Saturday, February 28, 2009

Busman's Holiday

There are bookstores, and then there are bookstores. The superiority of some comes from their size; vast temples to publishing, comprehensive, inexhaustible, high-ceilings and long aisles, small scholarly nooks, comfortable chairs, brightly lit and clearly labeled shelves. Such places have all the glamour of memory now, as they go the way of the dodo, replaced by the bland, suburban uniformity of chains, that ape the architecture, reproduce the furniture, but miss the point; "ruined choirs," with too few voices, airy, empty, soul-less places, left for the birds & bees, to cheap reprints, sidelines and souvenirs, snacks and tourist trash.

Others, the neighborhood shops, are if anything, even less likely now, not being a model much copied in the abstractions of corporate boardrooms, but some survive. Out for a postprandial bit of window shopping and reminiscence with an old friend, not seen for more years than we knew, just such a bookshop comes back to us, as if conjured. It is bright and clean; white shelves and white walls, full of corners and short steps. Staff recommendations pepper the stock, the tables are cheerfully loaded with fresh and unusual titles, everywhere there are small choices: unlikely publishers, handsome editions, smut and fun and bits of whimsicality that no chain store could quite allow for without questions coming down from "corporate." (There would be meetings, I do not doubt, on matters of "good taste" and a stern warning to "think of the children," should any chain manager or buyer be bold enough to stock a bit of cock, a taste of tit, or assume an "average" customer adult enough to pass such things by if uninterested.)

My friend and I, so glad of the chance to wander away half of an hour in such an atmosphere of urbane bookishness, feel obliged to buy something, to show our appreciation for a style sustained very much against the odds, and so we do.

I buy the new book from an artist who seems to me to represent exactly the values promoted by the shop, a book that bespeaks the neighborhood now fading all around it, as funky places board-up their windows and disappear, as brand-names assume vacated store-fronts, and condos with tiny false ponds and cookie-cutter balconies displace bars and pipe stores and cheap eats. I buy the new book from Maurice Vellekoop, a Canadian cartoonist of brightly colored, wittily drawn nudes, each one a gay cliche from literature and porn, each drawing both a joke and a fantasy, shamelessly cocky, light-hearted and dirty-minded. It costs too much, this book, though not so much as all that. It's value as either art or commentary is negligible, some of the pictures glide perilously close to simple stereotypes rather than not, but it is fun, amusingly intended, silly and not unaccomplished. I like Maurice Vellekoop's Pin-Ups, Green Candy Press, 2009, if not as much as I did his more clever Maurice Vellekoop's ABC Book. A Homoerotic Primer, New York: Gates of Heck, 1997, enough still to buy the new book, to support the artist, (think Erte at the gym,) the publisher, the bookstore.

That is how one thanks a bookstore for being there, in case anyone might happen to forget the etiquette of retail: one makes a purchase.

Later, my friend and I go to another bookstore, and another. It is what one does in my company, I offer few other attractions even in a city as well-stocked as this. Eventually, inevitably, we arrive at the bookstore I call home. I am justly proud of the place, where my friend has never been. I want him to see the place, see how grand it still is, how diverse, how welcoming, how unlike any college bookstore he might otherwise ever have seen. My friend makes all the right noises; appreciates the size of the store, the good company of my coworkers, the books. His reward? Not the edition of Whitman he intended to read, but the one I like better for being "the deathbed edition" of Leaves of Grass, Modern Library, 1993, still in print, suitable for grazing, satisfyingly fat, but not ungainly. I buy him the book, as he bought me lunch and will later buy us an extraordinary dinner. Later, finding "When Lilacs Last in the Door-yard Bloom'd," my skeptical friend is well satisfied.

That is what a good bookstore does, what the neighborhood bookshop did after our lunch, what my bookstore (as I'm feeling proprietary I think I can be allowed to call it so) does every day, provide satisfactions unanticipated. Gods bless and keep them, the good and great bookstores. How bad a host I would be without them.

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