Paperbacks line row after row at the Pendleton Book Company.
Shakespeare and Cicero are tucked away in one corner, but most of the shelf space is dedicated to ubiquitous and same-sized paperbacks: mysteries, romances, science fiction and suspense.
The store, owned since 2005 by Debbie Kerby but in operation since the 1970s, specializes in serving voracious readers who need a consistent supply of pulp.
They trade and hoard, buy and sell, browse the shelves for hours. They purchase in bulk and return by the bagful before loading up again.
Of course there are millions of used book stores across this country, and plenty in Eastern Oregon. But what sets Pendleton Book Company apart is the volume of returns and its dedicated customers.
Betty Bugbee and her husband Bruce, both retired and living in Adams, have a grocery bag sitting on a chair at home. When it fills up with books, they know its time to make a trip to town. Sometimes they just aren’t patient enough, however, and make a visit to Pendleton Book Company anyway. Betty said she shops there two or three times per month.
“It doesn’t always work out that way, but usually it does,” she said.
Betty said she reads 4-5 books a month, and sometimes she will go on a streak and ready many more. She is partial to romance and suspense while her husband leans to science fiction and war genres.
“I read quite a bit,” she said. “It’s my hobby. I read so much that it’s nice to go in and get different things and not have to buy brand new.”
Betty has nothing against libraries, but said it’s the customer service at Pendleton Book Company that keeps her coming back.
“If I ever am looking for something she’s got it for me,” Betty said. “It’s just a very helpful atmosphere.”
The Bugbees are just one type of person that walks in the doors of the Pendleton Book Company, located at 7 S.E. Court Ave., near probably the busiest pedestrian intersection of Pendleton.
“Our customer are from every walk of life,” said Kerby.
She gets tourists sucked in from window shopping, downtown merchants looking for something to read during their lunch break, and those ever-dependable readaholics.
Kerby cannot count the number of books she has in her store, but can safely say it’s “a few thousand.” She also has access to many more via an online book sharing service. Because most are used and the prices are low — some of them stacked in bins selling for 25 cents each — volume must be the name of the game.
To help keep books circulating in and out, Kerby offers store credit for returns, but limits locals to one grocery bag of returns per day. She has to enforce it often. Some people come in with stacks upon stacks of books, some in good shape and some not so much.
Kerby ships books all over the world. Last week she was packing up a box that was heading to the United Kingdom while another was going to the Eastern Oregon Correctional Institution. She ships books to inmates throughout the state, following the regulations, of course. The books must be new, no hardbacks allowed, and they must be only of a specific size. She also donates stacks and stacks of books to the annual Pendleton Friends of the Library book sale.
For Kerby, new books lack a certain character. It’s the ones that cross her desk over and over again, getting bought and returned and bought again, that she likes best. They are the ones that have secrets, and a story that surrounds the story within.
You never know what you’ll find tucked away in books. Lots of pictures, said Kerby, which she likes to get back to their owners when possible. Plenty of bookmarks, paper scraps, notes and airline tickets too.
“We like to know where our books have been,” said Kerby.
Most of the offerings at Pendleton Book Company have at one time been in the hands of Judi Clayton, 65, one of the store’s best customers.
Clayton doesn’t own a television or a telephone, but has read thousands upon thousands of books in her life.
“I always loved to read,” she said. “My family didn’t understand it. I’d stay up at night and read with a flashlight under the covers. I read everything.”
She grew up in Hood River, and even spent some time as a librarian in California. She has lived in Pendleton about three years and it didn’t take her long to find the closest book store. Now she comes nearly every day, buying something or placing an order just about every time.
“It’s real friendly,” said Clayton. “And anything I need, they’ll order it.”
Clayton likes her mysteries, and has read so many of them she sometimes realizes she’s halfway through a book she has already read before. It doesn’t happen often, but when it does it doesn’t bother her. She knows Kerby will buy it back and she can pick out something else tomorrow.
Contact Tim Trainor at email@example.com, 541-966-0828 or on Twitter at @Tim_Trainor.
This story originally appeared in East Oregonian.