Sunday, January 16, 2011

Where We Keep the Words

After I'd finally let the other night's entry about the future of bookstores sputter to an end, I realized that I had hardly touched on just what one might hope to see in the kind of bookstore I imagine will still be standing, Come the Revolution, as it were. Like so many proposals for what the future will or ought to be, mine the other night would seem to have been primarily concerned with what's wrong with the present. For this, I apologize. Truth be told, I haven't any idea what bookstores will look like ten days from now, let alone ten years, or one hundred years from now. I'm confident that there still will be bookstores one hundred years from now. I won't be around to see if I'm right, of course. I have faith. That's about all I can contribute to this discussion, from where I now sit, that and some examples, finally, of the kind of thing I have in mind.

I worked with a woman once who could not stand to see book-carts on the sales floor. Every cart of books that was parked by the bookcases, right where the public might see, for her represented unshelved stock: new books and backlist titles that ought to have been already on the shelves, alphabetized, dusted, neatly arranged. She was a floor supervisor at the bookstore, and while she was willing to tolerate a certain casualness in the way we all dressed -- so long as we all had aprons on --and in the way we kibitzed at the counters, she could not but see work left undone, and books unsold, when she spied some seemingly abandoned conveyance in an aisle. Drove her to distraction. Unless someone was seen to be actively unloading books from a cart, she would push the offending object before her, up and down the aisles, asking loudly to whom it might belong, until either someone claimed it or she grew tired and pushed the cart behind the nearest information desk, where it was then sure to be found with a note on it, suggesting that someone needed to "see to this," and woe betide whoever that might be, should she find it again where they'd left it. This person was, in her way, an excellent bookseller, and no bad supervisor otherwise, but her idea of when and how books get shelved was a bit unrealistic. Shelving is but one task in a clerk's average day, and the one most often neglected, if the day is a busy one, or there is almost anything else that might reasonably be used as an excuse to go and do otherwise. Nevertheless, it does get done, mostly. The problem is that shelving seldom gets done all at once, or without stepping away to answer a question or a phone-call, and so in most bookstores most people would expect to find, here and there, a cart of shelving to be finished, or a half-filled hand-cart of books, part of an incomplete "pull" of books to be returned to the publishers. She would not have it. "No one ever bought a book off a V-cart," was one of her maxims, and I don't say she was wrong. Another thing I learned from this supervisor: "No one buys books that are sitting on the ground." Even if it just meant stacking books on a few loose shelves resting on the carpet -- and in those days, one could still see a new title come in in sufficient quantity to justify this sort of thing -- that arrangement might be called a display, but not if the books sat directly on the carpet.

Stray books, thick stacks of returns-reports printed on green-bar-computer-paper, loose piles of scratch-paper and pens, and all the detritus that invariably accumulates wherever booksellers seem to be, of this kind of mess, most supervisors are occasionally impatient. It can be a surprisingly messy business, selling books. Likewise, hand-lettered signs, newspaper-clippings taped up here and there, publishers' posters and promotional materials left out too long, these and a hundred other indications of individual eccentricities and or past preoccupations can drive supervisors, managers and the like, quite mad.

The difference between a great bookstore and a clean bookstore can be lost on anyone who's job it is to fuss at the disorder of things. But no one, it is true, really wants to shop in actual chaos. I myself have walked into bookstores and right back out again when it has proved impossible to actually find anything, or pull a book from the shelf without releasing choking great clouds of dust and dirt. Dim and dirty bookstores, in my experience, may well be hiding neglected prizes, here and there amidst the mess, but really, even the most devoted collector only owes such places a single visit. Whatever might be found in one sweated afternoon in such a ramshackle operation, it takes but that one pass to find. The possibility that anything of value will be tossed into those abandoned corners is slim; no one who gave a damn about books would every sell anything to such a vendor, and no one who needed new books to sell would think they would get much that was good to come through the door if it has to be forced open to get in.

