10 April 2006

one mind at a time

i don't think i will ever stop loving bookstores. this comes as some of a surprise. it’s entirely separate from loving books, which isn’t something i’d ever expect to change. but i figured that at some point bookstores would lose their magical charm, since that’s something that’s so tied to the years i spent working in bookstores. i have, i think, literally zero memories of bookstores before they were places to work – that started when i was fifteen, after all. even though you can get working papers at 14, 99% of decent, non-summer-camp jobs in new york state require you to be 16, but somehow, the waldenbooks at the nanuet mall did not. i went in for an interview at fifteen, eager and ready to devote my life, or at least a few afternoons a week, to books.

although bookstores don't figure into my early memories, books sure as hell do. it's been all about books&theatre* for as long as i can remember, and a bookstore seemed the obvious and perfect after-school job. i filled out my application, had my little interview, from which i remember two things: it was in the back storage room, the first glimpse i ever had of the 'backstage' at a bookstore. and after the regular interviewy questions the manager (?) interviewing me handed me a kid's book/toy thing off the shelf, and basically said, 'sell this to me.' i launched into an extended showing-off of the book/toy thing, explaining the myriad benefits reading provides, and it's appropriate for ages blady-blah through blah, and isn't it amazing and great and you need it now! i think i was a little overzealous, but it all went well.

so why did i spend years 16 through whatever working at barnes & noble? because in addition to the interview, waldenbooks requires applicants to take an automated phone survey, about things like stealing from work, and honesty. i vividly remember sitting with the phone on my mom's bed and answering via push-button questions like, 'i think it is wrong to steal from work, always, sometimes, or never.' 'i would steal from work, never, occasionally, all the fucking time!' i answered everything thoughtfully and honestly - i'd never stolen, and thought i never would, unless it were, like, a paperclip. (silly girl.) a couple days later i got a call from the waldenbooks manager: 'what happened with the phone test?' i'd failed, and they'd love me to retake it in six months.

so a year later i ended up at barnes and noble. the ceilings were about three times higher than at waldenbooks. it was brightly lit but not garishly so, and the signs were a reassuring green and cream. when it said ‘fiction and literature,’ you knew they meant it. literature. because look what a classy font it was in. this barnes & noble was in a mall about five times bigger than the waldenbooks’ mall, at that time the second-biggest mall in the country. the 'new mall,' the palisades mall (fictionalized as the 'white hills mall' in joyce carol oates' middle age). a four-story monstrosity of white concrete and neon on a former garbage dump. hid. e. ous. and home to (aside from the eight-thousand stores and six restaurants and fifty-three movie theatres and EVERY RESIDENT OF ROCKLAND COUNTY BETWEEN THE AGES OF FOURTEEN AND THIRTY) the first mall-attached barnes & noble. i was in the second wave of hirings - not one of the folks who slaved away setting up the entire freaking store, but hired soon after. i think this was the summer before junior year of high school.

the barnes & noble was a mixed blessing. or a mixed thing. or whatever. on the one hand, a good portion of my bookseller duties were shelving. i fucking hate shelving books. it’s the most mind-numbing work ever. it's worse than plain boring because you can't, or at least i at sixteen couldn't, check out and daydream while doing it - it takes your full attention, the alphabetizing, the finding the little sub-sub-sub-sections in areas you'd never set foot in on your own. shelving in fiction wasn't too bad, and religion was vaguely interesting, but anywhere else i wanted to run away or die. (i often just sorta hid.)

there were better things, though. cashiering was fun, and passed the time quickly. and working at info was great - bathrooms are down in children's and to the left, cash registers are towards the glass doors and to the right, but oh, you need a book for your ten-year-old niece? awesome! want book recommendations? make my freaking day. and people, always people coming up and asking questions, and wanting to know about books.

and that's what kept me going - this was a place entirely for people to be reading. (and buying music. and coffee.**) it's weird, because i've never been one for buying books. or rather, i've never been one for buying books cold*** - i borrow a book, from a friend or the library, and if i love it, then i buy it to own. there are books i've bought and never read since, but it's important to me to have them, to see them on my shelf, to know that they're there and know what's inside.**** without opening up a consumerism can of worms, it’s important for them to be mine. on a few occasions i've bought books on sight - i'm a sucker for covers, and really believe that you can judge a book by it - and sometimes it works out fucking brilliantly - the time traveler's wife is my proudest find (though that was really in the new yorker's 'briefly noted'), with super flat times being a very close second. matthew derby's fucking awesome.

i always marveled at, for example, the parents who'd buy their kids' summer reading books. especially when the kids were clearly not into it. dragging feet, no interest, just a mother shoving a xeroxed list at me – ‘which of these should he buy?’ harried is the word that comes to mind. i always had favorites on the summer reading tables - how many copies of a wrinkle in time are out there because of me? - so i didn't mind this, but the wasted money amazed me.

