics and what the world is coming to these days. “I’d love to come hang out in a place like this every day,” my friend Chelsea whispered (what is it, by the way, about buildings full of old books that makes people feel the need to whisper?). I knew what she meant. In here, there was no Muzak blasting overhead, like you get at Barnes and Noble. No associates dressed in aprons and armed with pricing guns trying to sell you membership cards. No coffee bars with noisy blenders and espresso machines. In here, it was just peaceful. It was so quiet, in fact, you could almost hear the books inviting you to open their pages and get lost in them for a few hours.


This store really only had a couple of shelves dedicated to children’s literature, and no Nancy Drew in sight. It boasted an impressive philosophy section (but I’m not really into that sort of thing), and MANY leather-bound volumes that were well over 100 years old. I learned from a recent novel I read, The Missing Manuscript of Jane Austen (a fictional account of a woman shopping in an antique bookstore who buys a particularly old volume and opens it to find a letter written by Jane Austen hidden inside) that books used to be sold without covers back in the day. Readers would purchase only the papers, and then pay to have someone bind the book for them. It’s the reason that so many old, wealthy libraries tend to be full of leather-bound volumes rather than paperback or modern-day hardcover. How cool is it to know that if you purchase a leather-bound book from that particular era, no one else will have the same exact copy of it as you?




We spoke to the little old Asian woman behind the counter for awhile, asking her about the shop. We were surprised when she told us that she rarely accepts books that people bring into the store to try to sell her. Most of the store is her personal collection of books that she’s accumulated over the years! She’s living out my retirement dream–I’d love to spend my entire life collecting books, and then when I’m very old and I’ve read them all, I’ll open up a shop and share my beloved volumes with other people. That is, if people haven’t completely switched to electronic books by that point. 

The Big Idea Bookstore and Cafe

The Big Idea Bookstore and Cafe

We left City Books and headed across the bridge toward Shadyside–a younger, trendier area of town. The GPS was directing us to The Big Idea Bookstore and Cafe. This store is actually a co/op. I didn’t really realize what that meant before I stepped in, but I found out that the people who work in the store don’t get paid; they are just volunteers. This store was very tiny and crowded when we stepped inside, and it had a very different feel from City Books. Postmodern rock music was playing overhead here, and patrons with dreadlocks and tattoo sleeves were sipping coffee and discussing things like the values of anarchy and how we need to abolish human trafficking. Chelsea and I tried to browse through the books, but there were precious few titles that we were interested in. We tended to pick up the most shocking titles we could find to show each other and silently exchange glances–we tried to be as discreet as possible, because we didn’t want to get in a scuffle with the hippies. We found books written by Karl Marx and angry lesbians and environmentalists who were fed up with the coal industry…but we definitely didn’t find any Nancy Drew, so we left.

As you can see from this picture, the books were almost an afterthought in this store....

As you can see from this picture, the books were almost an afterthought in The Big Idea….

Caliban Book Shop

Caliban Book Shop

The last place we visited was called Caliban Book Shop. It was also in Shadyside, but thankfully, it was much more similar to the first store we saw. It had that old musty book smell when we opened the door, so I trusted it immediately. The shelves were packed very tightly together, with books overflowing and even stacked on the floor. For any music purists out there, this shop would be a great place to score some vinyl, as it houses a tiny business-inside-a-business called Desolation Row. It’s full of old records and CDs from every genre. It didn’t take me long to find a real treasure trove–an entire row of shelves dedicated to children’s books, new and old. I even found a few Nancy Drews in there! Some were a little too new, printed in the 1990’s, and one was a little too old, printed in the 1940’s. I was really tempted by the 1940’s edition, but I talked myself out of it because I’m strictly collecting the 1960’s yellow-jackets (and because the 1940’s edition was pretty much un-readable–I tried to flip through the pages and the corner of one page broke off and disintegrated in my hand. Oops!). But at least I know now where I can go to check back. I’m sure they get new (old) books in all the time!

The Stacks

The Stacks

Nancy Drew

Nancy Drew

My search for used/antique bookstores has only just begun. I’m hoping that somewhere in this town, I’ll stumble upon a shop just for children’s literature like Meg Ryan’s in You’ve Got Mail. You never know!

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Anyone else out there a fan of the old book smell? 😀

Categories: books, Uncategorized | Tags: , , , , | 9 Comments

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9 thoughts on “You Just Can’t Beat That Old Book Smell

  1. Definitely. One of my favourite things is walking into a bookstore where the titles are all older than a few decades. I love the leather bound copies too. Wonderful post.

  2. I’m very jealous you have these amazing places! and loving your Nancy Drew collection 🙂

    • Victoria, you MUST have bookstores like this in the U.K.! They’re featured in basically every British rom com movie I’ve ever seen! And movies always tell the truth, right? 😉

  3. I collect The Three Investigator books like you collect Nancy Drew! Old style bookstores are the BEST. They just feel so safe.

  4. I’ve read Hardy Boys, Bobbsey Twins, and Dana Sisters, and even an Alfred Hitchcock children’s series, but I’ve never heard of that series before! Are they for children? I’ll have to check that out. 🙂

    • The Three Investigators actually get a lot of their “cases” from Alfred Hitchcock, so it could be really similar to the Alfred Hitchcock children’s series that you mentioned! They are targeted at youth and follow the adventures of three boys who solve mysteries.

      I love the Bobbsey Twins as well! My mom owns a good number of that series from when she was a kid.

  5. I didn’t know that about books only being sold as the pages and you had to have them bound yourself. So cool! Your book store adventures have me wanting to go explore some of the old bookstores here in Memphis! I spend a ridiculous amount of time in the library, but don’t make it to bookstores often enough!

  6. If you ever find some great bookstores in Memphis, you definitely need to blog about it! 😀

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