Literacy Caches

Hunting for Treasures in Nevada’s Hidden Bookstores
BY ANNIE FLANZRAICH

Remnants of treasure hunts punctuate Nevada’s arid landscape. The state’s ghost towns—oblique wooden structures, crumbling under the weight of history—stand as a testament to lodes of ore.

While the Silver State’s eponymous cache may be less accessible nowadays, there’s a more abundant treasure waiting to be discovered in Nevada: books.

Narrative nuggets—hardcover, paperback, used, new, sold for millions or fifty cents—lie waiting to be unearthed in bookstores throughout Nevada. In neon-lit cities and sleepy, rural towns, each shop offers a different experience, collection, and prize to carry home.

Southern Nevada

AMBER UNICORN BOOKS

Find the state’s largest deposit of used books in Las Vegas at Amber Unicorn Books. The 4,800-square-foot shop, owned by husband-and-wife team Lou and Myrna Donato, houses between 250,000 and 300,000 books.

“If there is a book for sale I can’t refuse to buy it,” Myrna Donato says.

Almost 5 percent of that collection is devoted to cooking books, thanks to Myrna’s fixation.

“It’s developed into an addiction,” she says. “But for as many cookbooks as I have, there are that many more out there that I’ve never seen at all.”

The rest of the collection covers a variety of topics, such as science fiction and fantasy, metaphysical, self-help, art, theater, and film titles. The Donatos opened their first bookstore in 1981 in Las Vegas and sold it to two former employees in 1997. But, they couldn’t stay away. After selling books online for a decade, the couple opened Amber Unicorn Books in 2008.

“We’re not only the oldest bookstore in Las Vegas, we’re also the oldest owners,” Myrna says.

The books and the people who love to buy them drew the Donatos out of retirement.

“We get people from all over the world here, and they all have a story,” Myrna says.

 

THE WRITER’S BLOCK

At the Writer’s Block in downtown Las Vegas, the art of creating books is just as important as the act of selling them.

“I feel like we are in an era where everyone is a writer as well as a reader,” says Drew Cohen, one of the owners of the store.

Drew and his husband Scott Seeley opened the store in 2014 after moving from New York where Scott ran a literary not-forprofit. Drew and Scott transported part of that organization’s mission to develop student’s creative and expository writing skills to the Las Vegas store.

At the Writer’s Block, student and adult writers can participate in workshops, seminars, and clubs to create original books, films, recordings, and works of art. The store also offers free field trips and classes for Las Vegas students.

In addition to selling books—about 6,000 titles—the shop also gives people the opportunity to print their own books. Situated in the back of the shop is Nevada’s only Espresso Book Machine, an all-in-one bookmaking device that prints, binds, and cuts a library-quality softcover book within minutes.

“If a student takes a workshop, they always leave a copy of their book,” Drew says. “It’s very important to us. We want to make the writing process tangible.”

 

BAUMAN RARE BOOKS

Walking into Bauman Rare Books’ old-world style shop can feel like stepping into a museum. Scarce and exceptional books line the shelves or sit behind glass cases—titles to make any bibliophile drool.

“We’re used to it, that’s why we keep tissues at the front desk,” jokes store manager Embry Clark.

But Embry doesn’t want people to feel as if they’re in a library when they walk into the store.

“One of the things I’ve always been really proud of is our accessibility,” she says. “At the end of the day, we’re a bookstore like any other. People come in, they love books, and we talk about what interests them. We seek to find the perfect title for their collection.”

At Bauman, rarity is a combination of factors: scarcity, desirability, and condition.

She’s talking about Shakespeare folios or a first edition of Isaac Newton’s “Principia” in a vellum binding written in the original Latin, which sold for half a million dollars.

“Books like that, you never really get used to seeing,” Embry says. “These books changed the world, literally.”

But often, buyers are interested in books that are less flashy.

“A big part of what we do is connect people with books that they love, books that changed their perspective on themselves and the world,” Embry says.

