An old story

Carla Du Pree remembers it well.

It was a day like any other, and she decided to make her monthly excursion to Columbia's Second Edition Books and Music, the 16-year-old independent used book store located on the east side of town.


Rummaging through the massive shelves stocked with everything from children's nursery rhyme books to picture books of the Big Apple, she eventually chanced upon it — a tome she'd been seeking for as long as she could remember.

"I found a first edition of 'A Raisin in the Sun,'" said Du Pree, who is the executive director of the Howard County Poetry and Literature Society. "When I saw that book, I snatched it off the shelves because I thought, 'Oh my God, this gem of a book is right here and nobody knew it.'"


Such is the beauty of Second Edition, where the stacks of books may be massive but the gems are worth ferreting out. And there are gems galore: the store's 1440 square feet house an estimated 20,000 books, CDs, DVDs and vinyl records, according to John Byer, who owns and operates the business with his wife, Kathy.

Second Edition is one of the few used book shops in a region which, until the recent closing of Borders Books and Music, was dominated by paint-by-numbers national chain stores whose stock edges toward the predictable.

So if you find an old Beverly Cleary title you loved as a kid, or a Frank Sinatra record your grandmother played all the time, you've chanced upon a real prize, not a standard issue "product" placed strategically by some middle management retail "expert."

"I like to get lost in the stacks, plain and simple, and I like to discover books as I go along," Du Pree mused. "There's so many things that you think about when you wander through that store. I look through the shelves and think about what made the owner relinquish them. I think it's almost like finding treasure."

Turning a page

One might assume owner John Byer has lifelong experience in dealing with books. You'd be half right. Byer has long experience in retail, but while he appreciates a good book as much as the next reader, his career had not included the bookstore game. He ended up running Second Edition partially by chance when its original owners decided to sell.

"I used to run Radio Shacks in California, and I was in the car business as a general salesperson," said the Washington native, who often speaks in a rapid-fire blur. "I noticed the store was going out of business and tried to get a hold of the guy who was running it."

That took a while, and when Byer finally did reach the store's former owner, Byer was given a deadline of mere days in which to make the decision to buy the store.

"I had to buy it right way or forget it, because he was going to go out of business, period," Byer said. "So on April 16, 2005, I got ahold of him, and by April 20 I bought."

Almost from the beginning, he set about making alterations to the store to make it more customer-friendly. First, he took the advice of a former employee and started stocking a full section of used CDs instead of just a handful. Then he began buying and selling used record albums, just as the burgeoning market for old vinyl heated up around 2006.

That increased foot traffic. People who came to thumb through the records and CDs often left with a book or two instead. And vice-versa.

"I found it a lot of fun," he admitted. "I'm sort of a business person more than a book person, but to combine the two just seemed really interesting to me. When I was growing up, there were tons of used book stores and record stores, and I loved going to them."


The one tricky bit of business Byer wasn't expecting, he said, was the "sheer volume of trade-ins.

"People come in with ten boxes and 12 boxes of books," he marvelled. "You can't believe it. I do home visits. I do estate sales. They call me up, they've got 500 CDs."

Byer's most astute business move arguably came in late 2007, when he moved the store's location from the cramped corner space of the Dobbin Road shopping center to a prime center spot. Not only did that give him more room to stock items, but it gave the store more visibility because it's now nearer one of the strip center's most popular destinations, the Motor Vehicle Administration express office.

"This space is so much more customer-friendly," he said. "I get traffic from the MVA most days."

But all the foot traffic wouldn't be happening if Byer wasn't keeping the customer satisfied, as the saying goes. In an economy where bookstores are regularly closing their doors, Byer has kept his business alive by building a loyal base of regulars.

Watching him at his store, he can barely move from one section to another without someone asking him for advice on a book or seeking an answer to a question.

"They come and maybe not find something that time, but two weeks later they'll be back," Byer said. "Then you have people who go through our sections and they'll pick up one $4 book after half an hour, but you can tell they enjoyed the experience.

"They'll say 'I just love to look around' or 'I just love the smell of old books' or 'I just love the feeling of being here.' And it really makes you feel like you're doing something worthwhile, not just trying to make money selling books."

"We really try to stress bargains and treasures," Byer said. "Our membership program has driven the prices down but the profit up because I sell so much more. I have to have volume to stay in business because I'm not selling a paperback for $10."

It's those rare treasures that lure customers, like Du Pree, who like to nab special editions of books they once owned long ago.

"I found a second copy of Mary Lynn Robinson's 1980 book 'Housekeeping.'" Du Pree recalls. "I had lost my first copy, and going through the store I found it again. I can always go to a regular bookstore and find one, but there's something about getting the old one for me that's exciting."

Second Edition Books and Music is at 6490 Dobbin Road in Columbia. Store hours are Monday-Friday 10 a.m.-8 p.m., Saturday 9 a.m.-8 p.m. and Sunday 11 a.m.-5 p.m. Call 410-730-0050 or go to

Turning another page

There are other noteworthy independent bookstores in the region. The following are a few of them:

Atomic Books

3620 Falls Road, Baltimore; 410-662-4444, http://www.atomicbooks.com

Atomic, which bills itself as having "Literary Finds for Mutated Minds," augments its book selections with comics, toys, a book club and events such as an art show where artists recreate their favorite book and record sleeves.

Breathe Books

810 W 36th Street, Hampden; 410-235-7323, http://www.breathebooks.com


Breathe Books focuses mostly on books about spirituality and offers a full calendar of events featuring classes and lectures.


Books with a Past

2465 State Route 97, Glenwood; 410- 489-2705,

This 15-year-old store, recently bought by a new owner, features a wide selection of new and used books in disciplines ranging from astronomy to mystery, and also boasts a selection of foreign-language books.

Normals Bookstore

425 E. 31st Street, Baltimore; 410-243-6888, http://www.normals.com

This 20-year-old shop has long been a favorite with Baltimore City Paper readers (who name it a "best of" regularly) and offers a quirky selection of fiction and hard-to-find vinyl.

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