Alone Among Others

Lewis Buzbee


An excerpt from a book entitled Alone Among Others: The Pleasures of the Bookstore, forthcoming from Graywolf in fall of 2005.

When a bookstore opens its doors in the morning and the first customers enter, the rest of the world enters, too, the day's weather and the day's news, along with boxes of the most recent and most ancient books, books of facts and truths, books of immediate relevance and of surprising dissonance. Unlike other forms of retail, in the bookstore there is plenty of time for the day and the people and the books to mix, and because of this leisurely confluence there also arrives the possibility of the universe unfolding a little, once upon a time.

Our unspoken rules for the bookstore are different than our rules for other stores. While the bookstore is privately held, it also honors a public claim on its time and space. This is no mega-store where one goes to stock up for the bad years, no boutique of precious items, no convenience store for grabbing a few things on the way home. Time and space in a bookstore are not defined by the cash register's chime. A bookstore is for hanging out. Often for hours. Perhaps you've come to crib a recipe from a cookbook or hunt down the name of that Art Deco hotel in San Antonio; you might browse covers awhile after meeting up with a friend. Or you can set yourself down in History and read the first chapter of a charming treatise on the complex language of hand gestures in high Renaissance Naples. As you might be reading right now, taking your own sweet time. If there's a cafe in the bookstore, then look out, a piece of cake and a cup of coffee, and time can run loose all over the place; half a day can go by. You might even have come to purchase a book.

Imagine going into a clothier, trying on a new jacket and walking around in it for, oh, half an hour, maybe coming back the following Wednesday to try it on again. Go into a pizzeria and see if you might sample a slice, heck, you're pretty hungry, so you taste a bit of the pepperoni, the sausage, the artichoke and pineapple, but none are quite what you're looking for that day. Only in a bookstore can one sample the wares and take all day doing so.

Books are slow. They require time; they are written slowly, published slowly, and read slowly. A four-hundred page novel might take three years to write, two years to publish; once sold, even a quick reader can expect to spend at least eight hours with it, maybe twice that long, and over a number of days or weeks.

The modern bookstore has long been associated with the coffeehouse and the café. In the 18th century, when coffee and tobacco both conquered Europe, the coffeehouse provided a public gathering place for writers, editors, and publishers. The stimulant coffee and the sedative tobacco, in combination, made of sitting at a table all day a pleasant equilibrium, perfect for writing, reading, or long conversations. This was the Age of Enlightenment; literacy was on the rise, books were cheaper and more abundant, and the booksellers of the time, frequently publishers themselves, naturally combined the coffeehouse and bookstore, and the time to savor them. Even today, the largest corporate chain stores, always mindful of the bottom line, build spaces friendly to the savor of time, with cafés, couches, and study tables.

Reading is, in one respect, a solitary occupation. Books most certainly connect us with other humans, but the connection is created in solitude. It's quite simple to order books on-line, over the phone, or via catalog, and wait for the delivery man to scurry away before we open the door. But most of us—90% of us who buy books—still take the trouble to get out of the house and go to the bookstore, to be among the books, sure, but also to be among other book buyers, the like-minded, even if we might never say a word to anyone else. It's an odd combination, this solitude and gathering, almost as if the bookstore were the antidote for what it sold.

Perhaps the bookstore isn't as urgent other retail shops because there isn't very much at stake. No one goes into bookselling with the notion of becoming wealthy, or famous, or even respected. Most booksellers get into the business because they love books and they have some natural leaning to the mercantile life. Books are notoriously inexpensive, with a retail mark-up that's as low as the laws of economics will allow. Books are heavy and take up lots of space, and because each book is unique, inventory and stocking create a high payroll, even when most booksellers don't get paid much over minimum wage. There's no money in it, so we can all take our time.

The bookstore has always been a marketplace where the ideas of a given period were traded, and so has played a formative, rather than a merely utilitarian role in the shaping of public discourse. Because of this, the bookstore is often a stronghold in attacks against the rights of free speech. Under the aegis of Sylvia Beach's Shakespeare and Co., Ulysses was first published, the same with Lawrence Ferlinghetti's City Lights and Howl, to mention only two landmark cases.

It may be the nature of the book itself that lays the most important claims to the bookstore's public openness. There is a fundamental democracy in the mass-produced book. Don Quixote is roughly the same price as the most tawdry celebrity biography, maybe even a little cheaper since the nuisance of paying the author has expired. With the exception of promotional discounts, the price of Don Quixote is the same in the swankest New York City shop as in the Kansas City strip mall. The finest writing is as accessible as the most forgettable, and both, in the bookstore, are accorded the same respect: here it is, is there a reader who wants it? No matter the book, there's always someone who does. A bookstore is as likely to carry Proust's In Search of Lost Time as the newest book of cat cartoons, or books on automobile repair, military history, self-help, computer programming, or the evolution of microbes. There's something for everybody.

And there's somebody for everything. The bookstore is not only for the literary, and people of all stripes and obsessions come to find the information they seek: the price of antique coins, effective weed-eradication, the proper enclosures for small-scale pig farming. The bookstore is like an airport in this way; eventually, you'll pass through.

The book is a uniquely durable object, one that can be fully enjoyed without being consumed; a book doesn't require fuel, food, or service, it isn't very messy and rarely makes noise. A book can be read over and over, then passed on to friends, can be re-sold even when at its shabbiest. A book will not crash or freeze, will work when filled with sand or dunked in the bathtub, even when the pages are falling out. Aside from a basic literacy, books require no special training to operate.

