Legacy Books wants to be like the old-fashioned, full-service bookstores run by the Meg Ryans and grouchy old gentlemen of years gone way, but with all the modern conveniences. It aims at beauty and comfort. Books are like all other commodities, and packaging and display are paramount. The store is interior-decorated; the white oak floors gleam; the piped-in music is big bands and Billie Holiday, Louis Armstrong, Tony Bennett, Madeleine Peyroux (cool but not threatening); its three sides of glass are unadorned with posters or anything else that will prevent people on one side of the window from seeing people on the other. It has understated elegance, indeed, luxury. The reading chairs are very comfy.

both_levels Photography by Dave Shafer

Everything is wonderful. Until, that is, you wander between the stacks and examine the bookcases, which have (of course) been scientifically aligned so that the aisles between them are neither too narrow (and claustrophobic) nor too wide (and alienating). The late Ray Nasher perfected the art of the aisle at NorthPark decades ago. He would like it here.

But the books? Well, it may be too early to know for sure, and the store insists it will wait to hear from its customers to learn what they want, but at first glance Legacy Books didn’t seem to have anything that anyone else—chain or not—doesn’t have. They intend to stock unusual works, small-press books, but none of these intentions had borne fruit on my early visit. They do not sell music or videos. The largest sections are Children’s Books and Cooking. A snob like me winces when he sees similarly large groupings under New Age, Relationships, and Paranormal, but I thought, “What does it matter if they have stuff that I don’t want, as long as they have stuff I do want?”

As a literary academic with a fondness for poetry, I made a beeline to the poetry section, a little smaller than the comparable sections at the Preston Royal Borders and the Northwest Highway Barnes & Noble. The offerings were meager, erratic, disjointed. For no discernible reason, the poet with the largest number of books was Charles Bukowski, that old drunken madman. Homer came in second. Go figure. At the Preston Royal Borders, Maya Angelou seemed to be the poète du jour, probably because of her celebrity stature. (Borders also features CliffsNotes and a big rack of new fiction at 30 percent off. So does B&N.)

color_books TO THE LETTER: The kids’ room puts the "fun" in "reading is fundamental." Photography by Dave Shafer

“Fiction” and “Literature” seemed synonymous in all three places, and anything written more than 50 years ago manages to have assumed the status of a classic or a cult favorite. At Legacy, Joseph Mitchell’s Up in the Old Hotel, that great journalistic series of vignettes, elegies for old, louche, downtown Manhattan, was right next to that other Mitchell (Margaret)’s Gone With the Wind. Well, even the shelves in major university libraries have mistaken arrangements.

Wrinkles must be ironed out. It’s hard to know why one should prefer one bookstore to another. Perhaps Legacy Books will become the home away from home for Dallas intellectuals, especially if its reading series takes off.

And it’s harder to know whether it will provide real competition for Half Price Books, especially the Mother Lode on Northwest Highway. One recent Saturday afternoon, it was full of people, some of whom had to wait more than an hour to get bids on the books they’d brought to sell. The manager told me that in January business was up 10 percent from a year ago, and that in December sales were down a hair but still over the target. In bad economic times, readers will unload more of their unwanted stuff, not necessarily to buy groceries or even to empty their shelves, but more generally to feed their buying habits. Bartering—turning stores into the equivalent of libraries where you make a withdrawal and then return to make a deposit—might be the secret to the new economy.

Its biggest fan would never make claims for the beauty of the store. Picture a cross between a high school gym and Home Depot. Part of the floor is covered in industrial carpet; the rest is plain concrete. The shoppers are far from elegant. You can’t always find what you want but, as Mick Jagger might say, you might just find what you need. At Half Price you may find books from last year, and the occasional best seller, but don’t count on anything. You’ll find odd collections of remainders. Does anyone want one of the dozen copies of William Blake’s Illustrations to the Poems of Thomas Gray, marked down from $65 to $29.98? Half price, indeed. The poetry section goes literally from A to Z, Dorothy Alison (I knew she wrote prose, so I learned something new when I saw her verses) to Stefan Zweig.

At the front of the store are the shelves and cases of “collectibles,” the most valuable of which are locked in glass cases. Want a first edition of Charlotte’s Web signed by Garth Williams, its illustrator, for $350? Or a signed first edition of Nelson Algren’s 1949 National Book Award-winning The Man With the Golden Arm ($250)? You’ve come to the right place.

But back to the retail scene. Wandering through the stores, I decided to run a little test. With my smiling, innocent journalist’s grin, I asked random employees at Borders and B&N what they were reading for fun. One clerk, evidently a non-reader, was nonplussed. I, too, was somewhat taken aback. He had a slacker look about him, so I assumed, wrongly, that he was a bookworm. One guy named Amsterdam, by Booker Prize winner Ian MacEwan (big points for that one). One said Tolkien; another said vintage 1960s comic books; a third waxed rhapsodic over the hot new vampire writer Stephenie Meyer. Two spoke with enthusiasm about recent sci-fi work. None of them had the time to engage in fuller conversations. Commerce trumped book talk. My heart did not leap up. So much for the chains.

_robert_1-1 Clerk Robert Grether impressed our fussy reporter with his own reading tastes. Photography by Dave Shafer

At Legacy, an attractive young man whom we would have called “preppy” some years back asked whether he could help me find something. Well, since he was trying to be of use, I thought I’d engage his energies, although I didn’t expect more from him than what I heard from his colleagues at the chains. I posed the question to him: “And what have you been reading for fun these days?” Young Robert (a UTD student) replied without missing a beat: The Brothers Karamazov (in the Richard Pevear translation), the fourth novel in the Patrick O’Brian Aubrey/Maturin series, and Benjamin Graham’s The Intelligent Investor.

“Are you an English major?” I asked, hopefully.

“No, I’m studying business,” he replied. “But literature is where my heart is.”

His answer made me think I might want to return, carbon footprint be damned.

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