It's Saturday night in the City of Oaks, and I emerge from a forested neighborhood onto bustling Hillsborough Street.
The old brick buildings and boarded-up windows and doorways recall a different era of Raleigh, when it was a gritty metal holdout with The Brewery, Capitol Comics and an assortment of ramshackle bead and independent record stores. Cup A Joe is among the remnants of that time. Even though the ashtrays have been removed from the tables and you can't smoke inside anymore, goth kids, conspiracy theorists, punks and mystics still loiter at the outside tables watching the traffic pass. Raleigh remains a dirty fallout shelter for genuine freaky weirdness. It is a bell jar where authentic subculture and a true independent spirit have been preserved.
I saunter up the road past the Art Deco Wilmont apartments, drawn, as if by hidden magnets, toward my favorite bookstore. By day, Reader's Corner is just a cool, dusty used bookshop with a '70s exterior that sells LPs and cheap good hardcovers. But after it closes, insomniac bibliophiles congregate under its fluorescent lights to peruse the outdoor shelves for bargain books. On the honor system, they shove a dollar or two into the slot in the door (10 cents for a paperback, 25 for a hardcover; all proceeds go to the NPR station) and cart off their sweat-earned treasures.
I stumble up to Reader's Corner late at night. Two elderly women browse intently and periodically shout at each other in machine-gun Italian. Why aren't they asleep? A little boy is with them—a grandson, maybe—sitting in the rafters of the Corner's wooden staircase, examining the grain of the wood, looking catatonic. Cars pull in and out of the parking lot, their headlights bouncing as the wheels hit the curb, before quickly circling and roaring away. A middle-aged redhead pulls up in her beat-up Corolla and jumps out, sifting through the shelves, flicking through the book spines like an expert.
When I started book hunting, I would scan the shelves methodically, trying to concentrate and make the good book appear—but it seemed like the harder I focused, the more crummy textbooks and decaying copies of National Geographic I saw. After a while, I realized one must approach the task like a blind person, guided by invisible strings. It's like a Magic Eye painting: Once you begin to relax, things start to come into focus.
Dreams began leaping into my hands: Solzhenitsyn, Edgar Cayce's On ESP, the late James Purdy, Larry McMurtry, Gore Vidal, Susan Sontag, Joan Didion. How long have these dreams been sitting unwanted, unloved, gathering dust, exposed to the elements day in and day out? I am drawn to a dust-jacketless hardcover with a worn-out blue spine. I pick it up and am glad to see that it's a copy of Mr. Sammler's Planet, a 1970 novel by Saul Bellow. Turning to the title page, I see there in shaky script, a signature—"S. Bellow." Could it be? I gasp.
Looking around, I see the two Italian women are absorbed in the romance and fantasy sections and realize that it is possible. The wonderful thing about the South is that the things you love and cherish haven't been exploited by hundreds of other people who have the same idea. Medium-sized cities in the South remain the cultural frontier, where not everything has become a simulacrum for hipsters yet—there really are authentic used bookstores, thrift stores that haven't been ransacked by fashion designers, old indie movie theaters, and dive bars with dollar beers and a good jukebox. But the downside of finding signed Saul Bellow hardcovers in plain sight is ... you're finding them in plain sight. Which would indicate that you're the only one who cares. It's hard to meet people who get excited about this kind of thing, who are eager to share this overflowing bounty. Thomas Wolfe, the great Asheville-born novelist, wrote, "I have found the constant, everlasting weather of man's life to be, not love, but loneliness."
No matter. I walk back down Hillsborough Street feeling giddy, balancing a huge stack of books against my chest. The after-hours crowd lingering in front of Cup A Joe stare at me as I walk past. I get in my truck and head down the highway to Walnut Street in Cary.
Once home, I look up Saul Bellow's signature. It exactly matches the signature in the book. The real deal! It's not worth much, but finding it still made my day. Inspired and energized by the night's finds, I brew a pot of coffee and spread the worn-in editions out on a blanket in order to examine them more closely.
This article appeared in print with the headline "Outdoor bookstore."