Friday, November 5, 2010

A collection of dust and decay

In my early 20s, while living at the New Jersey shore - don't even think it - I frequented a used bookshop (now, I hear, replaced by a store selling tires, which in turn replaced a liquor store) in one of the rundown neighborhoods at the edge of Atlantic City. In that desolate nether region of the state, cut off from the civilized world by the Pine Barrens and, well, the rest of New Jersey, used bookstores were few and far between, so this particular one - I've forgotten the name - was a dusty and cluttered haven. Never during any of my visits did I encounter another browser; I was left to think, a bit wistfully, that I was the only person who shopped here. The owner, a frail old man whose look belied his pugnacity, seemed reluctant to engage with his customer(s) and only did so with a sort of shuffling and begrudging respect.

Despite the lack of business, I cannot remember him ever acknowledging my arrival. He kept his head in a book, as if unwilling to let the presence of a mere human being interrupt his idyll. I liked his version of customer service: not unfriendly, but neither was he overeager to engage in conversation. He struck me as a man who didn't need to flip an "Open" sign around each morning, but did, perhaps, out of a desire to see some of the collection he'd gathered find other homes. (Occasionally, I would make a purchase that would delight him - I could see in his movements, a little more sprightly, as he wrote down each title I was buying on a carbon copy receipt.)

I bought dozens of books there and after a while noticed that many of them, mostly classic novels and works of philosophy, were inscribed with the same name and university on the top right corner of their title pages. The name is unimportant now, or is a story for another time, but a series of coincidences led me, then, to find out who this person was whose secondhand books I was buying...

All of which is to say in a roundabout way: Molly's post a few weeks back got me thinking about my relationship with bookstores as physical spaces in which one picks up books, carries them while browsing, where strangers may tell you, enthusiastically, "That's a great book," where you may accidentally stumble across something you didn't even know you were looking for, where you may meet your future partner, or sometimes just go to escape the house, and even where the sheer quantity of reading material is enough to make you want to give it all up in favor of... a beach somewhere, maybe. (Ah, but what would you read on that beach?)

I'm also reminded of an article I read this summer, about the late (and sadly neglected) novelist David Markson's relationship with his favorite bookstore, The Strand. It seems that after Markson's death his heirs sold his library, his books heavily annotated (if you've ever read one of his novels, you'll understand why), back to his favorite bookstore. As it happened, a customer picked up a copy of one Markson's secondhand books, noticed the name inscribed on the title page and dived into the stacks, seeking out more. (Read the story in the London Review of Books for a glimpse of some of these humorous annotations.)

And to really (finally) bring home this rambling point about serendipity, things that can only happen in the real world, and the delights of treasure hunting, there's this interview with Sylvia Beach, founder of the legendaryParisian bookstore Shakespeare and Company, where writers and artists as important as Paul Valery and Pablo Picasso came in search of conversation and books. (And where, in return for shelving books, lucky visitors can spend the night.)

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