Talk to any antiquarian book dealer over the age of 50 and you’ll hear about the glory days of book scouting, back before the internet. There was a time (especially in larger cities with lots of bookstores) when a person could make a living hunting for books to sell to used & antiquarian bookstores. They would learn what bookstore owners in their region would buy, and they would scour yard sales, thrift stores, auctions, and estate sales for books that matched the buying interests of those stores, and they could make a living doing this. This involved a lot of expertise and finely honed knowledge about books. It was an art form, and there were book scouts who became legendary in bookseller circles for their ability to unearth amazing books.
The internet, as everyone knows, changed everything in the book world. Anyone with a mobile phone can scan a book with a barcode and instantly know what it is selling for on Amazon or its online competitors. Search “book scout” today and you’ll learn a lot about specialty tools for scanning books in thrift stores to resell yourself on Amazon. There is a huge subculture of people doing this and making a modest living doing so. This, in fact, is how Underground Books started, as an online hobby-seller. The problem with this, the old-timers say, is it requires no expertise. The books are just widgets the “scout” scans into a database. Fortunately, you can’t scan antiquarian or pre-ISBN books (pre-1970 or so), but the market for these books is smaller and more specialized than ever. Fortunately for us, some of the crazy people trying to run an open brick and mortar, used and antiquarian bookshop in the age of the internet, it does seem like we may be at the beginning of a revival in interest in vintage books and paper. Millennials and the so-called “digital natives” who follow them, generations who are more comfortable in the world of e-books, seem to have their own brand of nostalgia for old books. Perhaps the tactile feel and scent of real paper is in our DNA at this point.
In any event, while it is rare for us to get a long enough stretch of time away from the store to do the kind of leisurely book scouting we hear romanticized in the time of yore, we relish it more than anything. All of our travel out of our region gets organized around finding out of the way book scouting opportunities at antique malls, junk shops, and thrift stores. There is no greater joy than finding a gem of an old book buried in some out of the way place. Even in a world crawling with people scouring shops for things to resell online, we are still usually able to find profitable scores by sticking to older books overlooked by the scanners.
We try to make it up to Chattanooga at least once a year for many reasons. Our excuses for our getaway include that we almost always find a good book or two for the shop, it’s a supremely beautiful, walkable, and well developed city, Megan grew up there, and it’s one of the first places we went when we were dating. On the trip up from Carrollton, taking 27 North, there’s plenty to see: scenic byways framed trees lit up with fall leaves, the bookshops in charming downtown Rome (Dogwood Books, a used, new, and rare shop and Alan’s Used Books, formerly Paradise Lost Books), and Howard Finster’s Paradise Garden, one of Georgia’s visionary folk art sites.
Once arriving, we checked into the lovely Bluff View Inn, part of Chattanooga’s historic Bluff View Art District, on the south side of the Tennessee River where the Hunter Museum of American Art and the Tennessee Aquarium are located. We stayed in the Chambliss Room of The Thompson House, a Victorian-style home built in 1908. The Bluff View Inn is just steps away from the Walnut Street Bridge, a beautiful pedestrian bridge that links the north and south shores of downtown Chattanooga. After getting settled, we immediately took across “the Walking Bridge” to the North shore, walking through Coolidge Park and the eclectic shops on Frazier Avenue (including Winder Binder Books, Art & Music) to reach one of our favorite places to scout: Knitting Mill Antiques on Manufacturer’s Road.
Housed in a two and half story, all brick, restored turn-of-the-century sewing factory, Knitting Mill Antiques has over 100 booths of vintage wares, and we’ve had some good scores there before. We were able to pick up several titles as well as a nice vintage-style tool carrier to display old postcards in at the shop. Among our finds were The Runaway Couple (a selection of children’s stories from Dickens, circa 1920), a first printing of On the Psychology of Meditation, Masterpieces of Eloquence and the World’s Great Orators in beautifully illustrated cloth, and a first edition of Mark Twain’s The American Claimant. Pleased with our trophies, we walked around Frazier Avenue and treated ourselves to happy hour cocktails at Beast +Barrel Gastro Smokehouse, returning for dinner (and more cocktails) after a quick turn around the shops, stopping in Winder Binder and Blue Skies, an excellent gift shop with many book-related items and paper goods. Walking back to our room, we enjoyed all the public art Chattanooga boasts, from metal dance patterns inlaid into the sidewalks of Frazier Avenue to the sculptures outside the Hunter Museum.
The next morning, we woke to complimentary breakfast at Rembrandt’s Coffee House, then hit the pavement, walking several miles through the Southside to check out Chattanooga’s new independent bookstore, Star Line Books, located across from the Chattanooga Choo Choo. We were heartily impressed by Star Line, which had only been open seven weeks at the time, and chatted away the morning, talking shop with the delightful owner Star Lowe, all while attempting to touch all the shiny, brand new spines. A two-storey, 1,300-square-foot store, with an airy, completely charming atmosphere, we could have wiled away the entire day at the bookstore. Megan picked up a copy of Big Little Lies by Liane Moriarty (because she’ll read anything Reese Witherspoon acquires the film rights to). We finally left Star to the work of running her shop and hit up the Hot Chocolatier for truffles on our way to second breakfast (or brunch as some people call it) at The Bitter Alibi, enjoying more of Chattanooga’s public art on the way, especially this mural featuring Megan’s favorite familiar, with which she poses here, Star Line prize in hand.
After getting properly buzzed on “Champagne Thing” and “Mother Mary” and finishing up a delicious second breakfast, we wandered around the Southside, looking in to see if one of our favorite haunts was open, Estate of Confusion, the best junk shop we’ve ever seen. Alas, it was closed, but the sketchy hours are part of the charm! On the trek back to the Bluff View Arts District, we checked out a cool art gallery called Area 61 (“The Art Is Out There”), The Crash Pad, Chattanooga’s hostel, and Chatts, Chattanooga Coffee Co. We were pretty worn out once we got back to the inn, so we read and napped for a couple hours before heading back over the bridge to get dinner at Good Dog gourmet hot dogs and dessert at Clumpy’s Ice Cream.
In the morning, we headed out,
back in the car for the first time since we
arrived, and visited McKay’s Used Books, which is really where Megan grew up. Our real score there was a vintage book on astrology, but we left with several other books to put on our own TBR shelf at home, including a copy of Room for lending. On the advice of one of the innkeepers, we stopped at the East Ridge
Antique District off Ringgold Road, a square of
eight antique shops. Inside one of the shops, we found quite a few books to take home, including a charming little vintage book of Audrey Beardsley’s artwork, as well as an Easton Press Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland.
We headed homeward on 27, looking forward to our traditional stop back in Rome to Smart Shop
Antique Mall and Flea Market, where we had our first date (scouting for books, of course). Though unassuming from the outside, Smart Shop had multiple floors, ramps off to platformed areas, and what seems like hundreds of booths– you could literally get lost in this antique mall. Even Josh, who has an excellent sense of direction, called it disorienting. After driving in circles, we finally looked it up on our phones, only to find that Smart Shop had been demolished, the property purchased by a local church. According to North West Georgia News, where we found this picture, Smart Shop had frequently received citations from the Fire Marshall’s Office throughout the years (we weren’t surprised at this news). We’ll be mourning Smart Shop for quite a while. We cut our losses, though, investigated the local, massive Goodwill, and grabbed a coffee from Swift and Finch for the ride home.
RIP Smart Shop. Until the Runaway Couple rides again!
Megan & Josh