In my twenties the question was never “What do I want to read?” but rather “Who do I want to be?”—and bookstores were shrines I pilgrimaged to for answers. I didn’t have much money and had to be intentional in my selections. I’d pull a book from the shelf and study its cover, smell its pages, wander into the weather of its first lines and imagine the storms to come—imagine a wiser, wilder me for having been swept away by them. It’s something I still feel in my forties. I’m still dazzled by possibilities when I walk into a bookstore.
But it’s not the same.
Now when I wander the aisles, it’s not just some future self I imagine but a past one. There aren’t just books to read but books I’ve already read. Lives I’ve lived. Hopes abandoned. Dreams deferred. The bookstore is still a shrine but more and more what I find aren’t answers to questions but my own unwritten histories.
I’d started coming to bookstores because I wanted to learn how to write and the only consistent advice I got from established writers was to read everything. It was good advice. It’s still good advice. It’s also impossible. No one reads everything, nor even all the books they’d like to. You make your choices, come what may. John Muir’s famous quote about ecology might as well have been about choosing what books to buy: “When we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the Universe.” The bookstore is a liminal space. Even if like me you don’t have the cash to buy a box of new titles and reinvent yourself week to week, you have the moment of the choosing and everything it tugs upon.
. . . .
Now I live a dozen miles from Walden Pond. In the “local authors” section of the bookstore I frequent Henry David’s guileless, lamb-chopped mug peers out from cover after cover, reminding me of where I am—and who I am. Other books do the same. They’re not merely items on a shelf but points on a map, convergences I can trace to former versions of myself. Last week my nine-year-old son and I wandered into an aisle given over to coffee table books with stunning photographs of the natural world. One was about rivers and I opened it and turned to a picture of the Rogue River. I showed him. I said, “This is where Daddy lived a long time ago—in Oregon—before you were born. Isn’t it beautiful?” But to him it was just another picture of a scenic river. He took a quick glance and said it was pretty cool and drifted off in search of his own possibilities.
. . . .
Choosing is always a sweet sorrow. I don’t mean to lament that fact only to point out that, as with rivers, you never step into the same bookstore twice. And while I remain dazzled by the promise and possibility bookstores offer, I’ve found myself becoming somewhat apprehensive of them. Who needs the reminder of all you never were? Or of all you were but won’t ever be again? At 44 I feel a pressure that wasn’t there in my twenties. As my father so eloquently reminded me last year when I mentioned I’d been shoveling snow: “Be careful, Bud: You’re in the heart-attack zone.” How many books do I have left to read?
Link to the rest at LitHub
Any more, PG seldom enters physical bookstores. When he does, he tends to wonder if the employees are earning a living wage.
In a Barnes & Noble, he wonders what the employees, particularly the long-term employees who started work planning to make bookselling a career, will do when the company files for bankruptcy protection. He wonders what happened to all the people who worked at Borders when it closed.
When he gets back into the stacks to look at the kind of books he really enjoys, he hopes the traditionally-published authors he sees there have day jobs.
If, as the OP says, “you never step into the same bookstore twice,” is an unintentional extra meaning beyond the turnover of store stock hiding there? The next time you step into this store, will all the books be gone?