The Yellow-Lighted Bookshop

February 16, 2008 Categories: Books , Commonplace Book , Reviews | 4 Comments  

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The people at Amazon.com are very smart. That whole “Free shipping on orders over $25″ gets me every time. I found this wonderful little chapter book series called Andrew Lost that Jonathan is devouring. Since this is the first series that has really grabbed him, I wanted to make sure and keep them coming, but the library only has a couple of titles. Fortunately, the books are paperback and only $3.99 apiece. Which brings me back to the $25/free shipping thing. When I order a few books for Jonathan, and a new handwriting book for Natalie, and I’m still slightly under that $25 mark, I can’t let it go. I have to add something from my wish list to get that free shipping. This time, it was The Yellow-Lighted Bookshop by Lewis Buzbee, which has turned out to be a gem of a book.

I’ve read a lot of books that are love letters to reading or to books themselves, but this book is a love letter to bookstores. Buzbee worked for several years as a sales employee in various bookstores, then moved on to work as a sales rep for several publishing houses. He loves books – and he is addicted to bookstores. Buzbee talks about his own experience as a bookseller and rhapsodizes on how the bookstore is basically the perfect retail destination. Along the way, he also talks about the history of the bookshop, beginning with the bookseller’s stalls outside the library of Alexandria and taking the reader up to the famous Shakespeare & Co. in Paris, whose owner published James Joyce’s Ulysses when no British publishing houses would touch it. This book is just full of little nuggets that will stick with me for a while.

Four out of five stars.

“The invitation of the bookstore occurs on so many levels that it seems we must take our time. We peruse the shelves, weaving around the other customers, feeling a cold gust of rain from the open door, not really knowing what we want. Then there! on that heaped table, or hidden on the lowest, dustiest shelf, we stumble on it. A common thing, this volume. There may be five thousand copies of this particular book in the world, or fifty thousand, or half a million, all exactly alike, but this one is as rare as if it had been made solely for us. We open to the first page, and the universe unfolds, once upon a time.” p. 8-9

“The deepest connections with customers usually come at the front counter, precisely because that island of counter between customer and bookseller creates an imaginative space for the two to occupy. There’s the safety of the physical barrier, which allows both sides to be a little freer; you are close to each other, face to face, but a barrier remains. Both parties are free to leave at any moment, the clerk to her duties, the customer to the world.

But finally, it’s the cash register that holds sway, for it implies the exchange of goods for money, and it’s during these transactions that a bookseller learns the most about a customer. Out on the floor, it’s all possibility, what a customer might choose to purchase, but at the counter, once the register starts ringing, that’s where the revelations are. These are the books the customer will take home to read or stack up or offer as a gift, and each book, in some way, represents a part of that person’s life. It’s not a mere tally of reading tastes, who likes what authors, it’s a gauge of what concerns people, what occupies them. There, face to face over the elbow-polished wood of the counter, bookseller and customer share a silent but telling moment. Travel guides, cookbooks, a book on divorce, one about ailing parents, a book of baby names, one about the horrifying spread of war in the new century, maybe the vampire novel that will take your mind off everything else, if only for twenty minutes at a time. It’s a little like looking into another person’s heart.” p. 106-107

“By the sixteenth century, the use of coffee had become commonplace in the Middle East, and the Arabic coffeehouse was a long-established cultural fixture. Patrons of early European coffeehouses would have recognized the style and intent of the Arabic coffeehouse. Customers were invited to stay for a long time and to engage in impassioned literary, political, and theological debates. One European observer of the Arabic coffeehouse called it a “theatre for the exercise of profane eloquence,” And Ralph Hattox in his Coffee and Coffeehouses has referred to it as “an excuse for sociable procrastination.” Same as it ever was.” p. 111-112

“A bookseller frequently hears the same dismaying comment, “Well, I’d like to read it, but books are just too expensive.” Considering that books might have cost 50 cents when you were a child, or that you might be able to find the same book for free in a library, then I suppose that a $25.00 hardcover novel does seem extravagant. But a little comparison shopping might help the recalcitrant customer rethink the book’s long-term value.

Today a San Francisco movie ticket will set you back $10.00. Two hours later, give or take, and poof, that money is nothing but your memory, at least until you pony up another $20.00 for the DVD. A 400-page novel will probably take at least 8 hours to read. Once you buy a book, it’s yours, and you can mark and look up at your leisure that one terrific paragraph that keeps floating through your head.

The technology of the book is much more flexible than film, more user friendly. The reader can dip into the book at will, without electricity, and is always aware of where she is in the book, halfway through, a third of the way, mere pages from the end, her fingers helping to measure the excitement of coming to the conclusion. Watching a scene from a film in slow motion is possible, but there’s an unreal air to it; reading a passage from a book slowly does nothing to rob the words of their power. A film presents images; a book creates them inside the reader, with the reader’s active participation. Books are good for your brain. Neurologists have found that, when watching television or film, the viewer’s eyes remain idle, straight ahead, but when reading, the actual physical movement of scanning the page from left to right (or right to left, or up and down, depending) stimulates and conditions the brain, a Stairmaster of the mind.

The same $25.00 you’d spend on a hardcover novel could easily be spent for the entree at a tony restaurant, salad, dessert, and wine not included. A terrific time is had by all, but the meal is quickly a memory. Chef Glenn Groening of Kezar Bar and Restaurant in San Francisco has created a duck breast over risotto – I claim it’s one of the finest meals on the planet – and reasonably priced at $15.00, or roughly the price of a new trade paperbck, but when I’ve finished the duck and want just a few more bites, as I always do, well, I’m out of luck unless I order another entire serving. Books are digested, Francis Bacon reminds us, but never consumed.” p. 131-132

“I buy books when I travel because the bookstores I visit then surprise me with their selections. The new novel by Brazilian writer Moacyr Scliar may be in my local bookstore, or cheaper on Amazon.com, but I haven’t stumbled across it yet. But if I’m at Square Books in Oxford, Mississipi, where the staff member has read the book or simply liked the cover, it might be displayed to catch my eye. Or it could be something as simple as the light in the Fiction section on that given day and how it strikes the book’s colorful spine and calls out to me. Every bookstore has its own delights, and that’s why we can never have too many. The hard part is getting all those books in the suitcase.” p. 193

“We still prefer that quiet rustle of the pages, and besides, how do you press a wildflower into the pages of an e-book?” p. 202

4 Comments

  1. Carrie (Reading to Know)

    Sounds like a great book to me! Full of those insightful truths. ;) Thanks for the review. If I see a copy, I’ll be sure to snatch it up!

  2. Heidi @ Mt. Hope

    That sounds like a delightful read! Thank you so much for those quotes. I especially liked the one about seeing someone’s book purchases being like looking into someone’s heart.

  3. DebD

    I love the title of the book and it sounds delightful. I especially liked the quote about going to the movies. So true.

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