Dying words

An elegy for the used bookstore

“A town isn’t a town without a bookstore. It may call itself a town, but unless it’s got a bookstore it knows it’s not fooling a soul.” – Neil Gaiman, American Gods

Whether it is nostalgia, my ongoing infatuation with words and story, or the indulgence of some resilient tactile addiction amidst pulp-scented hordes, I still love to wander bookstores. Used-bookstores, especially.

Books are the nearest our species has come to developing telepathy, and I crave them, collect them, and desire to be surrounded by them. During an age in which the bibliophiliac seems looked upon with slightly less suspicion than those of other ‘iliac’ perversions, that feels rather confessional.

There is solace in the calm perusal of shelves, and in unexpected discovery. Books aplenty, sometimes ascatter and in disarray. Sometimes neatly alphabetized and parade ready, even if the divisions and categorizations are misleading and some get sent to the wrong department. Many transcend category. If I owned a bookstore, that would be my addition – a ‘transcends’ section. Those books, often the best books, that fit nowhere else, or in too many sections to make any single one their home.

A great bookshop is a party where you get to assemble your own custom hub of like minds, ideas, experiences.

A great bookshop is a party where you get to assemble your own custom hub of like minds, ideas, experiences. A party full of strangers seeking meeting. Some dull, some wise; some, intuitively, just get you. Some will make you laugh; some will make you ponder things unpondered and see the world – your slice of it, at least – fascinatingly askew. Some will be a fling soon forgotten. And a select few will become lifelong friends, to be counted upon to arrive with fresh insights through all the finitely numbered pages of your life.

So, it grieved me to discover that they have been disappearing from our city.

Where have they gone?

One of my near-and-dear (here she will be, simply, ‘B’) shares my craving for journeys down aisles of print. (I knew we would remain friends when, upon one of her first visits to my home, I caught her smelling a leatherbound edition of … gods, I’ll have to ask her. Regardless, there’s an efficient litmus test for friendship for you.) I was recently over a clingy case of bringoutyourdeaditis that had been making the rounds, and we decided a used-bookstore crawl was well overdue.

There was a time when I could spend an entire day making the rounds of St. John’s’ various book haunts. Wordplay (yet mourned), Afterwords, I believe there were a couple or three Second Pages, and others, gods, one on Topsail road… Names have phantomed on me. I’d hit each one in order, and by day’s end several bags of forlorn paperbacks and bruised hardcovers would fill the back seat. And there was usually at least one gem, one sought after text, or soon-to-be favourite author, discovered huddling behind its mates atop a shelf, only spotted by the most scrupulous seeker. Often haggard, ninety cent castoffs, that would open a window onto a new writer, a new way with words, that I would carry forward. Borges, Dostoevsky, Bradbury, Gaiman, Ellison, Murakami, Nabokov, Adams, Lovecraft, Vonnegut, Faulkner, Chandler, Bierce, McCarthy, Burroughs… All well-loved, and all first encountered in a stack of cheap, often crippled, volumes in a used-bookstore. Easy enough to take a chance for a dollar or few. Easy to make lifelong friends with so small an investment.

There was a time when I could spend an entire day making the rounds of St. John’s’ various book haunts…Now, most of them have folded tent and left a bare field behind.

Six, perhaps seven used-bookstores in the downtown and a few stop-lights beyond. Now, most of them have folded tent and left a bare field behind. In fact, we discovered that Afterwords appears to be the city’s solitary survivor. (We found two, mind you, left in Mt. Pearl. Oh, St. John’s, where is thy shame?)

Now, we do have a sizable book retailer in town, and I will not pretend I have never crossed its threshold. B and I ended our literary scavenger hunt at this franchise – the big box store – on Kenmount Road. There are sufficient aisles to maneuver, sale shelves to mull over, and assembly-line caffeine aplenty. I consider it a tolerable hypocrisy, dumping coin down the corporate gullet, as independent options are scarce and it is at least populated by staff who seem to actually partake of the stock. But, there is something exclusive to the used-bookstore that is being lost.

Big is not beautiful

When in Toronto some years ago, I made a point of visiting an emporium that portentously called itself ‘The World’s Biggest Bookstore’. It was … big. Really big. If not the biggest, it would surely have left the champion peering anxiously over one ink-stained shoulder. But it also resembled nothing so much as a hospital for words. Spotless, arid, impersonal. Organized, it seemed, by an army of librarians with OCD. It was absolutely bloody rife with books of every size, flavour and weight. Ropes formed a unidirectional maze to the cash, where the successful shoppers might efficiently offer up their cards for swiping, their finds for bagging, their eyes for brief meeting, as they were sent on their way with all but a stamp on their foreheads that read, ‘Completed’.

It had all the personality of a box of white crayons.

I fled into the sunlight blinking away the afterglow of sterile efficiency and wandered until a sign containing the words ‘used-bookstore’ grazed my eyes. The name of the shop is lost to me, but it certainly made no claims to being the siziest, mostiest or bestiest of anything. And it was down a flight of stairs, beneath street level; a substore. I was met within by a flotilla of mildering, sagging bookshelves. I had stumbled across an out-of-the-way, gloomy, cluttered treasure cave. It was a riot in progress; a bookmob. A pulpy avalanche awaiting the right shout or shove to send it atumble. It was perfect.

…there is something exclusive to the used-bookstore that is being lost.

Such shops are vanishing. In part because, generally, our society puts less value on reading; certainly on reading more than the average web article, forum or cellphone text. In part because our ability to do so diminishes at a depressing pace. And in part because those who do still enjoy absorbing books can do so via electronic texts – ebooks are now pushing 10% of book sales in Canada and the US. Even the aforementioned dead trees and glue lovin’ B is in the market for an e-reader, as she prepares for an extended stay outside the country. And I get that. The model has changed, and the delivery system ought not matter, so long as the content – the words, the information, the craft of story and character and insight – remain and are appreciated. The literary Luddite in me bristles and scowls, no less. He’ll have to adapt.

Now a second confession: the demise of the bookstore is in part due to exactly such as myself. Yes, I’ll take my slice of culpability. Some years ago I, somewhat ashamedly, crossed over to the internet to acquire most of my reading material. I can not only get the best price, but have a seemingly infinite warehouse of selections, with choices swifted to my mailbox. If I want that Easton Press edition of Wilde’s collected stories or that particular copy of Gormenghast with Peake’s illustrations, it is a matter of no more than a few keystrokes and some patience. Mea maxima culpa.

Yet, despite the easily accessed treasures of the webly-interpipes, delivered to door, I retain the need to occasionally thumb a row of virginal, uncleft spines, sift through exhausted veterans of the reader wars, and absorb the smell of a copse of reincarnated trees. It appears that, in St. John’s at least, it’s becoming more and more difficult to sate that need.

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