Sunday, 19 April 2009
Sunday Salon - The Yellow-Lighted Bookshop
The Yellow-Lighted Bookshop by Lewis Buzbee is 'a memoir, a history', it says above his name on the cover. And it is. It's his memoir of his life in books. He's worked in bookstores, he's worked for publishers, and wherever he's gone he's discovered bookstores that he loves. He buys books like we do and loves them like we do.
I love how he phrases what happens between the bookseller and the bookbuyer - the customer- at the cash register, where the exchange of money for goods actually takes place: "Out on the floor, it's all possibility, what a customer might choose to purchase, but at the counter, once the register starts ringing, that's where the revelations are. These are the books the customer will take home to read or stack up or offer as a gift, and each book, in some way, represents a part of that person's life. It's not a mere tally of reading tastes, who likes what authors, it's a gauge of what concerns people, what occupies them. There, face to face over the elbow-polished wood of the counter, bookseller and customer share a silent but telling moment......It's a little like looking into another person's heart."
The interesting thing about the above quote is that Buzbee stops the point he is making there. I've worked in bookstores for quite a few years, and I'd like to take it a step further: In that moment where the bookseller and the customer share the exchange of books, where the bookseller knows what occupies the reader, it is a sanctified moment. The bookseller might go back and say "do you know what Mrs So-and-So bought today?" and the other staff will muse on it, perhaps exclaim if it is something out of the ordinary and try to guess why, but what the very good booksellers will do with that information is file it away for next time. So when you, or Mrs So-and-So, come back into the shop, the very good bookseller will mention casually, "so, how did you find the book?" That moment of revelation at the cash register is handled as a special moment, by the very good bookseller. I don't want to say sanctified, but it's what I mean - it is a kind of holy moment, because our hearts as book buyers are revealed. A very good bookseller will keep that memory of what we buy and build on it to create trust, so that when he or she offers us a book or author next time, it's built on knowledge of what we were interested in before. While one part might be interested in selling books - it is a business - for most booksellers, the joy is the pleasure of putting an unknown, unthought-of, new book in the customer's hand, and it is the right one. That moment for us the bookseller, makes it all worthwhile. The privilege of looking into your heart, is being able to find another book treasure for you. That's what kind of joy comes through The Yellow-Lighted Bookshop. It was a real pleasure to read. I felt like he was an old friend, who I had never met, but once we began talking, instantly understood one another.
I will say that having read Alberto Manguel's A History of Reading last year, was a good basis on which to judge this one, as The Yelloow-Lighted Bookshop does cover the book history also. What is interesting is where they differ: A History of Reading delves more into words and language development, and fascination with how people have always wanted to read, and the power that goes with it; The Yellow-Lighted Bookshop is about the bookseller, those who made the books available, and how bookstores developed. These two books make very good companions for eachother, and I would reccommend reading A History of Reading first, as its breadth and depth of book knowledge is deeper than that of The Yellow-Lighted Bookshop. I enjoyed them both immensely, feeling myself privileged to be a part of their company: these are men whose love of books I share in equal measure. We are all bibliophiles!
One thing Buzbee does do in The Yellow-Lighted Bookshop is talk about Shakespeare & Co, the original English-language bookstore in Paris, that was the first publisher of Ulysses by James Joyce when it was banned in the UK and the US. It was fascinating reading, to see how the first copy was made, because the French printer had to develop a new typing set of English letters first, before the manuscript could even be set, never mind run off. 10,000 copies over 10 years were eventually published by Sylvia Beach, the owner of Shakespeare & Co, before the lawsuit was repealed in the US and Ulysses could be published legally there again. Much of The Yellow-lighted Bookshop is about the role of the bookseller in keeping books available to the public. He has a whole chapter on banned books, mentioning subjects like Salman Rushdie, The Anarchist's Cookbook - which back in the early 1990's was a popular book, but already one Customs at Canadian borders had on the black list. At one of the independent bookstores I worked at way back in 1992, we did have customers who wanted it. We could only get it through special orders, which we would do, warning the customer that the book may or may not make it through Customs. Quite often the book would be confiscated, and we would get the envelope with a Customs note inside, saying the book was being held and not allowed entry into Canada. A few times the book did get through, and being curious (as all booksellers are, Buzbee notes) I looked through it. It was an anarchist's book, showing how to create pipe bombs and other destructive weapons, and discussing the role of anarchy in society. Is it a dangerous book? Buzbee doesn't say, nor do I - the information is available on the internet, and in other ways, and banning it doesn't change the information. As with all information, it's how it's used, that makes it dangerous or good. I think it's interesting, if only from my writer's persepctive as I have no idea nor interest in destroying anything, but I might have a character in a book who does. That role of bookseller as protecter of books is something Buzbee also explores.
