By M.S. Birt
Theodore Dalrymple recently reflected on the importance of the dusty second-hand bookshop in this age of the Kindle and the efficient internet book search.
How many hours, among the happiest of my life, have I spent in the dusty, damp or dismal purlieus of second-hand bookshops, where mummified silverfish, faded pressed flowers and very occasionally love letters are to be found in books long undisturbed on their shelves. With what delight do I find the word ‘scarce’ pencilled in on the flyleaf by the bookseller, though the fact that the book has remained unsold for years, possibly decades, suggests that purchasers are scarcer still.
That final sentiment—lamenting the paucity of the purchaser of scarce and odd volumes—is one that has been expressed by my friend David and me as we have sat and smoked and pondered the utter futility of opening a bookshop/tavern in our small Midwestern town. “I would spend an inordinate amount of time curating a shelf cap of volumes from NYRB Classics and Dalkey Archive Press and Melville House. I could steer patrons to Jacques Roubaud’s Some Thing Black and Milton Rokeach’s The Three Christs of Ypsilanti,” I will say. And David will say, “I could scavenge the countryside for auctions full of rare editions and load the ol’ Geo Tracker full-up to the roof with a fresh cache of reader bait.” Well, he doesn’t actually say that. But he should.
But then reality crowns and begins screaming in its birth shock, interrupting us in the middle of our bookshop/tavern labor. “Nice idea, but who would come?” we ask each other in unison. I have “wandered” the lone aisle of the local Readmore’s Hallmark. Not a tract of existential philosophy or experimental fiction can be found amongst its volumes of Rachael Ray and Glenn Beck. And common is the conversation around town in which I’ve perked up upon meeting a self-described fellow reader only to have her recommend Eat, Pray, Love and The Kite Runner. Even our tavern dreams are out of step with local tastes. What would be the reaction of the local drinker upon entering our dimly-lit establishment to find the bar surrounded by pipe-smoking readers of Rilke and Rimbaud and a bartender sporting a vest and handlebar moustache? Worse yet, what would happen when that same drinker is offered an IPA instead of a Bud Light and a proper Old-Fashioned in lieu of a Jack and Coke?
And what would happen when we clear $17 profit in our first month of business (I am ashamed of the ambition of that forecast as I look back over it; “Profit!? Feeling a mite optimistic there, aren’t we guvnuh?”)? Of course, we would also have to figure out a way to pay the monthly fine for allowing smoking in our place of business. Ah, the life of the small-time shopkeeper… our worries are never extinguished.
Booksellers tell stories that they regard as tall when they are in the mouths of others of their trade: they are a jealous and envious lot. But they all say that libraries around the country are disembarrassing themselves of 17th- to 19th-century books because, rarely consulted, they are deemed to waste space that could more usefully be devoted to computer stations and multiple copies of Dan Brown, much in demand.
Certainly, those of us who like ancient books on arcane subjects have noticed that many of our purchases emanate from institutions of learning. It makes no difference that Mrs Theobald Smedley-Wilkins left Lead Poisoning in the Later Roman Empire to an institution in perpetuity in memory of her late husband, Alderman Theobald Smedley-Wilkins. The librarian takes his revenge upon the now redundant work by stamping it sadistically with a large and ugly ‘withdrawn’, thus successfully reducing its resale value. This means that those of us who would like to leave books to public institutions as being exceptionally rare or even unique now think twice about doing so.
This gives me an idea for my first scientific treatise: Farm Runoff and the Incidence of Pus-Filled Open Sores Amongst the People of the Stillwater River Watershed. Advance copies for sale for the low, low price of $24.95.
Browsing among the shelves is rewarding in a way that surfing the internet (the largest second-hand books website searches through 140 million volumes for sale, or says it does—I haven’t counted) can never be. Of course, if there is a particular book that you want urgently, the internet is a wonder: you type in the title, you pay by credit card, the book arrives the next day. There is no need any longer to resort to the bookfinder, that strange professional searcher after needles in haystacks, who guards his sources more jealously than any journalist and, I suspect, would not reveal them under torture.
But serendipity is the greatest pleasure of browsing, and there is no substitute for being able to hold the physical book in one’s hand. Among other things to be found in books are the markings of previous readers. When I first started buying antiquarian books I rejected those that had been marked, but now I find the markings sometimes more interesting than the books, and certainly revealing of the byways of human psychology.
Dalrymple’s commentary on the serendipity of browsing comports nicely with my idea of bookshop as utopian project (I also have a rant I like to go on about public school as utopian project, but I’ll leave that for another time). If a bookshop merely services the current interests of a reading public, then it is not a project in which I’m interested. To simply serve up to the reader what he already knows he is interested in is to conspire with the already-conspiring media ghettos which are visited only by people who already have the opinions and tastes of their chosen neighborhoods (liberals to MSNBC and conservatives to Fox and libertarians to Reason and…). The bookshop that I want to be a part of takes advantage of Dalrymple’s serendipity and pushes the patron’s interests and ideas to deeper and more sophisticated depths. I wouldn’t so much be interested in providing to the reader what she wants (she can go to Amazon and quickly type in her desired title if that’s all she’s after) as what she doesn’t yet know she wants, but might with just a smidge of coaxing.
If the reading habits of my neighbors were already ensconced in nuance, complexity, reason and rigor, then our public conversation wouldn’t be so binary, trite, illogical and childish.
If the reading habits of my neighbors were already ensconced in nuance, complexity, reason and rigor, then our public conversation wouldn’t be so binary, trite, illogical and childish. Seeing that the latter is this little town’s reality, it seems to me that a proper bookshop shouldn’t just serve the interests of naked commerce, but should be a key cog in the gears of a town’s democratic experiment. It should be a salon and the polemic incarnate. A place that takes a stand, stocks diverse titles, fosters considered conversation and relies on serendipity and the knowledge and subtlety of the shopkeeper to steer his nascent readers in new and surprising directions.
The joy of finding something that one did not know existed, and that is deeply interesting or connected in a totally unexpected way with one’s intellectual interests of the moment, is one of the great serendipitous rewards of browsing, and one unknown to those who take a purely instrumental view of bookshops, leaving them the moment they discover that they do not have the very book that they want.
And in the same way that Dalrymple sees a purely utilitarian notion of the bookshop as being devoid of the greatest rewards that the bricks and mortar store has to offer, I see the drinks on offer at our pretend bookshop/tavern to be more than a transactional widget in the “you want/I give” sterility of the marketplace. Instead, when the thirsty man or woman takes a seat at the bar and orders a Jäger Bomb with a Miller Lite chaser, I imagine calmly explaining that “we don’t serve such concoctions at Mr. Moneypenny’s Booktemple, Alehouse and Shoppe of Elitist Pretension. Might I interest you in a neat rye whisky with a heavily-hopped India Pale Ale instead?”
Of course, such a conversation will never take place between me and a bookshop/tavern patron. I have neither the money nor the drive to start up such a venture. I’ll have to placate my desire for this ultimate hipster salon by setting up a poor facsimile in my apartment. I already have a growing collection of somewhat arcane and worthy texts. The whisky, ale and pipe smoke aren’t really going to be a problem either.
It’s the serendipity that I’ll be lacking.