I've spent much of the last two days at the Brandeis Book Sale, often billed as the world's largest used book sale. I can believe it: the sale occupies several massive tents sprawling across a mall parking lot a few blocks away from my parents' house. Almost nothing is more than $5; most paperbacks are $1 or $2; on the final day everything is 50 cents.
I went all the time when I was a kid; I'd guess that something like 60-70% of the books in my parents' house came from the sale, including nearly all of the novels. In the final hours of the sale they used to let you fill a grocery bag with books for a buck or two, which I took full advantage of. Looking at the shelves in my old room now you can see the results. Not knowing much, I grabbed up armfuls of books that looked impressive and had the names of authors who sounded vaguely famous but I didn't know much about; which explains my collections of the complete novels of Thomas Wolfe and Robert Penn Warren.
One could, I imagine, do some kind of massive cultural study of the kinds of books that tend to pop up en masse at book sales, rummage sales, garage sales; books that everybody seemed to have at one time but never really read, and that at a certain time seem to have exhausted their cultural cachet. When I frequented the sale in the '80s you could find innumerable copies of Joseph Heller's Something Happened and God Knows (but never Catch-22) and usually the complete works of Kurt Vonnegut several times over. And enough copies of Stephen Vincent Benet's John Brown's Body to carpet a football field. This weekend I saw lots of copies of A.S. Byatt's Possession, Primary Colors, and Jonathan Franzen's The Corrections--along with, of course, any book ever selected for Oprah's Book Club.
The poetry sections at used book sales are an especially strange zone, populated by old college textbooks, beat-up collected editions of Wordsworth or Browning printed in double columns, and two-decade-old copies of Poetry. And you can usually find the complete works of that bard of the '70s, Rod McKuen. That usually kind of depresses me, but perhaps McKuen is making a comeback; a very excited young woman browsing the poetry section called someone on her cell phone to say that the had found a bunch of books by "that '70s poet I like." I did make some interesting finds, though: Jorie Graham's Erosion, which at first glance had a certain restraint and rhythm that surprised me; some James Tate and Allen Grossman books; and a little edition of Andre Breton whose lurid pink cover I couldn't resist.