You know when you’re in a used bookstore just by the smell of it. Try it: The next time you stop in at a place like Kingston’s Half Moon Books, close your eyes and take a big sniff. It’s a heavy scent: expansive, a little moldy, with hints of spilled drinks, cracked spines, summer sun and winter woodsmoke. That’s how you know you’ve found a good one.
Jessica DuPont had a similar experience when she stopped in over a decade ago. The place was disorganized, and there was a For Sale sign in the window, but it struck a chord for DuPont: “I thought, ‘I can make something of this,” she says now. “And that’s what I did.”
Half Moon first opened around 20 years ago, and just celebrated its tenth anniversary under DuPont’s ownership, and as the crown jewel of Uptown Kingston’s thriving book scene. It has taken a lot of work – “I had never worked with books at all, and yet I decided to buy a bookstore,” she says with a laugh – but the result is a literary hoard, packed wall-to-wall and sometimes along the floor with used books of every description. DuPont distinguishes herself as a generalist who carries something for everyone, or for that someone who, like her, is interested in everything. “I think my intellectual curiosity is reflected in the store,” she says, and the well-stocked selections of children’s books, philosophy texts, poetry collections and hardcover artbooks bear it out. Her fiction section is particularly well-stocked, with big shelves devoted to topnotch indie publishers like New Directions, Dalkey Archive and New York Review Book Classics that make it easy to find obscure and vintage stuff.
To keep the space well-stocked, DuPont travels – a lot. She visits library sales, auctions, estate sales and goes through private libraries. She once rented a truck and drove with her daughter down to Maryland for a big collection of astrology books. Used and antique bookselling is a true community, and she finds herself meeting – and competing – with others frequently. Her generalist training comes in handy at these events, allowing her to pick through sections that others are ignoring. But even when it becomes contentious, “It’s a collegial sort of competition,” she jokes. “I’ve never been knocked over or had a rib broken or anything.”
There are certain tipoffs that signal a good buy – beautifully illustrated children’s books, for instance – but a lot of it comes down to intuition. She has twice come upon first US editions of Tolkien’s The Hobbit, found a first edition of On the Road haphazardly thrown into a plastic bin and even opened a poetry book to find that it had come from the private library of Orson Welles. And then there are the mementos pressed between pages, from birthday cards to shopping lists, photographs and the “bittersweet history” of bookmarks from shuttered bookstores. Browsing her shelves, you might never know what your book will open to: “Typically we take a picture and then put it back for someone else to find.”
Earlier this year, DuPont purchased a collection of 640 boxes totaling more than 15,000 books, and, given that about 70 percent of her business occurs in person, she found herself in need of somewhere to display them. She settled on a space across the river, on the site of the old Village Books in Tivoli. The space is smaller, which has necessitated greater curation. Since opening last month, she has largely stocked the shelves with academic books, as well as a large children’s section, but DuPont says she’s still trying to figure out what the community wants. “Kingston is a big giant store,” she says, “so Tivoli is making me be more thoughtful in terms of what I put on the shelves, because I have fewer shelves to put books on.” On the whole, however, “It’s certainly been much easier than the first time around.” Ten years of buying and selling books make a lot of difference.
Incredibly, this will likely not be her final expansion of 2019. Half Moon and World’s End Comics are planning to go in on a Midtown store, which DuPont will keep stocked with science fiction and fantasy paperbacks. Her recommendations include classics like Dune as well as N. K. Jemisin’s recent Hugo Award-winning The Fifth Season.
All this expansion seems to run counter to a business that increasingly operates online. But DuPont says that she loves being surrounded by books all day long, as well as the ability to talk to people about whatever fascinations their selections reveal. “I’ve had some great conversations here spurred by people’s interests,” she says. “If you ask people to speak about a topic that they’re interested in, they warm up and open up to you.” But even if she came to Half Moon as a bibliophile with no bookselling experience to speak of, her ultimate pleasure is one unique to those of her rare cadre: “I get to buy my favorite books over and over if I feel like it,” she says. “And then I get to sell them to someone else.”
Half Moon Books is located at 35 North Front Street in Kingston and 48 Broadway in Tivoli. For more information, call (845) 331-5439 or (845) 757-1155 or visit https://halfmoonusedbooks.com.