Whenever I travel, I buy books. The printed-on-paper kind. My habit makes little sense in this tablet age. These days, stories float tantalizingly in the cloud, weightless, just a few clicks and swipes away. 


Second-hand Reality:

Philip K. Dick and Bookstores on a Budget in San Francisco

Yet I am a sucker for an offline book hunt—especially in used book stores. It is my preferred way to discover a city. I like to wander and rummage in the corporeal unknown.

Not long ago, I visited the hilly streets and crisp air of San Francisco for a festival to celebrate the writing of science fiction author, Philip K. Dick. It was both low budget and inspiring. There were no light sabre props or Iron Man suits. Instead, for just over two days at San Francisco State University, writers, editors, scholars, filmmakers and fans talked passionately about the dark humour and shifting realities of Dick's mind-bending tales. We were dickheads and proud.


“I scored bargains by big names like J G Ballard's High Rise, Dick's Time Out of Joint and H.G. Wells War of the Worlds, but also Ancestor: Volume 1 by local Bay area writer, Scott Sigler.”

At the festival's end I bought my first vintage edition of Dick's work, The World Jones Made, a novel about alien blobs from space and a tyrant who can see the future, first published in 1956. I thumbed quickly through the mass produced paperback. The pages were stained a dirty orange, like the burning roach of a joint. A deteriorating piece of organic technology, the book seemed a fitting vessel for the decaying worlds and uncertain futures of Dick's science fiction.

Books can be bloody heavy. The following day, I trudged along Valencia Street in the Mission district, sweating in the warm Californian sun, my backpack stuffed with worn and slightly battered novels. I had just stocked up at Borderlands Books, an independent store specializing in science fiction and fantasy, and Dog Eared Books, a smaller emporium, but one packed with goodies

I scored bargains by big names like J G Ballard's High Rise, Dick's Time Out of Joint and H.G. Wells War of the Worlds, but also Ancestor: Volume 1 by local Bay area writer, Scott Sigler. Of course, it would have been possible to order them online from the comfort of my little flat in West Footscray. But in exploring those aisles of imperfect and sometimes ragged textual artifacts, I permitted myself to be less transactional, more immediate. It was worth risking excess baggage charges at the airport.

Some of my second hand treasure. Photo: James Withers.

When I reached the BART I caught the train across the glittering San Francisco bay to Berkleigh, and made my way along Telegraph Avenue, past the crowds of students and shoppers, to the famous Moe's Books. Inside, I felt the weight of stories not just on my shoulders, but also above me in the four levels filled with tall shelves and thousands of ageing titles. It was humbling.

I sifted slowly through the sale items, and for a moment I felt like Abe Sapien, the fictional merman from the comic book series, Hellboy. Bookish and curious, when he touches objects his psychometric powers allow him to see their past. I cringed as I turfed the books that didn't interest me, imagining not just the visions of these authors, but the painful cost of their production, from the endless hours spent writing, redrafting and editing, to paying for the housing and distribution all those printed words. I forget sometimes when I'm reading on the screen.

I handed over a twenty to the beardy store assistant and he opened the register and rung up Jaron Lanier's You Are Not A Gadget and Jonathon Latham's The Disappointment Artist. They seemed good buys for hammering out stories in a digital age.

My host learned of my book buying journey and recommended Green Apple Books in Richmond, the northwest part of the city. Her advice was a perk from using AirBnB, a website for short-term accommodation. In the home of Apple and Google I was avoiding eBooks, but had taken full advantage of technology to navigate through the city's streets, and to find a cheap and comfy couch to sleep on in the Castro.

Philip K. Dick. Image: Pete Welsch.

Exploring the streets of San Francisco.

I hopped on a bus and held on tight as we climbed up the steep hills towards the tall ferns and gum trees of Golden Gate Park. Its gears heaved and clunked. The driver steered us through the city's asphalt network and for a while, time slowed. We bobbed up and down, past rows of blue and yellow Victorian houses, known as the painted ladies, and around tight corners that revealed the valleys and tendrils of fog in neighborhoods below.

Here and there, oddities appeared: a giant, pink moustache tied to the bumper bar of a blue station wagon, a garage sale full of grubby mannequin heads and the discarded mess of broken cardboard and Trader Joe's shopping bags on a park bench, probably used as a blanket the previous night. They were snippets from stories untold, moments easily missed during filming for Google street maps.

The trip leveled out closer to Richmond, and I flicked through the maps on my phone, trying to match street names as we sailed passed. It was my last day, and I was impatient. As usual, I misjudged the bus' position and jumped off too early.


“It was as if Dr Who had turned the TARDIS into a used bookstore.”

The walk to Green Apple Books was worth it though. I followed the cardboard arrows and hand-drawn signs, searching for more science fiction, but soon lost interest, and simply enjoyed wandering through the crafty, rambling aisles. It was as if Dr Who had turned the TARDIS into a used bookstore, complete with giant red monster balloons and tiny, hand-written recommendations peppered across the spines of a seemingly infinite number of literary dimensions.

Eventually I asked the store assistant if he could recommend a local science fiction author. His eyes widened in shock. My accent had caused few surprises in San Francisco, but he was energized by my query, and marched into the quiet aisles, returning with Dark Cities Underground by Lisa Goldstein.

The man knew his stuff. With infectious, rapid-fire sound bites of writer history, he gave me the rundown on Goldstein's writing, and launched into a spirited debate with himself about whether he had selected the right book. Seeing his unexpected joy and zesty plug for a Bay area writer was heartwarming. It made me want to find those kinds of conversations online.

During the long flight back to Melbourne, over the dark stretches of the Pacific, I read Dick's novel Ubik on my iPad. The story's twists and turns held me, and I forgot about what I was reading on. But the books I had bought, crammed awkwardly in the overhead storage compartment, mattered more than my travel habit. In those pages were memories: mine and others. Not everything is remembered online the way we would like it to be.

The plane landed, I stowed my iPad carefully away, and began reading The Disappointment Artist, stuck contently in the line at immigration, caught somewhere between the past, and the promise of the future.


This story was published in Aurealis, August, 2013. Aurealis is great for science fiction and fantasy work. They don’t publish non-fiction often. What I like most about the piece is that it feels like a fresh take on a travel narrative, and not what one would read in a holiday brochure.



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