Do you ever get a special feeling when you go someplace? That sense that says you’re in the right place at the right time? Where things just feel good? For some, it’s the resonance of old churches, their stone walls and stained glass imbued with centuries of incense and hopeful hymns and prayers. For me it’s bookstores. It really doesn’t matter if it’s full of new or used books, in my native tongue or a language using a non-Roman alphabet I can’t comprehend, there’s a comforting feeling that goes far beyond the millions of words filling the room.
There’s that unique smell of newly printed books. Crack open a fresh binding for the first time to feel soy ink on clean paper embracing your nostrils. I’m curious to see what’s inside, but afraid to damage the book for someone else if I decide it’s not right for me. And don’t forget the used book shops as well, with that pervasive mustiness that comes from old, well-thumbed books sitting in damp low-rent real estate. I wonder if today’s non-toxic inks will ever mature, perhaps like wines, to gain an odor rivaling decades-old inks made from petroleum and tar compounds. [Do you remember those ink-stained fingerprints from a long, leisurely Sundays full of newspaper reading?] Some people look forward to the smells of holiday cooking coming from a family kitchen. I wallow in the smell of books. It goes straight through my brain, teasing wonderful memories along with new opportunities for learning and pleasure.
Bookstores – like different churches or pubs – each have their own feel, giving us varying degrees of comfort and hopefully, some curiosity. Regulars have their favourite sections, pews and bar stools, all curated by the local spirit-keepers who learn your tastes and habits pretty quickly.
And how do we pay the priests in my chosen churches of the mind and spirit?
At the low end of the scale, the storefront churches of life, are the charity chops full of unsorted mouldy bodice-rippers and dried-out wrinkled beach reads, old text books and occasional true finds. I can walk out after having helped a good cause, with months of reading for just a few pennies. And I’ll return the books as a donation when I’m done. Not a bad deal for either of us.
Next up on the food chain are the used bookstores whose owners actually try to make a living from their stock. Organized – and sometimes even alphabetized – here’s where I go when I’m pressed for time and looking for something cheap but good, like a book I won’t mind leaving in an airport or hotel room.
Let’s see. We’ve helped charities and retailers, but what about the source of our pleasure, the writer who only earns a living when we buy new? That’s why we have stores that sell [gasp] new books.
The bashful and inexperienced among us looking for a structured experience might gravitate toward the understaffed chain retailers, where signage and point-of-sale displays direct us to high margin best sellers, classics and coffee table books. When I’m looking for newness, be it for myself or a gift, I gravitate toward locally-owned shops, mainly because they tend to employ book-lovers who know their stock and can steer you in wonderful directions you may never have planned on.
And the difference between the chain and the indie? I remember visiting a chain retailer and asking an “associate” who was stocking shelves if they had a particular book. She said she didn’t know. I asked her where the section that might carry it was. She didn’t know that, either. And her name tag indicated that she was a “senior associate”, whatever that means. Another time, in one of the surviving independent stores, I approached the counter, where one of their people was on the phone. He acknowledged me with a nod and a smile, indicating he’d be with me in a minute. Not only was he answering the caller’s questions, but he noted which volumes they had in stock, how long it would take for an order to arrive, and then named a competitor who might stock the “missing” book – all from memory. While my request wasn’t as complicated, he gave me equally knowledgeable and courteous service. I’ve since been back to that store many times.
And then there’s High Mass that’s hard to match online: author meet-n-greets.
Visiting authors come to talk, chat and sign copies of their books that devout readers treat like communion wafers. By the time the writer has reached the mid-sized cities where I’ve lived, they’ve got their warm-up speech and patter down pat. For the most part they’ve already heard most of their fans’ questions and have thoughtful answers or entertaining one-liners. Then, many of them stay on til the wee hours signing and chatting and dealing with people as people, not patrons.
It keeps my feet walking through the bookstore doors instead of my fingers walking across a keyboard.
This piece is just one of a number I’ve written about my long-term love affair with books. If you’d like to see more simply click on the “Books” category below. You can also subscribe, so that you’ll see these blogs as they’re written, as opposed to social media’s algorithms. As the saying goes, if you like my writing, tell your friends. If you don’t, tell your enemies.