This Critic and Anxiety-Sufferer Finds Peace, Relaxation at Used Book Stores

For this critic, bibliophile and anxiety-sufferer, there’s no cure like a visit to a used bookstore.

Jonathan Russell Clark
Jonathan Russell Clark at Karen Wickliff Books

On a chilly autumn day in 2020, I stood in front of Karen Wickliff Books in Clintonville, anxious and depressed, pounding on its glass door. Any passerby who saw me must have thought me a menacing figure. In fact, I was desperate.

There were times for me during the pandemic, as for all of us, when the ache of isolation and upended normality crescendoed into an intense need for some semblance of comfort. This particular afternoon was a real doozy; my anxiety had reached panic levels, and my depression hummed just underneath. So I drove to North High Street, parked right in front of the store and pulled the door handle—only to find it locked.

When the pandemic began, Karen Wickliff briefly closed before moving to an appointment-only situation. But after six weeks or so, a small number of people were allowed back into the store. A handwritten sign was posted on the door: “KNOCK VERY LOUDLY.”

I tapped the glass with a single knuckle, producing a thin sound. No answer. I tried again, this time a little more forcefully. Again, nothing. Then I knocked with what seemed like unnecessary intensity and still there was no response. How hard was I supposed to hit this?

I surreptitiously glanced around, then tried one more time, with enough strength that the resulting thud could only be received as rude or even threatening. This time, Karen Wickliff came casually strolling toward the front. I worried she might reprimand me for my insolence, but instead she opened the door and said, simply, “Welcome.”

I entered and breathed a deep sigh of relief under my mask.

Used books in the iconic Karen Wickliff Books in Clintonville.

In every city I’ve lived in or visited, I’ve sought out the used bookstores. While visiting my sister in Arcata, California, I found Tin Can Mailman. When I lived in Boston, I haunted the basements of Harvard Bookstore and Brookline Booksmith. Wilmington, North Carolina, offered me Old Books on Front and, most notably, McAllister & Solomon. These provided me respite from my problems, yes, but they also assisted in my career. As a budding literary critic, I found while browsing McAllister & Solomon a copy of the poet H.D.’s novel “Bid Me to Live,” which I ended up writing about in an essay that Tin House published, a huge milestone for me. From the shelves of Commonwealth Books in downtown Boston I bought a copy of Truman Capote’s “Music for Chameleons,” which I wrote about for The Atlantic. I recently wrote an essay for Literary Hub about how I read John McPhee’s book on tennis, “Levels of the Game,” as a model for my book on skateboarding. Guess where I purchased McPhee’s book?

You get the idea. But I don’t go to a used bookstore because I hope to find some career-progressing gem. I go to find forgotten essay collections by second-rate critics, anachronistic oddities, out-of-print masterpieces and, above all, potential resources. My work as a freelance critic means I never know which writers or subjects I’ll be covering, so having a rich arsenal of literary history has elevated my reviews immensely. I go to used bookstores less on a mission for something particular and more a journey for its own sake. I go, in other words, to be consumed.

Because full consumption is required to beat out anxiety and depression, which lurk just outside the margins of my attention, ready to pounce as soon as my focus wavers. Anyone with anxiety and depression will likely recognize my story. For much of my life, I assumed that constant, low-level nervousness and occasional inexplicable sadness were simply how things were. In my 20s, however, I had conversations in which I realized that some other people were capable of relaxing in a way I was not; that they didn’t suffer from bouts of crestfallen ennui. Once I acknowledged the reality (and severity) of my mental illnesses, I could see, looking back, how many of my activities were, in part, coping mechanisms. I was drawn, in other words, to things that in any way relieved either my depression or anxiety, ideally both. Some were unhealthy (drugs, alcohol), while others were more productive (creative expression, physical activity). Now, aside from medications and counseling, my most effective and preferred method of coping with psychological afflictions, particularly in real time as they occur, is browsing a bookstore.

A used bookstore, I should qualify. A bookstore that sells only new books can be a wonderful place, and I frequent such shops regularly as well, but those stores often possess a similar catalog of titles. Moreover, a new bookstore updates its inventory with newly published books and occasional backlist choices, which means that once I’ve been there, I know pretty much what they’ve got. Whereas a secondhand bookstore can add anything to its shelves on any given day, depending on the capriciousness of whoever brought in books to sell or donate. Not only do used bookstores contain surprising and rare and forgotten works; they also reward repeat visits.

To get through a particularly dark and difficult time—a global pandemic, say—I needed a bookstore positively overflowing with books—that is, one just like Karen Wickliff Books.

Karen is a delightful bookseller. Like nearly every bookstore proprietor I’ve encountered, she’s a talker, knows her stuff, and is generous with her knowledge. But her best quality is her taste.

I could talk to her all day.

Paradoxically, the view upon entering KWB might cause anxiety for someone who doesn’t share my bibliomania, as the space is cluttered with so many tall piles of books you’d swear they were load-bearing. The shelves are stuffed to their edges, of course, but in addition, each slim aisle is lined with stacks and stacks of volumes.

The book pile is a staple of the scholarly and the literarily inclined. There’s a moment in Susanna Clarke’s fantastical ode to the magic of literature, “Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell,” when one of Strange’s visitors tries to move a pile of books from a chair so that he may sit down. Strange objects, saying, “Do not move those! They are in a very particular order.” I may never have actually uttered these words to my numerous put-upon roommates and partners, but I sure thought them.

So when I stepped into KWB, I was home—except I wasn’t. These were not my books. It was my duty, rather, to sort through these not-my-books to determine which ones should become mine. It is a personal and delicate process, and one that requires patient assiduity. That day in the fall of 2020, I began with my go-to subjects: fiction, literary criticism, essays, biographies. I was stunned by what I found.

Used books in the iconic Karen Wickliff Books in Clintonville.

The inventory of a great used bookstore is not like that of, say, a thrift store, which wholly depends on the local community’s literary tastes, as they are the ones whose unwanted books you sift through. Among the mass-market paperbacks and outdated self-help books, you can sometimes find a gem or two, but it’s mostly not very interesting. A great used shop like Karen Wickliff’s is a curated affair, the result of knowledgeable discernment and nearly four decades of experience. It had been a while since I’d set foot in such a place, and I’d forgotten what it felt like to find so many books I wanted to take home. As I moved from aisle to aisle, collecting as I went a massive pile of my own, I began to mentally calculate how much I’d be spending. I had hoped that I would leave the store feeling less anxious and depressed, but now I wondered if I’d also leave broke.

There was an essay collection by the great French critic and biographer André Maurois, an old copy of John Barth’s “The Friday Book,” a hardcover edition of an instrumental text in my intellectual development, E.E. Cummings’s “i: six nonlectures,” and so many more. KWB is cash-only, so I always think myself clever for not bringing any cash, believing it will limit the amount I spend. But what happens instead is that I select my books, add the total, run down the street and pull out precisely enough to cover my tab. This time, I spent $100 and left with nine books.

Stepping back into the chilly autumn air, excited to go home and read from these excellent finds, I felt internally realigned by my time there. Not perfectly fixed, by any means (nothing can do that), but sort of like those piles we booklovers are known for which, to an outside observer, may appear to be a random collection of titles, but which we know to be in a very particular order. I had my pile and, at least for the moment, I was happy.

This story is from the May 2022 issue of Columbus Monthly.