Amazing Books Offers Literary Care Packages

With a curated yet surprising selection of mailed books, you can recreate the feeling of finding a new-to-you title on a store shelf.
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PHOTO BY SEAN COLLIER

Among the activities stopped by the pandemic, browsing store shelves is not the most dramatic loss.

The use of that humble verb, in a physical sense, has been utterly obliterated in recent weeks. We can’t browse through used records at a music store or peruse the clothes at a vintage shop. A trip to the grocery store is a tense in-and-out affair, not a time to let one’s eyes wander over novel varieties. And the immensely satisfying act of browsing at a bookstore — wandering among the shelves in search of an enticing tome — is impossible.

I love browsing at bookstores. Anytime I’m within a mile of a favorite, I can’t resist the urge to wander the aisles for an hour or so, reading the blurbs on anything that catches my eye.

To put it another way, I am very fond of judging books by their covers.

Amazing Books & Records is a good place for browsing. The shop, which has locations Downtown and in Squirrel Hill (and had a gone-but-not-forgotten outpost on East Carson Street), specializes in interesting old paperbacks — titles you’re not likely to have ever heard of but are immediately intriguing. With the prices (written in pencil inside the front cover) usually at $10 or less, I can’t enter Amazing Books without making a purchase.

Right now, I can’t browse. Fortunately, Amazing Books has an alternative.

For $37, you can receive a care package of books from the in-store selection in the mail. It’s an excellent replication of the surprise of browsing; when I walk into Amazing Books, I don’t know what I’m going to leave with. That’s the feeling I had when a large parcel of books showed up on my doorstep; I didn’t know what was inside, but I was sure I’d like what I found.

That confidence went beyond trust in the store’s inventory. After I made my purchase, I got an email from Eric Ackland, the store’s owner, with a simple question: “What do you like to read?” I answered in a few sentences, naming the two longer books I had finished recently.

Unsurprisingly, that was all the information Ackland needed.

I opened the package to find four books. The largest was a hardcover copy of Stephen King’s “From a Buick 8,” a novel that The New York Times recently named as one of the best for King fans who have gone beyond his most popular works (which describes me perfectly). I was thrilled to find a novel by Haruki Murakami, “A Wild Sheep Chase.” I like Murakami’s work; more importantly, this is a deep cut that I’m thrilled to read but probably wouldn’t have picked out on my own.

The package was rounded out by a pair of science fiction paperbacks. I’m a bit intimidated by Greg Egan’s “Diaspora,” which belongs in the subgenre hard sci-fi; I’m pretty sure the main character is physics itself. I really like the sound of “Ark,” a space epic by Stephen Baxter; I love science fiction but never want to commit to the often sprawling series that seem to make up much of the genre; as a standalone novel, “Ark” fits the bill well.

Amazing Books is far from the only independent bookstore working hard to keep customers happy during the pandemic; Riverstone Books, for example, has launched a local delivery service and is holding Zoom consultations with readers to recommend new titles. Many stores and libraries are hosting storytime sessions for kids. Contact-free pickup and curbside service have become the norm.

The program at Amazing Books, however, goes a bit above and beyond. Because the experience is both surprising and personal, it’s much more valuable than any title I could stumble upon while scrolling on a Kindle or a new release I could order after reading a review.

It’s not quite browsing. But it’s pretty close.

Categories: The 412