And that connection can happen late in the night at Bauman. The bookstore, located on the Las Vegas strip, stays open until midnight on Friday and Saturday.

“People joke, ‘Oh yeah, someone is going to come in at 11 p.m. and buy a rare book.’ But, it happens more often than you’d think,” Embry says.

Northern Nevada

SUNDANCE BOOKS AND MUSIC

As denoted by its name, Sundance Books and Music isn’t just a bookstore. Sure, the shop is northern Nevada’s largest independent seller of new books with a collection of about 20,000. But, the store also carries music, unusual gifts, and a wide selection of not-your-average greeting cards.

Stephanie Lauer, the store’s manager, says they take pride in finding unexpected books that people love.

“One of the books we sold out of was about how to build your own coffin,” Stephanie says. “It was a book that a lot of people were looking for and they didn’t know it, and then it was here.”

The owners advocate for the local literary scene.

“There has been great fiction coming out of Nevada in the past few years,” Stephanie says. “We love doing book signings and supporting local authors.

It’s part of the joy.”

 

MORLEY’S BOOKS

In a more than 150-year-old building in Carson City, readers can find 6,000 used and rare books at Morley’s Books.

Owner Michael Morley opened the store in 2012—the culmination of a life-long dream.

“My wife and I were book tourists in North America and Europe,” Morley says. “We’d go to a small town, check into a motel, and get a list of the bookstores in the area and we’d hit them all. As we acquired expertise, we’d learn what to buy what we could sell.”

Morely’s shop carries a wide variety of books, but the most popular genre is Western Americana, including authors such as Horatio Alger, Wallace Earle Stegner and Anthony Grove “Tony” Hillerman. The front room of the store is almost exclusively dedicated to new Nevada material, with an emphasis on non-fiction.

“My bread and butter is Nevada and the West,” he says.

 

GRASSROOTS BOOKS

At Grassroots Books in Reno, readers can find more than 75,000 used books on a variety of topics.

“We have a radical selection that changes all the time,” says Zoe Miller, owner of the store.

The store strives to keep its collection fresh and different. “A lot of bookstores have a business model where they out unique and niche books,” Zoe says. “We filter them in see if we can find a market.”

Even more radical than the store’s selection are the prices at its regular warehouse sales. At these events, Grassroots books of all genres for 99 cents; CDs, DVDs, and comics f cents; and children’s boo 25 cents. Warehouse sale pen about every month. the store’s business mod mission is to make book more affordable.

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Another store ethos is to increase literacy, empathy, competence, and confidence by making sure that all children within 50 miles have a home library of 50 books. In 2015, Grassroots gave 12,000 free picture books directly to children and families and more than 100,000 books to teachers, nonprofits, and other good causes following warehouse sales.

Rural Nevada

WHITNEY’S BOOKSHELF

The drive between Reno and Las Vegas can be long—to say the least. By the time the mine-dotted hills of Tonopah arrive in view, travelers are often ready to stretch their legs.

Whitney’s Bookshelf offers weary wanderers a chance to do that and expand their book collection at the same time.

Larry Whitney, owner of the store, accumulated more than 17 bookshelves in his Southern California home before moving to Tonopah in 2008 to open the used bookstore.

“The idea of a bookstore appealed to me because I could sit and read books all day,” Larry says.

But, why Tonopah? Larry, a 26-year recovering alcoholic, took his Alcoholics Anonymous sponsor’s advice to bring the program to the wilderness.

“I didn’t know where that was,” Larry says. He searched China, the Philippines, Central America, and South America before settling on Nevada. Looking for a place that could use some assistance, he discovered Tonopah had no meetings. Almost 10 years later, the store’s 4,000-square-feet offers about 100,000 books for perusing and buying. And it hosts an AA meeting every morning and a Narcotics Anonymous meeting every night.

As for sitting and reading books all day, Larry says he’s still trying to figure that part out.

“I stay busy enough with customers or putting books online. There’s no time to read,” he says.

 

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