Katie Wilber

Cummings Books and the Book House are like party poppers: They don’t seem like much on the outside, but inside they’re full of surprises. When you think you have covered every inch of space, just peek around a corner and you will discover another entire room.

If allergies seem to be a good excuse to avoid the menagerie inside Cummings Books, think again. There is no reason to miss out on the marvelous hidden treasures that lie within.

Instead of a tinkling bell to give away the customers’ entrance, one of three employees has been known to bark a greeting to shoppers at Cummings Books and three parrots, two cats and numerous fish join the three dogs on duty.

Homemade shelves are crammed with 10-pound physics books, books on ancient Egyptian literature and books on how to play air guitar. Other shelves sag under the weight of record albums from Prince, Eric Clapton, Bob Dylan and Andrew Lloyd Webber. Stepladders are scattered through the store, ready to help reach a book way up on the seventh or eighth shelf, and chairs are strategically placed to assist weary customers carrying armloads of books.

But don’t go into Cummings expecting to find a directory of titles. Over 60,000 books are arranged by subject, so find the section and start looking. Chances are that even if a certain book is gone, there will be plenty of related books that might be better than the original choice.

After entering the Book House, it would be beneficial to emulate Theseus and tie one end of a string around a shelf close to the door and hold onto the other end while traversing the store. Shelves create arches, turning the store into an immense labyrinth full of twists and turns, although it’s not nearly as dangerous as the one King Minos had in Crete. More than 150,000 books are crammed into the space, and piles of books on the floor fight for attention with ones on the lower shelves.

The Book House is a Dinkytown landmark and has been in business for 25 years, and covers subjects from anthropology and sculpture to “The Muppet Show” and the writings of Mao Tse-tung. Interested in “The Rhetorics and Poetics of Aristotle”? They have it. How about Charles Schultz’s “I Need All the Friends I Can Get”? They’ve got that too. The Book House also boasts a Web site to check for titles, authors, publishers and keywords, but no form of technology beats being surrounded by rare and out-of-print books, books written in foreign languages and dog-eared books read many times over.

The Book House has a more modern feel than Cummings Books; Cummings seems like an attic that’s been locked for years and recently re-opened.

So, what the heck. Find some allergy medicine if it’s necessary, head into Dinkytown and get lost in the realms of Cummings Books. When the medicine starts to wear off four to six hours down the road, re-orient yourself, go a few doors down and check out the Book House. You’ll be glad you did.