Unlike school, where exploration was always delimited by the rules of adults and the unnatural truncation of time into 45 minute periods, bookstores have always been sites for unbridled wandering and discovery. Like the sea glass I have accumulated over a lifetime, bookstores were the sites of great intellectual discoveries often stumbled onto. Bookstores, like long walks through new cities, became opportunities for meandering, wandering and allowing curiosity free reign. They have also been sanctuaries, places of solitude where I learned to inquire and developed habits of study.
I have never seen myself as either collecting or owning books. But I bought them with alacrity. It was in bookstores that intuition and impulse, two elements among many, that mattered for me. Sometimes it was a title, an author, or the shape and size of a book that invited me. Bookstores fed my eclecticism and, most importantly, my imagination. A visit to one was never a mere visit. They became extended reveries, and always places where I could not be rushed and where time was not to be measured. In Walter Benjamin’s essay, “Unpacking My Books,” he captures the sensation of connectedness to books and the singular pleasure derived from unpacking them. Bookstores have held that quality of experience for me as well.
I entered bookstores led by intuition and nascent interests gravitating towards poetry, literature, history, philosophy, and eventually essays. This ability to wander was cultivated in my formative years by frequenting in New York City the original Barnes and Nobles on 18th Street and 6th Avenue, and the Strand, the great Bazaar of second hand books on 11th and University. It was in both of them, each repositories of bin after bin of books, that I started to cultivate the art of browsing, which like idleness, according to Rilke, is both necessary and a constituent of creativity. The imagination needs horizons, panoramas and vistas to grow and be inspired. Of the places and landscapes I have encountered, bookstores have fulfilled this role. Unlike libraries, scoped and sequenced, ordered and systematic, bookstores belong in the realm of the chance encounter: discovering an out of print book of poems by William Carlos Williams or be introduced to Wendell Berry on a bookcase wedged between Mark Twain and Montaigne—milestones and minor epiphanies without which life might have turned out emptier and more conventional. Bookstores have been the sites of a timeless apprenticeship to literacy and scholarship.
It was in living abroad that provided some of my most memorable encounters with bookstores. At The Elliot Bay Book Company, in downtown Seattle, where they had a lovely coffee bar in the cellar and a very airy open space with a cornucopia of great printed books. I recall all the handwritten lists of staff favorites. It had an NPR feel to it and a copious library where I think I sat down and read All of George Orwell’s Columns, 1942-57, and drank a lot of very good hot coffee. It was raining of course. And Buckholtz in Bogotá, on the Avenida Jimenez, where the décor was Bogota at the turn of the 20th century, highly stylized and influenced by the French—where we sat on red cushioned sofas to read, while they served dark espresso in demitasse cups. It was here I made the startling discoveries of two rare gems of books. One was Samule Beckett’s Lessness. And the other was a hardbound edition of Cocteau’s Memoir of a Opium Eater. Each became a bookend of place and memory and experience.
The undeniable reality is that bookstores like record shops are becoming endangered species. The experience of seeing a book and leafing through its pages (always reading the opening and closing of a book), or reading the liner notes of an album and admiring its art work, are gradually disappearing from our lives. But like parks and plazas, they constitute essential public spaces in urban life for people to congregate and to be alone. As long as I stay close to wonder and curiosity, bookstores will continue be essential places that draw me like the Sirens, never knowing what I will find or who will call out to me.