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Lost in Translations

March 6, 2008 By:
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I don't know how the situation has gotten to this point exactly, but I do most of my book buying on the Web now, making fewer and fewer visits to bookstores. That may not sound like so alarming an admission to make in our Internet-saturated age, but you've got to understand the role that bookstores have played in my life and exactly how I've felt about what I consider, after libraries, to be one of the grandest institutions world civilization has helped foster.

Lucky for me, I had parents who were inveterate readers, and a father who was an intrepid, discerning collector of all sorts of things -- paintings, antique furniture, Oriental rugs, Japanese and Chinese art, silver and fine china, with books of rare quality being very high on his list of must-haves. In fact, our home resembled a small but enthralling house museum.

From the time we children were young, we would tag after our father as he did his Saturday rounds at the hospital -- he was a general practitioner connected with Graduate and Pennsylvania hospitals throughout his career -- and once he'd visited his patients, he would start the slow tour of the Pine Street shops and various other favorite haunts around town.

My father made it a habit of frequenting both the fine quality stores and the quirkier junk shops that were far more abundant during my childhood than they are today, and which were overseen by some of the most eccentric individuals I've ever been exposed to. Most of them looked and dressed like homeless people, although my father assured me on the sly that many of them were millionaires -- and that was when a million dollars really meant something. They simply didn't feel like spending any of their profits on clothing.

And all these fellows -- there was only an occasional female in the bunch, and their eccentricity often trumped that of their male counterparts -- knew Sam Leiter. "Hey, Doc," they'd call out whenever he came through the front door. Then they'd duck into the back to retrieve something -- a piece of ivory or jade, a Civil War document or a small painting -- that they knew he alone would want in his collection.

Luckily for us kids, most of these places -- high-toned or lower-end -- often had shelves given over to books, and my siblings and I could amuse ourselves with them for hours.

That was how my obsession started -- on hospital Saturdays, in those dusty stores as well as at Leary's, Philly's grand old bookstore, where we also made periodic visits. My father also used to take us boys into New York for his occasional forays into the antiques underworld there and he introduced me, at least, to the marvelous used bookshops that once lined Fourth Avenue -- "Book Row" -- in the East Village.

By the time I was 12 or so, I knew where all the mainstream bookstores were in downtown Philly and all the good secondhand shops as well. My first summer job -- when I was just 14 but tall enough to pass for 18 -- was at Midtown Books, on 15th Street between Market and Chestnut, but a 15th Street that would be totally unrecognizable to today's young Philadelphians.

And during my frequent forays into New York throughout my teens, I got to know ever major and minor bookstore in the city: the Eighth Street Bookshop, the Strand, the Gotham Book Mart and the Drama Book Shop, in particular.

From that point on, I earned some extra money by working in bookstores, especially throughout college and for a good number of years after graduation.

And whenever I've traveled, I've also searched out the famous bookstores in the area -- The Paper Place and Prairie Lights in Iowa City, Elliot Bay Book Company in Seattle's Pioneer Square, Tattered Cover in Denver -- and reveled in their differences, making sure to buy a book that would summon up the place for me whenever I picked it up at home. I've done the same thing when I've traveled for the paper as a reporter in Europe. My favorite period for this particular activity was in the late 1980s, just before the Communist bloc crumbled. Whether in Warsaw, Moscow, Budapest or Prague, I would track down as many different versions of Orwell's 1984 and Animal Farm or Arthur Koestler's Darkness at Noon as I could find. What was amazing to me was that such subversive literature existed in Polish, Magyar, even Russian, and was sold -- at least beginning with the glasnost period -- to anyone bold enough to ask.

'A Slowness About Them'

These various and sundry thoughts were evoked by a reading of Lewis Buzbee's sweet little tribute of a book called The Yellow-Lighted Bookshop, published by Graywolf Press, one of this country's most intrepid independent publishers. The author, a longtime bookseller as well as a former publisher's sales rep, calls this work "a memoir, a history," and that's how it's structured -- part memory, part straight fact, all of it in celebration of the bookstore in all its tactile glory. Every page is like reading a fan's notes.

The book's opening paragraph sets the tone precisely: "When I walk into a bookstore, any bookstore, first thing in the morning, I'm flooded with a sense of hushed excitement. I shouldn't feel this way. I've spent most of my adult life working in bookstores, either as a bookseller or a publisher's sales rep, and even though I no longer work in the business, as an incurable reader I find myself in a bookstore at least five times a week. Shouldn't I be blasé about it all by now? In the quiet of such a morning, however, the store's displays stacked squarely and its shelves tidy and promising, I know that this is no mere shop. 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 absolute banality. Standing in the middle of this confluence, I can't help but feel the possibility of the universe unfolding ... ."

Buzbee says that in bookstores, different rules apply than at other retail businesses. You are encouraged to take your time, to hang out, to browse. The "allowable leisure" that bookstores induce in patrons is a direct result of the product being sold. Books have a slowness about them, Buzbee notes. They require time, since they are written slowly, published slowly and read accordingly.

In that notion, you find the beating heart of the modern bookstore, from its inception till today, says the author. "In 18th-century Europe, when coffee and tobacco conquered the continent, the coffeehouse provided a public gathering place for writers, editors and publishers. The stimulant coffee and the sedative tobacco, in combination, made sitting at a table all day a pleasant equilibrium, perfect for writing, reading, long conversations, or staring out the window. This was the Age of Enlightenment: literacy was on the rise, books were cheaper and more abundant, and bookstores were often adjacent to coffeehouses, the customers of one were the customers of the other, with plenty of time in both for conversation and thought. Even today, the largest corporate chain stores, always mindful of the bottom line, build spaces friendly to the savor of time ... ."

This is how Buzbee's book makes its way, sometimes with more personal testimony about the years he spent toiling in California bookstores (he grew up in San Jose); and sometimes more fact, like the passages that deal with stellar libraries and bookshops that helped keep writers and their works alive and so, at times, shaped the history of literature.

I read The Yellow-Lighted Bookshop several months ago, and in the period since then, my Internet shopping has increased so considerably that what the author summons up here -- the thrill of losing yourself in a musty old bookshop on a chill winter's day -- is almost an artifact. Many of the stores I mentioned as once making up the topography of Philly and New York, sadly, no longer exist.

Clicking your way through "stacks" of books online makes for a wonderful journey -- in fact, I've found books on the Web that I've been looking for for years, in vain, in real live stores -- but nothing quite compares to searching and searching, then stumbling by chance on that special title. And when it's there at last, right on the shelf in front of you, reaching out and taking it in your hand is, for a bibliophile, a rush that the "uninitiated" will never comprehend.

Unfortunately, in our era of the big impersonal chain stores and the infinite world of the Web, that little adventure may soon be relegated to the past.

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