Scroll down to the bottom of this list of guilty pleasures and you’ll find Fred K. reminiscing about the days when his folks would leave him at the book section of Packard’s Market in Hackensack while they went shopping. Since I have plenty of similar memories, this sent me memory-tripping back to the suburban wilderness of Bergen County, and my favorite book circuit in the Garden State Plaza, which had not yet been roofed over and turned into a multi-level Habitrail for consumers. The big department stores had not yet died out, and each had its own book section. Since these sections had different buyers and different policies, it was well worth a young book addict’s time to go exploring. No Forty-Niner ever panned for gold as patiently as I sifted through those coated-wire book racks.
Of all the department stores, Bamberger’s had the largest and most varied section. The front had all the new books and bestsellers, but then there were several rows of midlist paperbacks. Bamberger’s was particularly strong on certified classics: my first Theodore Dreiser novel (The Titan), my first John Hersey (The Child Buyer), my first Mark Twain (Life on the Mississippi), and my first C.S. Lewis (Out of the Silent Planet) came to me through the good offices of Bamberger’s. I also got my introduction to Jimmy Breslin through his gut-busting first novel, The Gang That Couldn’t Shoot Straight, though I had to swallow hard at the thought of paying $1.25 for a paperback.
At the far end of the Plaza was Stern’s, which had a good-sized book section, though the stock tended to favor novelizations and movie tie-ins. Along the way there was Atlantic Books, Cards and Gifts, a hole-in-the-wall place that nevertheless had some surprisingly good stuff — I found C.W. Ceram’s The First American, an Ace Double of Jack Vance’s The Last Castle and The Dragon Masters, and the Ballantine paperback edition of H.P. Lovecraft’s poetry, Fungi from Yuggoth, with the Gervasio Gallardo cover art.
All of which was mere prologue, of course, to Schiller’s Books, the Emerald City at the end of the young booklover’s road. I’ve rhapsodized about the place before, and it’s been gone for decades, so I won’t rehash any of those reminiscences.
Don’t get me wrong: I love a big-box bookstore as much as the next reader, and any place with a big stock of books is a little slice of heaven to me. But there was a particular flavor to being on the prowl for books back then, and I’m always happy to be reminded about it.