The invitation of the bookstore occurs on so many levels that we must take our time. We peruse the shelves, weaving around the other customers, feeling a cold gust of rain from the open door, not really knowing what to pick up but knowing we do want something. Then there! on that heaped table, or hidden on the lowest, dustiest shelf, we stumble on it. It is a common thing, this volume. There may be five thousand of this particular book in the world, or fifty thousand, or half a million, all exactly alike, but this one is as rare as if it had been made solely for us. We open to the first page, and the universe unfolds, Once upon a time.


*            *            *


This is my ideal time to be in a bookstore. It's November, a dark, rainy Tuesday around three or four. The shortened light of the afternoon and the idleness and hush of the hour gather everything close, the shelves and the books and the few other customers, head-bent in the narrow aisles. There's a clerk at the counter who stares out the front window, taking a breather before the evening rush. I've come to find a book, though which I've no idea.

For the last several days I've had the inexplicable urge to buy a new book, and I've been stopping off at bookstores around the city while out on errands. Even though there's a tower of perfectly good unread books next to my bed, I'm still hungry for the ineffable one. I no longer try to psychoanalyze this hunger; I capitulated long ago to the booklust that's afflicted me most of my life. I know enough about the disease to know I'll find a book soon.

Yesterday I'd thought I'd found it. My daughter and I were at a large chain store in a nearby shopping center, one bookstore on my daughter's list of favorites. I'd suggested going there because I was struck by the urge to read an Updike story from a collection I could no longer find on my own shelves. My daughter was more than happy to come with me, knowing there'd be something in it for her. We went to Fiction first, and while there were many Updikes there, the one I craved was not. My daughter immediately chose the book she wanted, such is the grace of being four, and we spent an hour in the cafe spotting the hidden objects in the book's overcrowded landscapes, "I spy with my little eye . . . ." If only it were that easy. My hunger remained unappeased.

This rainy afternoon my wife and daughter are out of the house, and I've got a few hours to kill. An odd phrase that, time to kill, when we almost always mean to bring back time, increase time, re-animate time, actually hold it more tightly. What better place to enjoy the stretched hours than a bookstore, especially given my condition. I pop around the corner to our local store, which I've already scoured twice in the past three days, but it seems worth the try, and besides, the weather is perfect for it. I may be in the store for five minutes or an hour, it doesn't really matter. I do know that I'll leave with some book and head home to spend hours, both lost and found, in the perfect solitude of my sagging green easy chair.

I cruise my usual route through the store, past the stacked faces of new hardcovers and the wall of recent paperbacks, once around the magazines. Even though I was here yesterday morning, every day brings new arrivals, and while there's nothing startling today, there's still pleasure in looking at the same books again, wondering about that one on the history of the compass, or admiring the photograph of the moon on this novel, the bulk and sheen of all these books. But I'm in a secretive mood—because of the rain, I imagine—and I head off to Fiction, not only in search of Updike, but because there's something about the long trench of this section that's particularly appealing today.

There are other customers in the store, and they're as evenly distributed throughout it as if they've chosen their interests by the space around a given island of books. Everyone is holding a book. Some are reading from the text, others only the back cover copy. I recognize one of the browsers from the neighborhood, an elderly man dressed in black and a squashed cowboy hat. He sports a gray Walt Whitman beard and a thin braided ponytail, and carries a decorative silver-knobbed cane. His large turquoise medallion, for some reason, makes me think he's a retired math professor. We are nodding acquaintances, and I've seen him around enough (and am enough of a book snoop) to know that he prefers classic Greek and Latin in the original or rather pulpy Science Fiction. Today, he's flipping through the top shelf of Mythology, angling the volumes out from their neat row, quickly scanning them. Like the rest of us here—in Children's, in Business, in Biography, Mystery, History, Psychology—he's looking for something he can't quite name.

I turn to the fiction wall and regard the face-outs, the little stacks of new and popular titles whose covers show plainly. They're all pleasing, but nothing catches my attention, so I tilt my head to the right and follow the closely packed spines of the other novels and stories. No Updike here, I feel adrift for a moment. I'm grazing now. And then, yes, suddenly, there it is, on the bottom shelf, the book I've been waiting for, even though I didn't know it existed. I'm practically sold on the book before I've even made out the title.

Andrei Platonov's The Fierce and Beautiful World, a collection of short stories. The title alone is irresistible, but it's the book itself that sways me, the beauty and feel of the thing. Platonov, I learn, was a daring Russian writer who wrote during, and against, the Soviet regime, the author of many novels and stories. Something of a cult figure, his stories are described as harsh fables of life in a totalitarian state. The Fierce and Beautiful World is a thin paperback but solid, graced by a black-and-white photograph of a futurist spherical building; the title appears in a purple inset box with bright red and white type. The spine uses the same colors, space-age purple and red, with classic Art Deco typography. I stoop to retrieve the book from the bottom shelf, dust my hand over the cover, weigh the fit in my folded palm, and gently pull back the first page. The pages are thick and creamy, and thumb nicely. The endpapers, unusual in a paperback, are colored, that riveting purple again. I tuck the book under my arm. Sold.

But I won't leave the store just yet. Like the rest of my fellow customers, I'm happy to be here in this cozy and solid place, happy to be alone among others, killing time.