I’ve reached the point in life where my relationship with bookstores is—how to put this?—well, it’s complicated. I love the idea of bookstores. I smile when I see their bright windows on a block. I talk about a new bookshop like normal people talk about newborns. And after the global pandemic loosens its grip on New York, I know one of the first things I’ll do is visit a bookstore in my neighborhood. In my imagination, this means spending a long lazy afternoon browsing shelves and flipping the pages of dozens of new books. There’s just one problem: I long ago ceased to enjoy bookstores. Even before the pandemic, I couldn’t spend more than a few minutes inside one without wanting to leave; no, without wanting to flee, shoulders hunched, like a child caught trespassing.
I once burned for bookstores. And not just because I thought the right books made me look smart, either. This was a love affair that began before I knew pretension. The very first bookstore that I loved as a boy was a mall bookstore. Its name, Abbey Road Books, made no sense to me because it was located on Gull Road, not Abbey Road. The mall would be gone long before I got the Beatles reference.
Abbey Road Books was not large but it was big enough for a guileless boy: a rack near the cash register held comic books. A half dozen long rows running front to back offered popular paperbacks and—I assume—serious literary fiction. I never really looked. I was too busy with the Garfield collections, the Dragonriders of Pern fantasies or the sci-fi pulp. This was where I found my first favorite novel, Laura J. Mixon’s Astro Pilots, a YA book about a teenager whose revenge on a bully is complicated by the temporal effect of traveling at light speed. Pure nerd bliss.
Years of browsing and buying books freely has produced what you would expect: my home is a book orphanage, and the unread books are almost as numerous as the read ones. Based on a recent roll call, a quarter of the books on the shelves are critically praised titles I have not yet read. Let the Great World Spin. White Teeth. The Wings of the Dove.
In the pre-pandemic era, there were six book shops within the lunchtime walking radius of my office near Union Square. The Strand, Alabaster Books, Three Lives, McNally Jackson, Housingworks, and Barnes & Noble. All of the shops except Alabaster (which was smaller than a studio apartment) had display tables at the store entrance. The intention of a bookstore display table is noble; the effect is, for me, pernicious. From the get go, I am reminded of how many unread books exist and how many new unread books are added to that list daily. All the tables and all the books take on an undifferentiated, daunting sheen. You can judge a book by its cover but what you’re judging is sometimes hard to say. To Keep the Sun Alive? House of Stone? Great book covers, lovely fonts, and crackerjack titles; how do you pick between them? The blurb on every other book promises it is “Like nothing you’ve read before.” Or “More knife than novel.” I want to read the work of this “rising star of Arab fiction,” but I also want to read a dozen others, and in the end, overwhelmed by choice, I choose to flee.
Pablo Neruda once wrote that the smell of barber shops made him sob. The smell of fresh book bindings makes me feel like a phony. I am overwhelmed by all the books I have not read, won’t read. How is it that I was ever able to bear this feeling? Why can’t I stand in front of the French Literature section, picking up and putting down books as insouciantly as the scruffy dude with the man bun and the serious face? What has gone wrong in me? Sometimes, at Three Lives, I worried the friendly clerk truing up novels in stacks near the door would stop me one day and say, gently, “I see you here often, dear; is there something specific you need?”
The global Covid pandemic put an abrupt end to this ongoing bookstore angst, for a time. Overnight, bookstores became more theoretical than real. I shifted to curbside pick up for drinks and dinners, and I pivoted to ordering books over the phone from local stores. The first time that I picked up a book purchase curbside was in the Early Covid Era, and I doused all the brand new books with rubbing alcohol before I stowed them in the trunk for a three-day quarantine. Just to be safe. By summer, I was less anxious about touching books; at a pick-up window for a bookstore in Connecticut, I waited while inside a bookstore employee searched for the title I wanted among all the books in their cells. One day, I thought, one day we’ll all be able to go inside again. Won’t that be something?
