Going inside the stacks
Hanging out with the Southwest Booktrader

George Hassan, aka the Southwest Booktrader, takes in the view from the porch of his shop Tuesday. Hassan has been dealing in used books in Durango for 18 years./Photo by Todd Newcomer

Inside his small store, George Hassan sits at his desk, buried behind teetering stacks of books, CDs and miscellanea. A purveyor of used books for nearly two decades, he has managed to fill every nook and cranny of his 1,200-square-foot store. Countless books cover every genre, from Chinese kung fu to dog training, and represent a broad cross-section of writers, from Milan Kundera and Sylvia Plath to the Frugal Gourmet and Miss Manners. There’s even a Barry Manilow autobiography carefully tucked away in the nonfiction section.

Despite what may look like a library run amok, Hassan insists there is a method to the madness of bulging shelves and towering stacks.

“Everything’s stacked by subject,” he says.

But when asked how many books he has amassed, he only shrugs.

“I don’t even have a clue – twice as many as there’s room for,” he says. “And I have this many two times over in storage.”

Hassan admits the store can be daunting for a rookie or half-hearted book hunter.

“This isn’t the best for people who don’t want to root around,” he says. “You have to be a person who’s not intimidated by a little clutter.”

And it’s definitely not the place for claustrophobes.

“Some people who are claustrophobic come in and take one look and say, ‘Whoa, get me outta here,’” he says.

But for that gregarious book lover, it’s possible to get lost in the seemingly endless maze of narrow passageways – quite literally.

“I once locked someone in overnight,” he admits. “I didn’t know anyone was in here, and I closed the door and went home.”

Hassan surrounded by a few of his
treasures./Photo by Todd Newcomer.

Fortunately, the door locked from the inside, and the abandoned customer was able to let himself out, but not before leaving money on the counter for a book he bought. Hassan said when he returned to the store after being notified by police that it was unlocked, he found several more piles of money on the counter with little notes from customers saying which books they bought and for how much.

“I showed up and the door was still wide open and people were coming and going,” he said. “But everything worked out all right. I’m lucky no one walked off with the cash register.”

In the 18 years Hassan has operated his sleepy Southwest Booktrader – 15 from its current location in a pink stucco house on 5th Street and East Second Avenue – he has watched Durango go from boom to bust and back again. And, for the most part, he is wary of what he sees – a quirky small town being swallowed up by greed and corporatization.

Indeed, a tangible sign of the latest boom lurks not more than a couple hundred yards in the distance. A new multistoried condominium complex is going up where Durango’s hostel once was. Hassan has just received word from the city that work on a sewer line will take place on the one-way street leading to his off-the-beaten path store, and he is peeved. After last summer’s fires, he fears an impediment to his foot traffic could spell the end of the business he and his wife, Nancy Portera, have so carefully cultivated.

“I nearly went bankrupt last summer,” he said. “Tearing up this street out here will kill me.”

After stewing for a few more moments, Hassan, in his trademark cowboy hat and long ponytail, moves to a rocker on the store’s front porch. Without skipping a beat, he calls out to two tentative customers as they make their way up his sidewalk.

“Hi folks. Are you familiar with the store?” he asks. Their blank looks indicate they are not, so Hassan breaks into his spiel. “Paperbacks are 50 percent off the cover price. Prices for hard covers are written inside the jacket.”

The two express their thanks and disappear into the well-organized chaos.

For locals, Hassan said he’ll throw an additional 10 percent off the price of books, as a show of appreciation. “My business is 50 percent locals,” he says. “If it wasn’t for my regular customers, my business wouldn’t have been here this long.”

A Front Range refugee, Hassan started his business upon moving to Durango and noticing there was no used book store at the time. He credits his longevity to the niche rare-book market he has created. “Collectors make up the lion’s share of my money,” he said. “I’ve sold books for $5,000 or $6,000, rare maps, photographs.”

A mirror reflects the hordes of books Hassan has amassed in his 1,200-squarefoot store over the years. Although he has no idea how many books he has, he says there are twice as many more in storage./Photo by Todd Newcomer.

However, casual customers won’t see Hassan’s dearest treasures lining the shelves. “The real expensive stuff I keep tucked away,” he says. “People have to ask for it.”

Hassan said he has seen some erosion of his business over the years to the 24-hour accessibility of the Internet and an increasingly consumption-oriented, throw-away society. He recounts the story of a garage sale he recently attended where a woman was selling close to 1,000 brand new books. When asked if she had read any, she said no, that she bought them because she hated to leave a store emptyhanded.

“She wasn’t reading them, she was decorating with them,” he said. “A lot of people buy books because they want to look smarter. But they never read them, and they never get any smarter.”

Hassan believes the future of his business is further threatened by the publishing industry, which taking a cue from such consumers now creates weak bindings that fall apart after only a few readings. “I personally believe they do that to limit the secondary market on them,” he said. “They would just as soon see the books thrown out.”

To illustrate his example, he picks up a book from his desk: a copy of Zane Gray’s Lost Pueblo, printed in 1959. “Probably been read 50 times,” he says as he bends the spine of the book back and forth to illustrate its dexterity. He then picks up a more modern paperback. “I don’t think you’re going to find these being passed around hand to hand in 15 to 20 years.”

Nevertheless, don’t expect Hassan to give up the early-morning garage sale crawls, the haggling or the rat packing. He said he believes there are still enough devout bookies out there who see the advantages of the real thing over the virtual version to keep him afloat.

“People still like to come in; they want to hold the book in their hands,” he says. “Browsing on the Web is no fun at all.”

Furthermore, his livelihood is more than a job – it’s a hobby, a way of life, a manifesto that extends far beyond the crammed walls of his store.

“Everything I own, if I don’t have to buy it new, I don’t,” he says.

And although Hassan boasts that he has the largest number of titles of any store in town, he also is quick to admit he’s not the be-all end-all for bibliophiles.

“I send people to the other stores, the Bookcase, Walden’s, Maria’s,” he says. “If I don’t have what they’re looking for, I try to help them find it.”

It is this mutual support that Hassan feels is vital to homegrown businesses such as his, where customers can come and go on the honor system, shoot the breeze on a lazy afternoon or hunker down in a quiet corner for hours on end.

“If you want to have a community with any life in it, you have to support the little guy,” he said. “I would just as soon go to Kroeger’s for nuts and bolts than save a quarter at one of the megastores.”










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