Monday, August 19, 2013

A Paean to Bookstores

Sometimes you wanna go where everybody knows your name...

For some people, their happy place is a jog in the park, an hour at the local bar, or a church or social club.  Wherever you go to meet with like-minded people, be identified as "you" instead of "random stranger" by a non-relative and generally feel good about your life.

For me, it's a bookstore.  When I walk into a particular bookstore here in Madison, they greet me by my first name, remember my reading preferences and have been known to ask for my recommendations.  They are more understanding of my reading habit than just about any people I know, and I choose to believe that it's not because my obsession with reading is keeping them in business.

A bookstore - a good one, anyway - is a place where the imagination becomes tangible.  It's where thousands of hours of work and struggle get put out for the general public to consume and critique.  It's a place where you can meet your new idol (albeit through the pages of a book) and catch up with old friends ("Hello, Ms Author.  How did I not know that you had a new book coming out this week?").  The Norse gods sit a few paces away from Henry VIII, who is staring at Martin Luther King Jr, who in turn is just a shelf away from Ebenezer Scrooge.  Taciturn Mr Darcy waits to meet a new generation of readers who will develop a crush on him - and then Captain Wentworth will make the other readers start believing in enduring love and second chances.

As I write this, I sit in a coffee shop of a big box bookstore.  A young mother walks into the caffeine zone, trailed by her two sons, perhaps 6 and 8 years old.  Each boy is literally groaning under the weight of a shopping basket which they themselves have filled to near-overflowing with reading material.  When Mom goes to get her well-earned coffee, the younger son scampers after her, calling to his brother, "Alex*, come on!  Let's pick our treat!  Come on!"  But Alex has already pulled a massive book out of his basket and is nose-deep in it.  He looks up at his sibling as if he had already forgotten there were other people in the world.  It's clear he's already found his treat.
After placing their order, both boys devour both their confections and their books, quietly turning pages and occasionally showing each other something interesting.  Mom sits across the table from them, sipping her coffee and perusing a magazine.  I would like to nominate this woman for Mother of the Year, solely on the basis that she has cultured a obvious love of reading in her children.

It's an added bonus that this cafe is adjacent to the my favorite section of the story.  Where I sit you can see the new science fiction and fantasy titles in all their gem-colored variety.  Steampunk heroines with improbably large guns and fashionable-yet-impractical corsets.  Imperial Roman soldiers sitting on a shelf next to post-apocalyptic Robin Hood.  Pyr's epic and gorgeous covers.  All vying for my attention.  All begging me to take them home because they just might be the next amazing book I just can't put down.  Even as I know that most books just aren't, I can't help but think "Maybe this time..." 

Where else can you find a thousand lives to live - or discard - inside four walls?  Today, Tudor England.  Tomorrow, training dragons with faux Vikings.  Next week - 1960s Mississippi.  Infinite choices, and all of them worthwhile.  Any two people can pick up the same book and live the same story and yet have vastly different experiences.  Ask a stranger which Harry Potter book is the best and you instantly have a topic of conversation.  Millions of people all around the world, all complete strangers, and they all have something in common.  It's hard to think of another concept so central to the human experience as storytelling.

As Alice Hoffman said, "Books may well be the only true magic."
*not his real name.

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