I want to believe that everything will be different when we turn life back on. I want to believe a year apart from bookstores has changed me. I want to believe I have re-learned how to be casual, how to relax, how to bathe in the bliss of booksellers. I want to believe. But here’s the truth: rather than rewire me for patience, a year at home has probably made me even less able to downshift and enjoy a bookstore properly. I spend more hours than ever each day digging into the larder of my smartphone for the fatty byproducts of the Internet. Social distancing for months has increased the hours spent as a parent mediating fights, insisting on chores, refereeing screen time. Given my jumpy, angsty, barely-nuanced attention span, does anyone really think I’m capable of slipping with ease into the heady trance that is necessary to enjoy an afternoon among books?
Yet, I am too old to change. I know what is coming, in the summer of our post-Covid dreams, when masks are passé and stores no longer post occupancy limits. I will return to bookstores. I won’t be able to resist giving them another chance. And another. And another. But I’m pretty sure where all this will end up. I’ll be back on the sidewalk again within minutes.
The unforgivable sin of bookstores is this: so many of the books that they offer are physical reminders of passing time. Here are the Kazuo Ishiguros I read while in my fresh-faced 20s. Here are the Joan Didions of my 30s. Here are the Tracy Kidders I discovered after my kids were born. A visit to any kind of bookstore will eventually make me jealous for the younger version of me, the person who was unshaped, unaccountable, unknown. Both the books that I have read and not read all remind me that what I am is not what I was; and they point out to me that for all the work of living that I have done, there remains an impossible amount of work that I have not and cannot do. I cannot change course and pursue a life of ornithology. I am no longer a penniless apprentice writing his first novel. I cannot sell everything and live on an arctic freighter. I cannot be what I am not, and by definition what I am not remains so much larger than what I am.
But there is hope. There has to be. Sometimes, a bookstore visit can still be just right. In the last weeks before the pandemic closed all the bookstores in Manhattan, I stopped by Book Culture, a book shop that was once known—in my apprentice writer heyday—as Labyrinth Books, an unapologetically highbrow bookshop. Here is the headline of a Times review lauding the shop shortly after it opened in 1997: “No Krantz, Koontz or coffee bars.” I was here often as a graduate student trying to write a novel in the vein of Faulkner and Cormac McCarthy. The tin soldier rows of books were like a barracks of like-minded zealots. This was where I jealously flipped through debut short story collections like For the Relief of Unbearable Urges and swore I could do better. (Reader: I could not.)
On this visit half a lifetime later, I flipped through a book I recently saw lionized on Twitter. Nice. One more novel I should be reading, but wasn’t. I almost left right then, but then I saw Draft No. 4, a John McPhee book on writing, and I decided, well, let me look inside that one. I scanned the first page. My insides went calm. I was like a parched man cutting open a spindly cactus and finding watery relief. I skipped to the back, read more words that struck me as perfect, and true: “It is toward the end of the second draft, if I’m lucky,” McPhee writes, “when the feeling comes over me that I have something I want to show to other people, something that seems to be working and is not going to go away.” I closed the book, realizing that I would buy it, damn the torpedoes and all the unread books waiting at home.
I brought the McPhee book to the register. A girl with dirty blond hair and a tired, guarded look was handling sales.
“Are you a member of our book club?”
“I’m sure that I was once,” I said. There was no way for her to hear the ironic undertone.
She asked for my first and last name. I told her. She typed, furrowed her brow. “Nope,” she said. “You want to join? It’s quick.”
Of course, I had been forgotten. Emptiness began to swell inside. Then, a thought: “Did you put a space,” I said, “between Van and Dyke?”
She sighed, hit the delete key lightly, then enter, and her eyes brightened. “There you are,” she said, as if she had just learned I was her cousin twice removed. They knew me. I was one of the remembered ones. I still belonged. This made me so happy that now, in retrospect, it makes me sad.
—A History of Love (of Bookstores)
Image Credit: Piqsels.