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Delving into Von’s Bookshop

It was the icy winter of 2016 when I visited Purdue’s campus for the first time. As a junior in high school, I knew that it was time to look actively into colleges. Wanting to stay in Indiana (it would come as a shock finding out that my family would be relocating to the Pacific Northwest, leaving me behind in the crossroads of America), I began to take more interest in Purdue. However, I knew that I was not a STEM kid—mathematics gave me a headache and complex physics made me want to switch places with the person in the word problem whose equation that I was supposed to calculate—the one driving her car off a cliff. Why would I, a student who wanted to study English, want to attend what is primarily an Engineering school?

Entrance to Von’s Books [source: https://www.facebook.com/vonsbooks/photos/a.368678106509814/628394817204807/?type=3&theater]
As I began to explore the campus for the first time, surrounded by other prospective Purdue students on the undergraduate-led tour, I wanted to know more about the aspects that made this university unique from others. After the tour, my guide recommended visiting Chauncey Hill, the home of the famous Discount Den (which has since relocated to the other side of campus) to stock up on Purdue merchandise and also an incredibly inexpensive combination of sodas. Walking towards the Den, shivering in my fluffy parka and attentively listening to Google Maps so as to avoid wandering astray, I noticed a strip of stores labeled “Von’s.” After a slight distraction stemming from my love of sugar and the line wrapping outside another local landmark, Harry’s Chocolate Shop (I was devastated to learn that it was a bar, and did not in fact sell chocolate), I refocused on the brick buildings advertising a vast variety of goods: books, records, beads, jewelry, cards, t-shirts, comics, posters, movies, and more. I had not expected to find such an eclectic shop anywhere in West Lafayette.

Although each of the storefronts held appeal, as the little bookworm I am, I convinced my parents to wait for me “for I promise, just five minutes,” as I went to explore the used bookshop. After descending the semi-perilous staircase into its basement (make sure to watch your step), I found myself face-to-face with oversized anthologies, vintage Indiana authors, obscure science fiction, and my personal favorite and first purchase, “Los poderes ocultos de la mente” (The Hidden Powers of the Mind). The array of shelves piled high with novels and the overflowing stacks of precariously piled books set aside to the back edge of the store immediately made me feel at home, confirming I would be content studying liberal arts at this STEM school. An hour after I started browsing, my parents finally dragged me out of the store. Even now, in my junior year at Purdue, Von’s remains a calming place for me in the midst of stressful assignments, group projects, and finals.

Killing time (and gnomes) in Von’s Books [source: https://www.facebook.com/vonsbooks/photos/a.286981788012780/1539654102745536/?type=3&theater]
An independent shop established in 1968 and now the area’s oldest bookstore, Von’s is a cornerstone of the Purdue student experience, with numerous professors providing course materials through it in addition to other stores such as Follett’s and the University Bookstore. The store is divided into multiple segments based on the merchandise within that particular area—though all of them remain connected. In the brutal winter one need not venture into the icy unknown to travel between the fascinating assortment of beads and the seemingly endless rows of books. The different sections include the bookstore, which holds an amalgamation of new and used books, a bead and jewelry store, a clothing store, and a section for records, comic books, and posters. Be sure to take note of the staircase in between the clothing section and the record shop, as this leads to quite possibly the highlight of this store—an enormous, city-block-sized basement absolutely stocked to the brim with used books. If you intend to venture into this wonderous trove of treasures, you may want to clear your schedule, as you may find yourself lost in a maze of novels, searching through shelves to find something truly special. However, if you do not have endless hours to explore Von’s basement, you can still sure to look out for its various sales. Usually, there are used books and beads for incredibly low prices sitting just outside of the shop in bargain bins. These sales, along with the annual West Lafayette Public Library book sales, are what sustain my bibliophilia even as a stereotypically broke college student.

A typical sidewalk sale at Von’s Books [source: https://www.facebook.com/vonsbooks/photos/a.286981788012780/2053797531331188/?type=3&theater]
Von’s serves not only as a unique part of the campus ecosystem, but also acts as connective tissue, facilitating conversation between bookish Purdue students. Recently, I mentioned the store offhandedly to a fellow English Literature major, Isaac Pickett. It sparked conversation about our mutual love for Von’s. He shared his affinity for the books in the semi-hidden basement, stating, “It’s nearly always empty when I go down there which gives it this very mystical quality, like it’s a secret book tomb or something. Sometimes you’ll find first editions of books that look like they haven’t been touched in years. I found a 1954 edition of Brave New World last week that has a silly, dramatic, science-fiction cover.” Isaac expanded further on why he likes the used book section so much, saying, “I love reading old notes written in the margins or seeing what someone saw fit to underline. Sometimes, you’ll find odd things in them. I remember once I found a coupon from 1988 in a copy of Vonnegut’s Deadeye Dick.” While I have yet to discover any coupons myself, I did recently come across a vegan cookbook that has proven to make wonderful, edible meals for both my roommate and I to enjoy. Appealing to the masses with its various odds and ends, Von’s similarly proves to be an essential part of Purdue for its English majors.

Ally Geoffray is a junior in English Literature and Professional Writing at Purdue University.