At 242 Commercial St. in Provincetown, hidden at the end of a long alley that runs between a furniture store and a psychic’s office, there is a kind of enchanted space. Tim’s Used Books is a small shop, nearly 30 years old, a pilgrimage site for the local and itinerant reader alike. It’s known for a selection that’s both wide and specific — Y.A. fiction beside a shelf labelled “Irish Writers”; novels of all kinds packed into floor-to-ceiling barnboard shelves with numerous subsections; 8-lb. art books and 10-oz. beach reads.
And behind the register, often enough, is the wizard of the shop, Timothy Francis Barry, warm and knowledgeable. “The rarest book I’ve handled?” He thinks for a second. “I can remember some significant books,” he says. “A book signed by Pablo Picasso, a book signed by Marc Chagall. And then we always have signed books by Mary Oliver.”
Beside the register is a shelf of the shop’s oldest and rarest tomes, kept out in the open for the casual shopper to leaf through. Despite some yellowed pages and maybe a worm-eaten spine, these books are still readable. Two treasures currently in the store: a 1955 first edition of Elizabeth Bishop’s early poetry collection Poems: North & South/ A Cold Spring, and an 1859 second edition of Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass.
Tim has been in the trade since 1989, when he opened a used bookstore in Sagamore Beach in a strip-mall space rented from his brother-in-law. That shop quickly folded, as did his second, along Cranberry Highway in Wareham, just as he was starting to get a sense of the business. One day in 1991, he found himself strolling around Provincetown, waiting for a friend, when he spied that fated little building in the alley. He had a hunch. He borrowed some money for the deposit and set up shop.
In his first weekend running the place, he sold 300 books, a vast improvement from the 20 to 30 that he’d sell on a good weekend at his previous shops. Since then, he’s opened five more locations, four of which he’s had to close. His shops in Wellfleet and Hyannis survived 12 and 24 years, respectively. His out-of-state shops in Providence and in Los Angeles had shorter life spans, which he attributes to a lack of a consistent population of readers. In 2018, he opened a shop in Northampton, and he now splits his time between that location and Provincetown, which has proved to be Tim’s pièce de résistance in the challenging trade of used books.
Tim chalks that up to the town itself, which he describes as “a nexus of creative individuals.” In Provincetown, customers are more receptive to some of the brainier selections he buys at estate sales, often from the libraries of expired academics. That’s how he found the Whitman book, buried among thousands of volumes left by a Harvard Renaissance scholar.
There are beguiling stories behind many of the books. Such as: the young couple who came into his Los Angeles shop 15 years ago with a box of books. They were headed off to rehab, they said, and cleaning out. Tim glanced briefly at the stack — “mostly Jack Kerouac paperbacks and things like that.” He gave them 40 bucks, more than they expected, and said goodbye. At the very bottom of the box, he discovered the rare Elizabeth Bishop collection that still sits in his Provincetown store. “Someday,” he says cheerfully, “someone will come along and buy it.”
His enthusiasm for antiquarian books isn’t without a little ambivalence. The rarest books often sell to collectors who don’t handle or read them. If Tim had his way, all the books he sells would be opened and enjoyed. “I’m all about reading,” he says.
Luckily, the Outer Cape has plenty of folks who love reading. André Gregory, part-time Truro resident and legendary theater director, has been a patron of Tim’s for many years. “Part of what I love about it is: there, hidden behind Commercial Street, is this wonderful, magical alley, like something that you could find in England, that leads up to something that’s like the old curiosity shop, and it’s always filled with surprises,” says Gregory. “You could find a book that’s about the recent disappearance of black holes; you could find a book on Cézanne.”
Another fan of the shop is the local painter Daniel Bodner. “I remember just sitting and looking at all the art books,” he says. “I think that selection, along with an endless and great supply of poetry and literature of all types and eras, is a reflection of the unique community of Provincetown.”
One in five independent bookstores is in danger of shutting down during the pandemic, according to the American Booksellers Association. Tim’s store has braved the storm so far, not to mention the decades-long struggle against Amazon. Tim admits that he does now use the internet to make a small percentage of his sales, but it hasn’t much changed things.
“I think everybody knows they could maybe save a dollar or two buying online,” he says. “But they decide to buy from Tim’s because they like the shop and are happy to ‘shop local.’ At least that’s what people have told me, over and over.”
If the prospect of a page-turner during the Covid third wave intrigues you, Tim’s Provincetown shop will be open weekends from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. through December. During Thanksgiving week, hours will be extended to include Wednesday and Friday. Tim allows five masked patrons at a time to explore his little curiosity shop. And if winter arrives in time for the holidays, the alley looks even better in the snow.