If you like bookstores, you like Tim’s Used Books in Provincetown. It has creaky floors; old covers of Catcher in the Rye and Brave New World tacked to the wall; that sweet, slightly musty smell that is perfume to bibliophiles; and a hastily-drawn “SHUT OFF YOUR CELL PHONE NOW!” sign taped to the front door. And, of course, it has books. Stacks upon stacks of them. Books in closets and around corners and lining shelves, from Tootle to Political Thought in Medieval Times to the memoirs of Flava Flav.
I found the store on my second day in Provincetown, when, after getting acclimated to my condo and buying groceries, I set out for inspiration. I’m working on a crime story, myself, and I was looking for a book I had seen mentioned on Dominick Dunne’s Power, Privilege, and Justice: Maria Flook’s take on the murder of fashion writer (and Truro resident) Christa Worthington, Invisible Eden. Tim Barry – the “Tim” of the store’s title — had Eden in stock, of course. And as he recorded the sale in a floppy blue spiral-bound notebook, he mentioned that he appeared as a character in the book. It was the only book in the store of which this could be said, he told me.
I went searching for Tim’s cameo when I got home and I found it near the end of a chapter called “The Petrified Woman.” Deep into her investigation of Worthington’s murder, Flook gets a call from Tim about Worthington’s vast book collection, which includes a volume on Greco-Roman culture with “Adultery is no sin,” scribbled in the margin.
“He told me that a buyer in Hollywood is interested in Christa’s library,” Flook wrote, “but he will still sell it to me, did I want it?” Tim wanted $3,000 for the collection, Flook reported.
“’Try Hollywood,’ I said”
I wound up bailing on Invisible Eden (while examining crime scene photos, Flook wrote, “A bowl of Cheerios is left on the lip of the kitchen table…The familiar oat rings are compelling to me; my own kids walked around with cups of Cheerios.”), but I remained curious about Tim. Who is this guy? How did his store start? What is the life of a used bookseller like?
When I went back to the store and asked him those questions, rapid-fire, he paused.
“Hmm… That’s kind of a tough one.” He had spent a number of years in journalism he told me – arts writing for Premiere magazine, food writing for The Boston Globe – and he believed in asking specific questions. “I didn’t say, like, ‘Write my article,’” he said.
Stammering for a second, I eventually asked, “How long have you been here?”
“And how many books do you have in the store?”
“Five thousand six hundred.”
Things improved from there. I ended up chatting with Tim for the better part of an hour. I sat in a miniature wooden chair – the de facto children’s section — watching customers buy pocket encyclopedias on cacti and copies of Charlie in the Chocolate Factory with a sticker marked “Sharon” on the front. And I watched them receive bits of commentary with their change. He told a 23-year old buying a copy of On the Road that he was the “perfect age to read Kerouac.” When a white-bearded man buying a Tom Robbins book said that the author had gone downhill, Tim said, “Yep, but he’s not entirely at the bottom of the hill yet.”
Here are the best parts my conversation with Tim, condensed and edited.
T.B.: He used to come in here all the time. He was a crusty guy. I met him when I guess he would have been in his late 60s, so he had already mellowed quite a bit from the classic Mailer stories you hear about him head-butting people and things like that. He was gracious. The first time I met him I didn’t ask him to sign any books or anything. I just said, “Oh, Mr. Mailer, right?” And he just said, “[grumbles unintelligibly].” And then the next time he came in, he was buying some books – mostly research for novels he was writing – and he bought his books and as he was leaving he said, “I’d be happy to sign some books or whatever if you want.” And I’m like, “Oh, OK.” I went in the back and got like twenty books and he signed them. I don’t like to bother people. We get a lot of medium-famous people coming in and we don’t make a big fuss about them. Part of the nice thing about Provincetown is that the Surfer Dude, the Stoner, the Media Celebrity – they all get the same sort of lack of scrutiny.
P.E.: How did you make your way out to the Cape?
T.B.: Well, the first time I came to Provincetown was in 1967. My folks had rented a place in Wellfleet and were staying there for a couple of weeks and they would come out here and they would go to a bar and leave us to go run around the town. I was a young kid. Then I came back in the early ‘90s. I was meeting a friend here who was coming on a whale watch and I had had a used book store up-Cape, but [it] wasn’t successful at all. I was just sort of scrabbling by, barely making ends meet. And I came to P-Town and it was in early May, so there wasn’t much going on. And I saw a couple empty storefronts and I thought, “Wow, this would be a great town for a used book store!”
I saw a sign, so I went in and talked to the person. And I said, “How much is the rent?” and they said, “It’s $15,000 [for the season].” In 1991, it was like if you said it was $150,000. But it seemed crazy, because I was paying $200 a month in rent where my store was up-Cape. But I said to myself, “There must be a reason why they can get such high rents, you know?” So I took the plunge, borrowed some money, put down a deposit, and opened up Memorial Day Weekend 1991, and made a couple thousand dollars that weekend. Before that, the most I’d ever made in used books was, maybe, I think I might have had a hundred-dollar day before. But suddenly I was making several hundred dollars a day, consistently, and I was like, “Whoa!”
