Remembering Al's

(This originally appeared as a comment on a Jo Walton post at tor.com.)

Back in my teens, when I was first really getting into science fiction, the go-to used bookstore in Phoenix, AZ, was Al's Used Books. Al's was in a shabby building in a bad part of town with bad parking. But it was a big storefront; where the average used-book bookstore held maybe 10,000 or so books, Al's held 300,000. The space inside, except for narrow aisles, was completely filled with bookcases, tables, and floor-to-high-ceiling shelves on the walls. There were scattered fluorescent lights on the ceiling, but most illumination came from the big windows at the front of the store. The floors were bare concrete, no tile or carpet. If you'd asked for a cup of coffee there, they would have called the police to report the lunatic that had wandered into the store.

If you were looking for a specific title, Al's wasn't where you wanted to go. The proprietors sorted books by genre and that was it; books to be shelved were shoved into the closest available space in that genre section. When you went book-hunting at Al's, you hunted.

But for someone still fairly new to SF, looking thru those shelves and shelves and shelves of science-fiction paperbacks (hardcovers were a fairly small minority of the available selection) was kind of wonderful. Because you could go into Al's with two or three titles in mind to look for, and by the time you staggered up to the cash register several hours later you'd have made a couple of dozen serendipitous discoveries you hadn't known you wanted.

(This was in the late 60's/early 70's, long enough ago that you could eventually see almost every paperback since the start of paperback publishing a few decades earlier pass thru Al's. If not on one trip, then possibly on the next few trips there.)

I eventually got out of the (inconvenient) habit of going to Al's, shifting to newer and newer books as I got older. But I still held fond memories of the many books I'd discovered there. So it was still a shock when, sometime in the 80's, I happened to be back in that bad neighborhood on other business... and saw the storefront where Al's had been was now selling used appliances instead of used books. (Part of that shock was because I wasn't the only local SF fan who'd been a regular customer of Al's, and I would kind of have expected to hear of Al's closing a lot earlier.)

Not Al's, but this looks a lot like
the shopping-at-Al's experience.

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