In this same chapter on banned books, he reveals a discussion he had once with a bookseller, on the floor, about a children's book. He was working for a publisher at the time, and thought this book would be good for the children's section. The bookstore buyer had other ideas:
" The book under discussion was a picture book, new on the list, and i was showing it to the buyer to see how many copies she'd like. It was a counting book, set in the American Southwest, and the characters were rabbits dressed in the custumes of the region's Indian tribes. I was going through my spiel, pointing out that the book was thoroughly researched, and the costumes and activities depicted were authentic. The book buyer objected. She would never buy this book for her store; she was offended that Indians were being portrayed as animals and felt that the book was dehumanizing. I countered that many, if not most, children's books made animals out of humans. The argument escalated quickly, both of us refining and repeating our positions, a little more loudly with each repetition, until finally I lost my cool, rose to my feet, and found myself yelling in the middle of the children's section: " They're goddamn bunnies and it's a goddamn kid's book." After which I stormed out. Eventually this buyer and I became close friends, and later we would talk about how much we had enjoyed this argument, not for argument's sake, but for the passion therein, and the sense that a kid's book, one little book about rabbits, was important enough to lose one's dignity over."
Don't we all share this passion? I know that when I worked in bookstores, we would argue over books, what to put on the shelf, what to carry, who not to have - this is something Buzbee also covers in his book. This passion for reading, for books, is something all book readers and book sellers share. This is a book about his passion, and it is a lovely book and very highly recommended. I also love how he is not pretentious at all, how he thinks it's the act of reading that is important, not just what is being read:
"Let children find their own pleasure in reading........a couple came in one day and asked me to choose several 'classics' for their eleven-year-old daughter. She loved to read, they said, it was practically all she did, but she read only 'trash'. At the time she was consumed by The Babysitter's Club.......I was showing them what we had, when I noticed their daughter nearby, seated on the floor in front of the shelf where we kept The Babysitter's Club. She was poring over the newest book in the series, reading as fast as she possibly could the only book she wanted. I hope I remember correctly that, along with Ivanhoe that day, they also bought number 37 in the Babysitter series." It's a secret world, he says Steinbeck said, and I agree: I know, that in my life, I've encountered books that taught me how to move in the larger world, in public. I needed that secret place to encounter the possibility first, and what to do. That private place that we go to, the hidden inner space where we encounter the book, is where the exchange takes place. I take in the book, and come out a wiser person. This how Anne of Green Gables handled this, this is what happened when Peter Rabbit stole the carrots, this is what Bilbo felt far away from home. Because we first encounter books in childhood, that is where the love of reading is most often found to have started.
As someone who reads fairly slowly, I am somewhat comforted and disheartened by his stats on books: "Books in Print currently lists nearly 4 million active titles and 1.5 million out-of-print titles. Since 1980, over 2 million new books have been created, compared to the 1.3 million titles published the preceding 100 years.....These are figures for American publishing only...... If you read one book a week, starting at age 5, and live to be 80, you will have read a grand total of 3, 900 books, a little over one-tenth of one percent of the books currently in print."
So, since I have no chance whatsoever of reading more than say, 5 per cent of books currently in print, why do I buy so many? Because I still want to read all that I can, while I can. At least I don't have to read indiscriminately, or, as I confess I once upon a time did, read to impress others - college and university are good for that, if for nothing else these days! - and as long-time readers of my blog know, I struggle with my Cool Inner Literary Book Snob daily. I want to be like that 11 year old girl he talks about, and read what I love to read, as much as I can while I can. I will say my CILBS is ever so delighted that I loved Middlemarch earlier this year! There are so many books, how to choose? Sometimes it's the way the light falls on a cover, Buzbee says, or the mood you are in. There are books for everything. That is the pure delight and joy and wonder of going into a bookstore: what will I find today? what wants to come home with me? what do I need to read today? That sense of wonder and joy and pleasure and delight - that's what we all experience when we find our book of the day.
I am glad that Buzbee is 'promiscuous' when it comes to bookstores, as he says: the book industry has changed to adapt to big box stores, and somehow, independents are surviving still. He argues that we need them both, and I hereby give my second secret confession: I buy books at both independents and our big box bookstore, Chapters. I even own a Chapters card, which gives me discount on all regular and sale-priced books I buy. (see yesterday forsecret confession #1). I love books, and the box stores are good for books too, the ones that offer reading chairs, and allow you to read books off the shelves, and provide coffebars for after you've bought that book. It's taken me a long time to accept this, but even I have adapted! While there is still not the selection I'd like to see stocked at Chapters, there is a greater variety provided, that a smaller independent store just can't offer. At least we have a choice, still, and different bookstores for different moods we are in. I love my mystery independent bookstore, but get there only two times a year. I miss the fantasy and science fiction bookstore Ottawa used to have, which has been gone for 8 years now. Nothing has replaced that. I could get all the specialty small publisher books there, that no one else carries in the city. However, there is the internet, where the publishers are now available to customers directly for the first time. Buzbee even covers that, in his added chapter at the end of the book. He argues that since books came into being, they've been threatened: "The Death of the Book is Nigh!" and somehow, even through the Alexandra Library burning down, through the Middle-Ages where the church controlled all existences of books, down through to the internet, e-books and kindle, there is something about the shape and texture and weight of a book that survives, and keeps surviving, and hopefully, probably, will survive into the future.
So reading The Yellow-Lighted Bookshop is like having a lovely long conversation over tea and cake about the subject I am most passionate about, about the subject Buzbee is so passionate about, about what we all who write our blogs about books, and read long into the night and when the housework should be done and the kids get sandwiches again, are so passionate about in our very hearts and depths of our souls: we love books, and there is nothing like talking passionately about them, except escaping to our reading corner and reading them.
Happy Sunday reading, my Gentle Readers!