You can spot a book lover. I mean, a real book lover. In a world where everywhere we look people are scrolling through backlighted pages on their phones, real book lovers are sitting on the bus, or in the waiting rooms of doctors’ offices, or in the corner of the office lunch room engrossed in the pages of an actual book.
And book lovers, by definition, are often bookstore lovers as well. This is what is celebrated in Lewis Buzbee’s little book, The Yellow-Lighted Bookshop: A Memoir, A History. The book celebrates the wonder and beauty held in your local bookstore.
When a bookstore opens its doors, the rest of the world enters, too, the day’s weather and the day’s news, the streams of customers, and of course the boxes of books and the many other worlds they contain—books of facts and truths, books newly written and those first read centuries before, books of great relevance and of absolute banality. Standing in the middle of this confluence, I can’t help but feel the possibility of the universe unfolding a little, once upon a time. (3)
Those of us who love bookstores—the smell of paper, the colors of covers beckoning us, the intense desire that we could just, somehow, read it all. (Except for the banalities, of course.)
Buzbee has spent a lifetime around books—working in small independent bookstores, visiting small stores as a sales rep, and, of course, as a reader. His love for bookstores is unabashed. Where else, he asks, can you go in and sample the merchandise in the way you can with books—sitting over your latté reading the first half of that novel before you decide to purchase? Where else can you purchase for a minimal price the wisdom of the ages (or, if you so desire, the wisdom of a Kardashian or two)? Where else can you be so alone as a shopper and yet so connected to the others in the store—simply because of your love for books? Where else is there absolutely something for everyone and someone for everything? Where else can you purchase something that doesn’t need any upkeep but promises hours of entertainment—and then willingly sits on a shelf for as long as you choose to keep it, easily accessible, ready with the same words in the same spot with, perhaps, the same effect as they had on you the first time?
Buzbee describes bookstores’ evolution—the stalls where a hawker sold his wares, the semi-permanent store, and the itinerant bookseller going from town to town with his wares on his back. Before the invention of the printing press, books were copied by hand, often by the bookseller himself. Sometimes booksellers acted as publishers, entering into contracts with authors.
It wasn’t until the expansion of the universities across Europe that books came to be more required and thus needed to be made more cheaply. A new class of copyists and the introduction of paper into Europe transformed the face of books and publishing. Then, of course, Gutenberg’s printing press was the game changer. “A printer could create in one day what it might take a single monk six months to accomplish. It’s estimated that before the printing press, there were 50,000 books in all of Europe; fifty years after Gutenberg’s first Bible, there were more than 20 million” (102).
Along came copyright laws and the rise of brick and mortar stores. One bit of information I found fascinating was that in early stores, books sat horizontally on shelves, just the pages bound in signatures (sets of pages), no covers. A customer would purchase the book, then choose the color and cost of the binding. (So that’s why all those books in the big old mansion libraries are all the same color!)
Those who get to frequent (or work in) today’s bookstores have a distinct advantage—the ability to work around things we love.
I can say we because, for a few summers after my college years, I was happily employed in my parents’ small Christian bookstore. I dusted shelves and shelved books. I watched my dad meet with the salesmen in the office in the back, my mom making a fresh pot of coffee, considering the books our clientele in the little rural town of Corry, Pennsylvania, would buy. I loved to see my mom putting together tasteful book displays in the front window. I loved to see my dad behind the counter with several Bibles laid out on the glass-top case, explaining the various features of each to an intent-looking customer. I loved that my parents would sell a Bible to a person who couldn’t afford it right away, but would allow them to take it, knowing that the person would be coming in with maybe only a dollar or two each week to pay off the purchase.
Ye Olde Book Shoppe had been an institution in town for decades. The previous owner had it in a room of her home; when my parents purchased it, they moved it to a storefront on Center Street. The bookstore was always such a peaceful place – soft music humming through the speakers, sunlight through the windows, the smell of fresh books, and the opportunity to sit at the counter ready to wait on customers. When I wasn’t busy dusting, I could pick up the latest book off a shelf to read at the front counter or purchase it (at a discount!).
So as a reader and writer and publishing professional and former bookstore employee, I found the history in Buzbee’s little book fascinating. His description of the Paris bookshop, Shakespeare & Co., opened in 1919 by Sylvia Beach is itself worth the read. Not only was the bookshop the haunt of expatriate writers like Fitzgerald and Hemingway and Pound, Beach also acted as publisher for Joyce’s Ulysses. Then the story of how she hid the entire contents of the store from the Nazis—well, that makes her a bookseller’s hero.
You reader friends will agree—there’s just something about a bookstore. Tell me your favorite bookstore story. What do you love about bookstores?