Act II Bookstore, Flemington NJ

Canyon Kornicker, Writer

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In the increasingly-digitized 21st century world, we must consider which information can be converted to 0s and 1s and which information is best preserved in its physical form. When we have Facebook, Twitter, 24-hour news, and Netflix, what is worth defending from the screens?
As I pull into Turntable Junction, the answer awaits me at Act II Books. Act II–a self proclaimed seller of “rare, used, and out-of-print books”– is a local Flemington gem. There really is nothing like holding an old book in your hands. Consequently, there is perhaps no establishment more important than the local bookstore; everything about Act II Books only attests to that fact.
Act II Books is a small, locally-owned book store, nestled in a small house in Turntable Junction, right off Church Street in Flemington. Their hours, though clearly marked, can be deceptively sporadic. Nonetheless, when Act II is open, you’re sure to find an adventure awaiting you within its doors.
Inside, the shop is small, crowded, and dark. The ceilings feel low, but this is only because books are piled right up to them. Even when you’re the only customer in the store, it feels cramped due to the company of thousands–maybe tens of thousands–of books. As for the darkness, perhaps it’s to protect the integrity of some of the centuries-old delicate editions, or perhaps it’s just for effect. But not to worry, the bowls of flashlights scattered around the store ensure that you’ll be able to properly browse and appreciate the titles you encounter.

There is surely a book for everyone in Act II. Between the 99 cent rack, the shelf of worn (but cheap) paperbacks, the republished classics, the histories, the contemporary works, the pulp fictions and dime novels, the signed and first edition copies of masterpieces, and the rare titles predating the inception of America itself, the possibilities are seemingly endless. If you’re going into Act II looking for a very specific book, you might be better-suited at a library. Even so, the shop’s proprietor has an extensive knowledge of his inventory and might just be able to direct you towards the shelf of the specific title or genre you’re looking for, despite the lack of a clear structure within the store; save for general distinctions between fiction and nonfiction, and some indications of titles grouped together for inexpensive price, Act II does not show much rhyme or reason in their organization of books.

Contrary to what you may think, this ambiguity actually makes for the perfect book browsing experience; when you go into a bookstore with a specific title or author in mind, you ignore the thousands of other deserving books around you. Act II forces you to immerse yourself amongst the available works–to really explore your options, flip through the pages, take in the scent of each book, and sometimes, even, judge a book by its cover. Though the latter gets a bad rap, it really can occasionally lead you to rewarding selections. In a place like Act II, some of the books just jump off of the shelves; these are the titles to take a chance on. Over the years, I’ve been lucky enough to encounter a few books in Act II that happened to jump off the shelves and change my life, including Atlas Shrugged by Ayn Rand and Slaughterhouse Five by Kurt Vonnegut.

After careful consideration and inspection in my latest visit, I decide on Catch-22 by Joseph Heller and V. By Thomas Pynchon. I usually mosey around the store, really appreciating all of the books and the journeys that they all made to get there. Unlike a Barnes & Noble, where the books come directly from the publisher, at Act II, the books all have their own stories: love affairs they’ve had with previous readers, wear from the beatings they’ve taken, memories of the owners who ultimately had to part with them. I pass by an old chess set and wish I had someone to challenge. In the front of the store, I pick up a few of the toys sprawled on top of the bookshelves. A toy phaser lights up and makes a noise when I fire it. When I pick up a stuffed cow, the shop’s proprietor informs me that it doubles as a slingshot and encourages me to launch it across the store; it lets out a ‘moo’ as it flies over the books.

I make my way to the counter to pay for my picks. Complementing the titles I’ve chosen, the store’s proprietor places an Act II postcard in V. It will make a good bookmark. The total on the register is $3.18. Unfortunately, I have no coins. The store’s proprietor asks me if I’m on the email list (of course I am) and lets me off with the three singles I have. Three dollars is an absurdly low price to pay for hours of literary experience and the rich knowledge that follows. The owner bids me a nice day, and I walk back into the bright, brisk winter day. I thought I might walk out of Act II into a time of the past, into a simpler era without e-books, or social media, or push notifications. But alas, Act II Books is just a beautiful anomaly in our world.

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Act II Bookstore, Flemington NJ