The question now though, for everyone in the business of selling books, is what kind of business are we in if what recommends us to the public is how pretty the place is? This was the great mistake made by the great chains, twenty years ago. The operating assumption was that a great bookstore looked like a very nice private library in a great English country house, or the lobby of a grand hotel; there should be a proper fireplace, and chairs arranged for study groups and casual coffee drinkers, lovely lighting and clear and attractively designed and arranged spaces, in which, as it happened, one might find books, in addition to music, and lap-desks, and cinnamon-scones, and children's play-pens, and a lovely selection of the latest pashmina shawls. And this worked, for a time. People in the middle of the country, as well as the more cynical types one might be likelier to find in big cities, could not help but be drawn to all that polished wood and dazzled by so much architecture, so many comfortable chairs, such big, bright bathrooms. The funky little independents, even some of the greatest of the grand old bookstores, simply could not compete with all that light and money and twelve kinds of tea. But the business of selling scones and stuffed animals and keeping the tables cleared of too many cumbersome books is not what it once was. These secular cathedrals, dedicated to the promotion of middle-brow culture of every kind, from book clubs to latte, these "super stores" of yesterday, now find themselves in the unenviable position of being left in the business of selling books, and books have only ever been able to pay but so well, and that is proving not to be enough.

The best bookstores can but only afford to pay the wages of bookish folk, keep the lights on and the shelves stocked, by being places of interest to people who buy and read a lot of books. I am one such person myself. What makes me go back and back again to the great bookstores is books. This may seem a sickeningly obvious thing to say, but this may be the moment to remind ourselves, those of us still struggling in the trade, that it is true. It is not the quality of the coffee in the cafe, or how insipidly professional and anonymous the "signage" on the bright, white tables, it is not how comfortable the armchairs or how wide and bright are the aisles that make bookstores attractive to the people who buy books. All very nice, you understand, but far from the point.

It is true, there would seem now to be a relatively small segment of the population who not only read, but want to own books, but, while I can not prove such an assertion, I nevertheless believe that this was always, and will always be so. It is time perhaps that booksellers abandon the idea that we can be all things to all people; meeting hall and clubhouse, shopping mall and babysitter, and concentrate on being a destination for that select demographic of the like-minded readers who want, as we do, books, books, and more books, who want to find not just, or not even the book they might come in to find, but more books, other books, cheap books and collectible books, out of print books and new books, books nobody but they might remember and books they may never have imagined existed.

The best bookstores to come will, I think, look much like the best bookstores now: with shelves full of new and used books, rare books and common, with discounted titles piled in disgraceful abundance, old books crammed into tight spaces, and new books displayed, hope against hope, on every flat surface. Expensive numbers will still be locked in old cases. The dusty profusion of books and the comforting scuffle across well-worn floors will always draw the very people on whom the bookseller's livelihood once properly depended and will forever depend; people if not exactly like me, then more like anyone who might read something like this than the millions who never will or would see any reason to do so.

The best bookstores will always be a bit funky. Dust as often as we are able, there will always be an atmosphere at least a little mottled by cat-hair, the floors a little littered with books, the shelves in some kind of confusion, the signs everywhere that don't make everything quite as clear as it might be, simply because there is only but so much room for all the books.Here and there there will always be a stray cart to be stumbled over, some dark corner to be explored, some minor category of antiquated study, full of rich bindings and low prices. Whatever a great bookstore is, it will never be perfectly organized, unchanging and tidy. What it will be, however welcoming in it's familiarity and cheer, is new every time a customer comes back to it. There will be books that weren't there before, books that will be visited and admired and kept in mind, in hopes that the price might come down.

And the staff in such great bookstores will always be people very much like their best customers; slightly eccentric, with often weirdly specialized interests, or unusually open minds, people who read of necessity, as other people eat and drink, people who buy books, poor people who buy cheap books because that is all they can afford, and people who buy fine books just because they can.

The pictures I include tonight are all taken from bookstores, great bookstores into which I've been more times than I can remember and to which I still long to return. To imagine a world without bookstores like Powell's in Portland, or Green Apple Books in San Francisco, or the Strand Book Store in New York, a world without the bookstore where I work, or any of the great independent bookstores in this very lucky city where I live, is to see a world without possibilities, without history, without any of the adventures and satisfactions that can only come, for people like me, like us, only from a great bookstore, where books, and the people who love and buy and read them, can still find their books, and their friends, not mindlessly cruising the Internet at a table in the cafe, or reading wedding magazines by the fireplace, but reading and talking and browsing the shelves.

Don't let us forget, the best bookstores tend to look, a little embarrassingly, rather like us; perhaps a little disheveled, perhaps lacking the most fashionable accoutrements and graces, but full of enthusiasm and well, yes too many words, words, words, words, words, words, words, words...

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