ALBUQUERQUE, NEW MEXICO – Travelers along historic Route 66 from Chicago to Los Angeles have no problem finding their fix of fake American Indian jewelry and vintage Elvis posters. However, along this path motorists also will discover something once declared dead: the used bookstore.
There’s the Chicago bookstore with a cat and a mechanical elevator, and the Albuquerque shop where lawyers and the homeless search together for Jack Kerouac’s novels. There’s also the iconic California store that once delivered new books to Japanese-Americans interned at nearby camps.
All are located on Route 66, or a block away, often attracting regulars from around the corner and visitors from around the world seeking Greek classics or a collection of Ernest Hemingway short stories. Owners say their stores are still thriving in the era of e-readers, tablets and online libraries.
Some, like Vroman’s Bookstore in Pasadena, California, have been around for more than 100 years and sell new books, and sometimes refers customers to nearby used bookstores, says Vroman’s president Allison Hill.
Others, like the 5th Street Books in Kingman, Arizona, just opened recently.
“For whatever reason, there are still some people who want an old-fashioned book in their hands,” Laura Eisner, owner of The Book Case in Albuquerque, a shop that opened when John F. Kennedy was running for president. “And they get that urge when they are just passing through.”
Route 66, also called the Mother Road, began in 1926 after the Bureau of Public Roads launched the nation’s first federal highway system, bringing together existing local and state roads from Chicago through St. Louis to Los Angeles. Small towns opened shops, motels and gas stations to pump revenue into local economies just as the nation’s car culture took off.
Its importance even sparked a “Route 66” song performed by Nat King Cole, and later by the 1980s English electronic band Depeche Mode.
Yet, the route changed a number of times through the years, and eventually became less of a destination thanks to new interstate highways.
In 2008, the World Monuments Fund listed Route 66 on the “Watch List of 100 Most Endangered Sites.”
Despite its endangered status, Route 66 remains an attraction for tourists who seek out its neon-lit diners and vintage motels — like the now-defunct Albuquerque motel where Bill Gates lived while launching Microsoft. Along the way, they can hunt through used bookstores for dusty copies of everything from John Steinbeck’s “Tortilla Flat” to Ana Castillo’s “Peel My Love Like an Onion.”
“I specialize in nonfiction,” said Mert Glancy, 61, who operates 5th Street Books in Kingman, Arizona. Her store is a block away from the storied road and is located in a building that once housed a newspaper. “There’s another bookstore a block away that concentrates on contemporary fiction.”
No one knows just how many used bookstore are located along Route 66. The online bookstore, AbeBooks.com, recently listed 66 used bookstores near Route 66 and still faced angry comments for leaving off others.
Some used bookstore owners don’t even know realize they’re on the famous route.
Keith Peterson, 64, owner of Selected Works Used Books and Sheet Music, which sits a block from the beginning of Route 66 in Chicago, admitted he didn’t know Route 66 started at Chicago’s Grant Park. His second-floor store is across the street.
“We get a lot of out-of-town tourists, especially during the blues festival,” said Peterson. “They usually want Hemingway or (Kurt) Vonnegut and we are always out. Those are hard to keep on the shelves.”
Other owners know exactly where they are because Route 66 memorabilia surrounds them. That’s the case for Scott J. Free, 46, a former engineer who opened Downtown Books in Albuquerque 15 years ago.
His store is a block south of the road and near Route 66 locations for scenes from AMC’s “Breaking Bad.” Route 66 travelers are a big customer base, he said.
During a recent afternoon, Marco P. Cremasco of Sao Paulo, Brazil, stumbled upon the store during a walk along Route 66 after an Amtrak train ride. The 28-year-old had been traveling through the United States for three months.
“I had a big Route 66 sign in my room as a kid,” he said while thumbing through books in the fiction section. “I’m glad I found this place.” He sat down to read before continuing his trip to Santa Fe, then Los Angeles.
But what keeps attracting customers? It’s the experience of trying to find a lost treasure or out-of-print book, said Eisner, owner of The Book Case.
“And I think people love the smell of old books,” Eisner said. “If I could bottle it, I’d sell it, too. On Route 66.”