"Let's open a bookstore," I say to my husband every now and then. "A used bookstore. With a few new books we really like." I'm picturing an old-fashioned shop, with comfy chairs and shelves bent under dusty treasures, and tea and cookies for favorite customers. Oh, and a cat. The cat is a very important part of the bookstore fantasy, which resembles an illustration from a madly twee children's book, only darker and browner.
"You'd hate it, Katha," my husband always says, and he tells me again about a used bookshop he always used to visit when in London, whose proprietor went slowly mad from loneliness — and probably looming bankruptcy, too — as customers less and less often rang the doorbell. "It's awful to be running a failing business."
Indeed. I remember that shop. Once, my husband told me, it had been a neighborhood gathering spot, where readers, collectors, and scholars dropped in to chat and gossip and browse. But by the time of my visit, it was a mess, with unsorted books sliding from every surface and piling up on the floor. The shop owner, a bony middle-aged man with thinning hair, chattered nervously and a bit desperately, as if he hadn't spoken to a living soul in weeks. There was, needless to say, no tea, no cookies, no cat — and no books I really wanted, either. I couldn't leave empty-handed, though, so I bought a biography of Delacroix I would probably never read and an anthology of 17th-century metaphysical poetry already sitting in my study back in New York, and fled.
We know that independent bookstores are having a hard time. But so are used bookstores. If it isn't slow sales — Alibris and AbeBooks are so easy and quick, to say nothing of ebooks — it's rising rents and retirements and real estate deals. In the Connecticut town where I spend summers, the Book Loft ("The Original Information Device! No Batteries Needed!") is closing. I bought a whole box of books there a month ago for maybe $15, and the owner, a gentle, melancholy man getting on in years, who says he will be moving to New Jersey and has no plan to open a store there, let me take what I wanted from a batch of books he was going to drop off at Goodwill. I already have more books than I could read if I lived to 100 — make that 150 — but how could I resist? That university press paperback about fetishism in French literature? Not only does it look fascinating, I know the author!
Why do I love these hapless, hopeless stores so much? There's the lure of serendipity, of course. Online stores mean you can instantly track down that beloved book from your childhood, but what about the books you didn't know you wanted, books you maybe didn't even know existed? Books like Robinson Crusoe in Words of One Syllable, for example, a hugely popular Victorian illustrated children's book. Who knew?
For me, it's personal too. I grew up in a used bookstore. Sam Colton's store on Montague Street in Brooklyn Heights was my home away from home all through my childhood and teens. I would go in after school and just sit there, enjoying the quiet, dusty smell of old books, and reading old National Geographics and books about Greek mythology and archeology Sam set aside for me. (I don't think I bought more than a handful of books in all those years.) Sam was not the cheerfullest of men — I remember him as burdened with worries and rather gruff — but he was nice to me. Men would come in — I remember them in coats and hats, which tells you this was a long time ago — and hang about chatting and kidding each other while I sat in the corner, leafing through articles about Thor Heyerdahl and Arctic exploration and the palace of Knossos. Much later, when I met the great writer Frank McCourt, I learned that he had been a haunter of Sam Colton's shop as well. Maybe he was one of those men in hats?
Today Sam's shop is a real estate agent's office, and Sam himself has probably passed away — he would be close to a hundred now. But I have my memories. And I have my bookshop fantasy, which I refuse to abandon just because it's not a practical business proposition and would require a lot of things I'm not good at, like keeping careful records and remembering to pay taxes on time. My daydream isn't really about selling books, you see, but about gathering them together, and preserving them, and surrounding myself with them, and having all the time in the world to explore them and enjoy them. I would drink the tea, and eat the cookies, and stroke the cat, and finally finish Memoirs of Hadrian, which was one of my mother's favorite novels but I put down my senior year in high school and never picked up again.
It would be all right if I had no customers, I tell my husband. Maybe better. After all, I don't like to be disturbed when I'm reading.