Withstanding the test of time

Peter Keat

Photo by Larry Dalton

Midtown business owner Peter Keat really likes books. He often can be found surrounded by ceiling-scraping, book-lined walls at Time Tested Books, welcoming customers to his haven of well-read treasures. When he’s not on the job, you might find him standing up for democratically owned business as the new vice president of SMUD’s board of directors. Or, you might find him at the Sacramento Natural Foods Co-op, where he’s been serving on the board for 13 years and has been the board’s president for five. So, what brought a busy community activist to the book industry? A change of pace and a chance to catch up on some reading.

When did you open the store?

In October of 1980. I wanted to do something that gave me more flexibility and freedom. I thought I’d enjoy it and that it would give me some independence.

Did you find the freedom that you originally sought?

Yes and no. A bookstore means that you are owned by retail. It ties you down very effectively. At least you don’t have a boss, so you get to do what you want. It’s like having a child—an infant who can’t do anything for itself.

Is everything at Time Tested used?

No, not all. We order new books for people and keep some in stock; 95 percent is used though—the vast majority.

What’s the rarest book you’ve ever sold?

Between Time and Timbuktu; Or Prometheus-5 by Kurt Vonnegut. It was a first edition and sold for about $1,000.

Do you ever get sad to see certain books go?

Yeah, I guess I do. Every once in a while, you see something you don’t see very often or that has sentimental value. Generally, no. That’s one of the great things about the book business is that you’ll probably see that book again. I like to see them go to a good home, though.

How many books do you have at home?

Not all that many—probably only a few hundred. Compared to the amount of books we have here, that isn’t many.

How many books would you say are here in the store?

I don’t think I’ve ever said. I’m afraid to guess.

What is your favorite book?

I have a top 10, a few of them are Anna Karenina by Tolstoy, The Outsider by Colin Wilson and a newer book called Stones from the River by Ursula Hegi.

Do you like the way books smell?

Oh yes, although they can get mildewy, and then they don’t smell all that terrific.

Why do you think people should read?

Because it’s exercise for the mind, so it broadens your vision and perspective. Reading can give you a broader view of the world. Like physical exercise, it can keep you in shape.

Who buys used books?

All kinds. There’s no category of people that I haven’t seen come in here as near as I can tell.

Do you have regular customers?

Yes, of all ages and characteristics. A lot of people are concerned that reading is dying out, but it’s not.

What do you look for when you buy used books?

I look for interesting and harder-to-find books by people that are still being read and that are in good condition.

How do you enjoy your 21st Street location?

It hasn’t developed as fast as I had anticipated when I opened back in 1980. I thought that Midtown would be more vibrant more quickly. It’s only now reaching that point—not necessarily gentrification but vibrancy.

What do you think is the value of community service?

I think it’s important to be engaged in the community for your own benefit and for the community’s benefit. Activity keeps you alive. The community deteriorates without active involvement from lots of people.

What’s the benefit for you personally?

I want to demonstrate that democratically owned businesses, like SNFC and SMUD can be and are in fact better than investor-owned businesses in many ways.

When you wish upon a star, what do you wish for?

For a long, healthy time together with my partner. Literally, I really do that. That’s what I wish for every time. We’ve got the happy part nailed; the health part is always a quest.

If you could meet any dead author, who would it be?

Mark Twain, just because he was so profoundly humorous, or humorous in a profound way. He could mix the two very well.