so it's not that i ever had a perfect relationship with bookstores - a lot of people waste a lot of money, and books are to be loved and treasured. but there were also the times when i got to tell someone about a book i loved, to exchange favorite authors... and even, to take myself out of it entirely, just seeing people loving books and buying books, kids sitting in the aisles reading quietly for hours.***** and to separate it from my bookselling, bookstore-working days, the bookstore holds something i want, always. if i could line my apartment with shelves, and run on an unlimited budget, i could easily fill every inch of wallspace with books. (not saying too much with the size of the apartment, but still.) books i've read, books i love, and the fucking unending number of books that i haven't yet read but want to. james is a fabulous roommate, for many reasons but also because he buys lots of books, new books, hardcover books, and i subsist largely on his collection. but walking through the fiction aisles at a bookstore it's just full of quiet and wonderful things, and beautiful things that i love.

libraries have never had the same magic. there's something about the clean new covers in a bookstore, colors that aren't hidden behind the milky plastic dust jackets. books covers are an object lesson in what design can do. what it can convey. and even though there are plenty of books written and published that just aren't very good, so many of them are, and on one shelf, one aisle, in one store, there are so many books, so many labors of love and sweat and fucking really smart people. good writers are really fucking smart. and there are so many of them!

okay, so i guess we're getting at what's underneath this love of bookstores, huh. a novel might be, to me, the biggest work of art that a single person can do. just the math, the sheer number of words in a novel compared to a play. of course, it's a different art, a different way of crafting language, quality not quantity, but a really fucking good book, where every word counts - there might not be anything better than that. and a bookstore is not only where the writers put those books, but where readers go to get them, which at first sounds simplistic, but that moment of exchange is just as important as the exchange that's going to happen a few hours or days or weeks later, on the reader's couch or bed or subway ride. a person walks into a bookstore saying i want to read. and, even forgetting the cries of 'oh the book is a dying form, waah waah,' that's important, and special, to me.

so last week i went up to the columbus circle borders. borders has never been an especially heart-warming store for me - i much prefer the faux seriousness of a barnes & noble, the curlicued leaf design, the comforting greens (and soft orange that was added into the color scheme a few years ago). borders feels like a music store that sells books, the old navy to barnes & nobles’... i don't know... banana republic. or whatever. but i went to borders, because borders is closer, and i was doing this during work. last wednesday was the baby shower for one of my bosses and his wife. (first baby - aww. and my first baby shower, for what it’s worth.) there were plans to buy a big registry gift from the office, but that fell apart. then i was going to go down to babies r us to buy a smaller gift they'd registered for, some snuggly cute wearable blanket thing. but then, in talking to my (other, direct supervisory) boss, who'd bought them some lovely baby things from paris, i realized i didn't have to get them something from the registry. and then i knew it: books.

my first, thought, as always when i think of baby books, was the snowy day. (okay, pat the bunny may have been first - i didn't want something too far away from babiness. but then, the snowy day.) i also did some intense, entirely fruitless internet research trying to find the name of another of my close-to-the-heart picture books, in which a classroom's pet bunny, harry runs away - harry's missing, and the kids notice some of their personal affects have gone missing, too. they eventually find the bunny under the sink (or something), in a nest he's built from their stolen stuff. because, of course, harry the bunny is a lady bunny, and is with child (with bunny), and nesting. so they rename him harriet, and that's that. if you know what this book is called, please tell me!

i couldn't find the harry/harriet book's name, so i went to borders thinking pat the bunny & the snowy day. seeing courduroy changed all of that, because with one flip through those pages i was hit with such a wave of ridiculous sentimentality that i knew i had to get it. (for the baby!) and then, inspiredly, i remembered stregga nona, and with my boss being sicilian, ché idea molto perfetta!

done and done. and aside from the pleasure of buying this baby books, of seeing these books on his shelves, hoping that i've contributed my small bit towards him growing up a reader, there was that whoosh of bookstore lovin. the tables piled with new fiction and 'paperback favorites' (always a favorite term). the kids roughly my age with the name tags around their necks, leaning behind counters or walking past the shelves. i'm sure there's an element of loving it because, from however far back, i'm 'a part of it.' i know what those bookseller kids do. i don't know if i would love bookstores the same way if i had never worked in one. which is weird, because, like i said, shelving fucking sucks. but here i am, loving the bookstores. and spreading the bookstore love.

*or writing&acting - funny that, now.

**and yes, after leaving b&n's bookselling forces, i came back as a cafe server, and stayed there for longer than i'd like to think. so yeah, i was basically starbucksing. but there were lots of books around... and i can make a wicked latte. and through an ill-planned crush i found the sparrow and guster. so thanks, mark. i mean, go screw yourself, but thanks.

***exceptions are made, of course, for books by authors i already know and love.

****the handmaid's tale is the first book i did this with. and i realize, suddenly, now, that i have no idea where my copy is.

*****or kids sitting and listening, rapt, as i sat next to a woman reading winnie the poo. did i mention i was in a winnie the poo suit? oh yeah, i was. did courduroy, too.

1 comment:

Katie O said...

I love bookstores, too. (I never worked in one.) They're so much better than libraries. I don't know why. Because libraries in theory are fantastic. You get to borrow books for free, and try out new authors or subjects or whatever without worrying about buying a book you won't actually like. And there's something really endearing about a little kid getting his/her first library card. BUT there's also something cool about owning a NEW book. A book that's all yours. It makes the reading journey and whatnot more special, more private, when you don't come across someone else's chocolate stains on the pages of the book. It's like the story was written especially for you. And the smell of new books is fantastic. :)