What we gain from a good bookstore

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“Will there come a day when there will be no more booksellers? asks poet, essayist and bookseller Marius Kociejowski in his new memoir, “A Factotum in the Book Trade.” He suspects that such a day won’t come, but, disturbingly, he isn’t sure. In London, his adopted hometown and a major hub of the antiquarian book trade, many of Kociejowski’s haunts, including his former employer, the famous Bertram Rota shop, a pioneer in the trade of first editions of modern books and “one of the last of the old, dynastic, oxygenless establishments with a hierarchy that could more or less be described as Victorian” – are already plagued by rising rents and headwinds. Kociejowski does not like the sophisticated and well-equipped bookstores that have sometimes taken their place. “I want chaos; I want mystery above all,” he wrote. The best bookstores, precisely because of the dust on their back shelves and even bad mood of their keepers, promise that “somewhere, in one of their nooks and crannies, awaits a book that will so subtly alter our lives. With every store that closes, a little bit of this life-changing power ie is lost and the world leaks “more serendipity that feeds the human spirit”.

Kociejowski writes from the “ticklish underbelly” of the book trade as a “factotum” rather than a bookseller, as he has always been too busy writing to run a store. His memoirs are a representative slice, a basic sample, of the wealthy and partly vanished world of bookshopping in England from the late seventies to the present day. As Larry McMurtry puts it, in his excellent (and instructive) memoir of his life as a bookseller, “Books”, “the antiquarian book trade is an anecdotal culture”, rich in the tradition of the great sellers and eccentric collectors who animate the trade. . Kociejowski writes how “the multiplicity of human nature is more visible” in a bookstore than anywhere else, adding, “I think it’s because of the books, what they are, what they release in us and what they become when we make magnets to our desires.

The bookseller’s memoirs are, in part, an account of accomplishments, deals made, rarities discovered – or, in the case of long-suffering Shaun Bythell, the owner of Scotland’s largest second-hand bookshop , the mundane frustrations and occasional pleasures of running a large bookstore. While Kociejowski recounts some of the highlights of his career as a bookseller (such as cataloging James Joyce’s personal library or a brief job at the Maggs Bros., the Queen’s ancient booksellers), he especially remembers the characters that he knew. . “I strongly believe that being surrounded by books has a lot to do with bringing people’s inner lives to the surface,” he writes.

Some of them are famous, like Philip Larkin, who, as a librarian at the University of Hull, refused an expensive copy of his first book, “The North Ship”, as too expensive for “this detritus. Kociejowski tells us how he offended Graham Greene by not recognizing him on sight, and once helped his friend Bruce Chatwin (“fiber though he was”) with a choice line of poetry for “On the Black Hill »; how he hooked up with Robert Louis Stevenson with Patti Smith and sold a second edition of ‘Finnegans Wake’ to Johnny Depp, of all people, who was “incredibly trying hard to be unrecognized and with predictable comedic results “. But more precious are the memories of anonymous eccentrics, eccentrics, bibliomaniacs, and simple people who simply, and idiosyncratically, love books. “Where is the American collector who wore a miner’s lamp on his forehead to allow him to enter the darkest cavities of the bookstores he frequented? Where is the man who came to ask not for books but for the old bus and tram tickets that were often found there? Where is the man who collected virtually every edition of The natural history of Selborne by Reverend Gilbert White? Where is EverybodyKociejowski’s tone, while mostly ironic, borders on lament. “I can’t help but feel that something has come out of the life of the craft,” he writes.

Like many memoirs, “A Factotum in the Book Trade” is a nostalgic work, nostalgic for the demise of the bookstore – of old books in particular, but also of new titles – as a secure but never very remunerative profession. The internet has dealt a massive blow by creating a huge single market for used books, undermining the lower end of the used market. Amazon, in turn, has lowered the prices of new books. And then there’s rising rents, which have devastated small businesses of all kinds. What dies with every bookstore is not only a precious refuge for books and book people, but also “a book of stories” like Kociejowski’s, a book full of characters, major passions that warm our lives minors. The fact that bookstores were allowed to close, writes Kociejowski, represents “a general failure of the imagination, a failure to see the consequences.”

As Kociejowski mourns the bookstore’s past, Jeff Deutsch, the director of the legendary Seminary Co-op bookstores in Chicago, reflects on its future in his new book, “In Praise of Good Bookstores.” “This book is not a eulogy,” writes Deutsch. “We cannot allow this.” Freed from the charming salinity of Kociejowski’s twilight years, Deutsch’s tone is a serious, even idealistic consideration of what we gain from a good bookstore, and what we stand to lose if we don’t overcome failure. imagination – and economy – that allowed so many bookstores to close.

You may have heard that we are witnessing an independent bookstore renaissance, but the situation is far from rosy. In 1994, when Deutsch began his bookstore career (and Amazon was founded), the United States was home to approximately seven thousand independent bookstores; that number had fallen to around 2,500 by 2019. Although hundreds of bookstores have opened in the past two years, fewer and fewer bookstores only sell books, Deutsch notes. Because books have a relatively low profit margin, especially titles published by independent or academic presses, bookstores have increasingly had to abandon their core business to peddle so-called “margins”, such as coffee , stationery, candles and, above all, horrible for Deutsch, socks. (That, incidentally, was Amazon’s founding model: using books to eventually lure customers to other, more profitable items.) Consider what happened at The Strand, where a cafe recently joined shelves on the ground floor and where you can’t fit. your glasses without touching certain Strand branded products. Even if you don’t have a problem with socks with quotes on them – or with the fact that the Strand will sell you, say, a foot of “Ember Orange” books for one hundred and thirty-five dollars – it’s not hard to see how a bookstore’s desperate struggle to survive can deplete its less quantifiable richness and literary vibe.

For Deutsch, a good or “serious” bookstore – the embodiment of the “highest aspirations” of the book trade – is not really about selling anything. It’s about creating a space in which a visitor can sink into “slow time browsing”, the state between concentration and distraction that you feel when reading the backs of books on a shelf, by opening a here and there, diving but only a page or two before continuing. “Selling books has always been one of the least attractive services provided by bookstores,” Deutsch writes. “The value is, and always has been, at least in good, serious bookstores, in the experience of being among the books – an experience offered to anyone who enters space with curiosity and time.” The good bookstore, Deutsch suggests, is what Gaston Bachelard called a “happy space,” whose true boundaries and character are much more than its physical dimensions, and whose purpose goes deeper. It’s also the kind of institution, like a good bar or a good restaurant, that adds depth and substance to a community, but which, once lost, survives only in the grimaces and sighs of the living memory. (The first location of Larry McMurtry’s bookstore, in Georgetown, now houses an upscale clothing store and “beauty salon.”) even known such a place.

Deutsch’s ideal bookstore is like an English park, carefully cultivated to look perfectly natural and slightly crooked. “Browsing” itself is an agricultural term, he points out, in one of his book’s many often entertaining but sometimes slightly twee-ish ramblings on the culture and language of bibliophilia: it’s what what cows are doing in a field, and was only beginning to be used to describe reading habits in the 19th century. “Books, like the leaves and shrubs known as browsage, provide ruminant readers with their nutrients,” Deutsch believes, at her most violet. “What an unparalleled activity to browse through a bookstore in a state of curiosity and receptivity, intellectually ruminating!” It’s not the cheap, fast-food browsing of parchment, but rather something more meditative, more nutritious.


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