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On the Experience of Entering a Bookstore in Your Forties (vs. Your Twenties)

8 January 2019

From LitHub:

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?

Bookstores

10 Comments to “On the Experience of Entering a Bookstore in Your Forties (vs. Your Twenties)”

  1. > Any more, PG seldom enters physical bookstores.

    There’s an all-romance used book store 10 miles from me. There’s another used book store 15 miles from me. I don’t even know where the nearest new book store might be; far outside that radius, unless it’s hiding in a residential or industrial area somewhere and I haven’t noticed.

    For at least half the country, the independents folded long ago, and the chains cut their losses and ran.

    And even if someone lives in an urban hive, how many minutes or hours are they likely to spend to go to a physical store, rather than thumbing through Amazon on their phone?

  2. In my twenties it was BookStop and several others for science fiction, fantasy and computer/electronic books.

    In my forties it was still mainly bookstores for science fiction and computer books.

    Now in my sixties I can count how many times I’ve been ‘in’ a bookstore in the last ten years on one hand and have fingers left over. Search/find/ordering online beats the heck out of ‘hoping’ a bookstore might have what you’re looking for on a shelf somewhere.

    I’ll admit to online being a little harder to ‘discover’ new writers I might like, but then opening random books and reading a few lines didn’t help me find a lot of winners in the bookstores – and I HATED finding something that looked ‘interesting’ only to discover it’s book two or three of a series and of course the earlier books are nowhere to be found (which in most cases caused me to put the book back …)

    MYMV and your readers not get frustrated looking for you.

  3. Actually, if you are a regular at a B&M bookstore, like in the old days, there won’t be a significant difference in the stock from week to week. That is precisely the problem they face: low turnover from reduced traffic and reduced sales.

    Fundamentally, the biggest change they fail to grasp is that the ratio of avid to casual reader has dropped dramatically as the most avid readers have moved to digital. And then, since a lot of holiday book gifting was meant for those same avid readers, that holiday tradition has also declined.

    Those are fundamental facts that no amount of nostalgic screeds will change. Bookstores haven’t changed but consumers have.

  4. >> 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.

    That’s interesting. I never thought of many of the bookstore employees as choosing to work there as a “career”. My experience has been more:

    a. Small bookstores where the owners worked in the store as a career, but that was more indies, used, etc., not big box versions;

    b. Employees in the same small bookstores who viewed it as a transitional job i.e. high school, university, before they started their “real life” elsewhere;

    c. Employees in the box stores who might like books but their employment choice was more about wanting a job than about bookselling per se, and to the extent their job revolved around books, would be just as happy in a library as in a bookstore; or,

    d. Employees who just wanted a job with flexible hours and more money or better experience than Walmart greeter or cashier.

    I think I assumed that anyone interested in the “book business” were either writers or publishing types, not “sellers”. Maybe I should go back and read more John Dunning novels. 🙂

    Now I want to go buy the local store owner coffee and pick their brain about their business.

    PolyWogg

    • My first real job was at a WaldenBooks. I would have loved to made that a career, boy am I glad I didn’t.

  5. I visited a B&N for the fist time in several years this weekend, and it wasn’t for books. My wife was looking for a desk calendar, and that’s where she thought she could find one. So it was a destination trip.

    While she looked, I found I didn’t pay any attention to the books. I spent all my time looking at the puzzles, models, magic tricks, and gadgets on display. They had some pretty good stuff.

    The biggest surprise was the six full shelving units of blank journals. That’s 130 feet of shelf space. Are that many people writing about themselves?

  6. ***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.***

    Ah yes, I remember the shame-filled days of my 20s when Waldenbooks employees would round the center shelf of the store and catch me smelling the books to see which one was going to change my life….

  7. Near where I live the main town has three book stores on the Main Street. However the main town is well heeled , full of retirees and a tourist destination. The big destination bookstore out on the old highway now rents itself out for events like weddings using the books as a back drop. As far as I can tell some of the stock on the back shelves has not turned over in years.

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