So, yeah, I found my niche here in Provincetown, as it were. The great thing about P-Town is that you get a lot of smart people from academia, the professions, the arts – especially the arts – who come here on vacation and love it and a lot of them keep coming back because they love it. So, because you’re drawing from New England and New York you’re getting a sort of high concentration of smart people who are interested in books and ideas and the arts. Whereas, in other areas, I don’t think you really have that. I know that because I had a store in L.A. for a couple of years in the mid 2000s and nobody reads in L.A. Or if they do, they weren’t buyin’ ‘em from me.
P.E. What did you make of the way you came out in [Invisible Eden]?
T.B. Well, she actually fabricated a lot of that.
P.E. The parts about you or the book?
T.B. The part about me – it’s completely misrepresented. I don’t want to go into specifics because then it sounds like it’s all ‘sour grapes’ and, you know, people embellish and put spin on things. The thing is, you can take facts and you can present them in such a way that is not true to the essence of what happened. I did try to sell her the books. It was a lot of books and there were a lot of really good books: fashion books and literature and stuff. So for the amount of money that I asked, it wasn’t like I said, “Well, I have this one book that Christa owned and I want five grand for it…” It was a ton of books; it was forty-some cartons of books. And it did have a lot of personal letters and diaries and things from the person and I thought, “Well, if she’s doing a research project on this person, wouldn’t she want this stuff?”
P.E. Do you often find yourself going through books of recently dead people?
T.B. Oh, all the time. On a weekly basis. At least half of our books come from estates. Somebody dies, we get a call, “You’ve gotta come out and get some books.” I was in a house yesterday that there was a bunch of books and they weren’t that good and, but, interestingly, it was a guy who had been fired from his job because they found out that he was living with a man. This was in the ‘50s and they were gonna fire him from his job. He worked for Lockheed, or something… national security, whatever. And he quit his job rather than break up with his lover and I thought, “That’s really cool…in the ‘50s, that didn’t happen.” But the interesting thing was…he also wrote plays, and the person who brought me in there to look at the books said, “Wow, all this stuff is just going to be thrown out, whatever you don’t want. And he has these really interesting plays that were never published and they’re all about his relationship with his lover and what happened with the government and all that…” And I kind of think I have to keep those plays… just so they don’t get thrown in the trash. I mean, they’re probably not good. Who knows?
P.E. When you say the stuff wasn’t that good, what do you look for?
T.B. Well, a lot of them were musty and there were things like copies of a biography of Adlai Stevenson. You’d be lucky if someone ever paid a dollar for that. Although if I had a 10,000-foot store, I would probably stock it because someone doing research on the ‘50s or something would go, “Oh, do you have anything on Adlai Stevenson?”
P.E. What’s a book that you see that you’re like, “OK. I can work with this”?
T.B. There was a ten-volume set of the life of Abraham Lincoln by Nicolay and Hay. And John Hay was secretary of state under Lincoln. And Nicolay was Lincoln’s personal secretary. So that’s a pretty scarce item, the complete life and papers of Lincoln. So, something like that is good to have. People like Lincoln.
P.E. Is there a book or kind of book you sell the most?
T.B. I’d say beach reads, frankly. Mysteries. Chick Lit. But the nice thing about that is that pays for all the Poetry, Literary Criticism, Semiotics – all the stuff that I think gives us interesting context. I know people who have had bookstores where they’re like, “Well, I’m just going to have fine first editions. I’m gonna have really arcane European Deconstructionists.” And those people last like two years if they’re lucky. The analogy that I give is, “You don’t win a ball game with home runs, you win it with base hits.” So, yeah, I could stock first editions, signed, and charge $500 for them and eventually I’d get a customer who’d want one. But I could sell a $3 or $4 book a dozen times an hour, then that’s what pays the bills.
P.E.: I noticed there’s no background music and there are no cellphones [in the store].
T.B. Well, it’s not that we do it consciously to have it as a throwback, but, I think it’s maintaining civility that people aren’t chatting away on cell phones when people are trying to browse through books. And, also, the ubiquitous drone of music in every store? We don’t need it. It’s not what we’re about. There’s a lot of things we could do. I’m sure if I ever studied merchandising or retail management, they would say, “You have to have music in a retail shop, because it gets people upbeat and they boogie around and they pick more things up off the shelves and you make more money.” But, you know, I could make more money having a t-shirt shop or a liquor store. But it’s not just about money. It’s about, “This is a place where I can sit. I can read when it’s not busy, have nice conversations with people about books and other things, you know general topics of the day. And maybe make a few friends, some great acquaintances. And sometimes they leave behind money when they leave.” What’s better than that?
Philip Eil is from the other New England “P-Town”: Providence, Rhode Island. His book research includes corresponding with federal inmates, watching Roy Rogers re-runs, attending pain management conventions in Las Vegas, and being screamed at by talk-radio show hosts on the Gulf Coast of Florida. You might read this book eventually, hopefully, God-willingly. In the mean time you can follow his reporting for the Providence Phoenix and other publications. He is a frequent patron of used bookstores, but, before speaking with Tim Barry, he never realized so many of the books he buys come from the recently deceased.