I love to browse in bookstores. Stores that sell new titles, certainly, but especially those often-musty, secondhand bookstores where every visit seems like a treasure hunt. Online shopping just isn’t the same.
There is something about buying a book, possessing it, taking it home, that feels like a big first step in acquiring whatever wisdom or insight or simple diversion it might contain.
I grew up in a house mostly absent of books. My dad read Zane Grey and Louis L’Amour westerns, but they didn’t interest me. The only subscriptions I recall were TV Guide and Popular Mechanics. Not much to read there. The first newspaper I read was the one I began working for some years later.
I confess that I like the browsing and buying as much as the reading, which I feel slightly guilty about. I’ve got all kinds of books I haven’t read – yet. The French writer Anatole France has a line about this. When asked if he’d read all the books in his vast collection, he responded: “Not one-tenth of them. I don’t suppose you use your Sèvres china every day?” Not entirely convincing maybe, but I really do need to clean out some kitchen cupboards.
I have accumulated a sizable collection, and I hesitate to part with any of them, even though I know I’ll never read most of them again. But they are there, just in case. When I retired from academia, I gave away some and donated others to a research centre I belonged to. If I ever need those again, I know where they are. I once sold some books to a secondhand store, for a pittance, and regretted it. A couple of those titles I later bought back.
I remember spending a wonderful afternoon with my friend Irwin, wandering from shop to shop in a part of Vancouver where a number of secondhand bookstores had clustered. Each shop had its own personality, some disheveled, with unsorted books piled all over the place, others much more orderly with shelves organized by subject. I like both approaches, but I must admit the messier shops enhance the reward when you find something.
In probably the most unkempt shop I’ve ever seen, the proprietor was seated behind a waist-high, L-shaped counter composed entirely of old newspapers. I don’t know how he got in or out, as there was no apparent gap in the pile. And there wasn’t much variety in his stacks. Along one top shelf, we noticed dozens of books of the same name. I don’t recall the title, or even the subject, and the man was too grumpy to bother, but we concluded that he must have been the author.
I usually have some kind of shopping list in my head, but the real magic is finding a book you weren’t looking for. Serendipity. Other times I stumble upon some pearl, a book that maybe I’d looked for in vain years ago and had forgotten about, or a classic that other readers have been reluctant to part with. It took me a long time to find A.S. Byatt’s Angels and Insects. I’d seen the film and was anxious to read the book. Forgive the sacrilege, but I preferred the movie.
My friend Peter has as many books as I do – most of them hardcovers. He has a big house and there are books in every available space. Different books than I have, which is the enticing part. Aside from his good cooking and his good company, I like to spend time with his books. I’ll be back in a minute, I tell him. Which reminds me; I do need to return the one about the Kennedys that I borrowed, oh, about fifteen years ago.
Oddly, I suppose, I even like looking through books in languages that I can’t read. On a cycling trip through Portugal, my wife Dianne and I stayed one night with a couple of teachers. Clearly, they read a lot, in Portuguese of course, but I was nonetheless intrigued by all their books on history and travel and science. It reminded me of being a kid, with no money, standing outside the display window of an ice-cream shop – an unfilled longing of some sort.
Part of the bookshop experience, for me at least, is finding a nearby café afterward and leafing through my newfound treasures over coffee. Reading the book jacket, the table of contents, maybe a few lines from the introductory chapter.
And yes, sometimes, that’s as far as I get.