Books with a presence, and Books with a Past

July 29, 2008 at 1:28 am (books, Local interest (Baltimore-Washington))

Drive out to the western part of Howard County – I always take Frederick Road (Route 144) for its scenic value – and as you travel south on Route 97, you will find two worthy destinations for book lovers.

First – the Glenwood Branch Library.

With its high ceiling and clerestory windows, the building is always lightfilled, even on gloomy days. This spacious, welcoming facility offers a wide selection of books for adults, young adults, and children. Lovers of recorded books will be especially gratified by Glenwood’s offerings in that area.

Next on the agenda:

The Inwood Village Center consists of a small, unprepossessing strip of shops. Pull in anyway. Second from the left you’ll see the sign “Books with a Past.” Go on in. I predict you’ll be pleasantly surprised by what you find there.

Most of have been in used book stores that were dusty, jumbled, and cramped. Books with a Past looks small from the front, but in fact its premises are quite spacious and well lit. The books are organized on long rows of wood shelving. Classical music plays softly in the background.

Generally, I don’t go to used bookstores looking for a particular title; instead, I live in hope of a serendipitous find. But this past Saturday, I found something I was very specifically in search of: The Fountain of Highlandtown by Rafael Alvarez.

I first read this book when it came out 1997. I hadn’t thought about it for a while, but then Alvarez’s name began to appear regularly in the writing credits for HBO’s The Wire. (We don’t actually subscribe to HBO, so we’re currently working our way through the series by getting the DVD’s from the library.) One of the many virtues of The Wire is that it’s incredibly well written, and seeing Alvarez’s name reminded me of the quirky, unique stories he penned a decade or so ago. The stories reflect a deep knowledge of what I would call inner Baltimore, East Baltimore, the city’s multi-ethnic working class core.

The first place I looked, of course, was the library. And that is where discouragement began. The library no longer owned The Fountain of Highlandtown. Not only that – it was also out of print! A subsequent effort to obtain this slender little volume through interlibrary loan was likewise unsuccessful. And yet…

There it was, right at the beginning of the fiction section in Books with a Past.

[Click here for the full text of the title story.]

I was also in the market for the Maigret novels of Georges Simenon. Recently I’ve been listening to the recorded books read by Andrew Sachs. Rarely has a reader been so perfectly matched with the text. Sachs’s quiet yet intense delivery is exactly suited to Simenon’s spare prose. In addition, Sachs’s pronunciation of French names and places is flawless. It’s hard to believe that this versatile actor once played the hapless Manuel in the great British comedy series Fawlty Towers!

Alas, there were no Maigret titles on hand that day. But Marvin Schaefer, a retired mathematician who with his wife Mary Alice has owned and operated Books with a Past since 1996, knew some fascinating Simenon lore. I was delighted to be regaled with stories about this master of the roman policier, whose private life was far racier than that of his uxorious policeman creation.

Needless to say, I have never experienced such a shared enthusiasm for book and author at a big box bookstore. This is passion, not marketing.

Books With a Past has no online presence. The bookmark provides the particulars (click to enlarge):


  1. Carol said,

    That’s a wonderful shop which I try to avoid, as I have absolutely no will power there.


  2. “The Book on the Shelf” - Richard Cohen’s cri de coeur on behalf of the printed word - with further thoughts thereupon « Books to the Ceiling said,

    […] have been in a fever of book acquisition lately, buying them from big box bookstores, abebooks and used bookstores (since so many of the titles I want are out of print), various small publishers, and yes, Amazon, […]

  3. Lunching with intellectuals « Books to the Ceiling said,

    […] of chatting with Marvin Schaefer, who along with his wife Mary Alice is the proprietor of Books With a Past. A portly gentleman with a flowing, seasonally-appropriate beard, Schaefer expounded on a wide […]

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