Capturing a gaze

I spent a good majority of my youth hanging on my mother’s pant leg as she rang purchases up for her customers at a used bookstore in Sioux Falls: S & S Bookstore. It wasn’t much of a store. Yes, it sold books. And yes, they were used. But my mom, as the manager and sole employee, kept a business together where there really was no business to start with.

Inside Shakespeare & CompanyWith that, my view of used bookstores was always a bit skewed. It wasn’t until I left the country in 2000 that I realized what a bookseller was supposed to look like. Twice, actually, by two different yet equally legendary used bookstores that captivated me at first sight. And over the past few days, I’ve stumbled across them again on the Internet, quite randomly actually, thanks to StumbleUpon (a Firefox based random website generator.)

These two bookstores, Barter Books (outside of Alnwick, England), and Shakespeare & Company (in Paris, France), redefined my personal concept of a used bookstore, at least they did in my newly formed, European-exposed mind. They were beautiful in a pack-rattish sort of way, filled to the ceiling with used books, novels and fiction and poetry and memoirs, all scattered by a variety of clerks and previously thumbed through by complete strangers.

Shakespeare & CompanyShakespeare and Company was the first I visited. Standing at the base of the Cathedral of Notre Dame, it serves as the only English-speaking store in the area. It has housed some of the world’s greatest writers – Alan Ginsberg, Henry Miller and Anäis Nin – and served as a literary safe house for hundreds of English writers and intellegents as they passed through Paris. Its creator George Whitman is a legendary literary figurehead, and though he’s retired, he still stands as the ultimate bookstore owner. And the building itself? Awesome. Everything about the building – the bed, the desk, the attic (filled with books that I can see being there when James Baldwin himself stayed a few days) – brought a wave of amazement.

This bookstore wasn’t just leased to sell Danielle Steele novels to passing travelers. This bookstore was part of literary history. It dropped its talons into the French ground and stood stoically, surrounded by a public that considers the English language harsh and guttural. It has supported English readers and writers for years, propping them up and cradling them when the romance of Paris became too much, when they needed an escape from the art and the passion and the architecture and simply wanted to deliver themselves back into the warm embrace of Hemingway or Faulkner.

New Books at Shakespeare & CompanyWe purchased two books there – both new, actually: Victor Hugo’s The Hunchback of Notre Dame (fitting, obviously) and Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood. I ended up reading In Cold Blood in its entirety on that trip; half was read at both Regent’s Park and Hyde Park on a beautiful summer day, while the other half read on a cold, plastic seat in Heathrow Airport, where I spent the night in fear of missing my flight out of England.

Much father north, in Alnwick, where Kerrie was staying in a castle and experiencing the joys and boredom of small town England, stood Barter Books. We took a ride out to Barter almost offhandedly, but once we entered the monstrous store (it’s a converted railway station, complete with a circling toy track near the ceiling and along the wall) I was in love.

Inside Barter BooksWhile Shakespeare & Company was a store built for English travelers – a safe house of literature – Barter Books was much simpler; a bookstore for people who liked used books, with no pretensions and no high and mighty aspirations. I’ve never seen such a display of ancient and rare texts, all lining the wall in glass cases, all providing a grand line of antiquity, of books that could have passed through the hands of kings, of dukes, or of dirty beggars outside of Buckingham Palace.

The general books weren’t pretty. But they were plentiful. I picked up a copy of Aldous Huxley’s Point, Counter Point, a book I never plan to read, just to have the seal – the stamp of Barter Books – and the smell of a used book that came from England.

The Rare Books at BarterLooking back, I feel as though I’ve hyped these stores up more in my mind than they actually exist in real life. They’re bigger, more important, cozier, and incredibly beautiful. But I do remember every moment I spent in there. I remember walking up the stairs in Paris and discovering more books – even trashy, years old sports books, the kind of books we’d get at S&S all the time. I remember discovering a section on British Royalty at Barter and noticing that they had all of the same stupid tabloid picture books – the coffee table books for people with no life of their own – as the bookstores back home.

I now realize that no matter what, a used bookstore is beautiful. Each book isn’t just a used pile of pages, bound together with glue and coated with photos and design. It’s also a silent history, a collection of former lovers – every page has been read, skimmed, thumbed, and bent. Every single novel has at least one owner; sometimes more, and each of those people must have had an individual thought about the book. In a used bookstore, every page holds the gaze of at least one set of eyes. And the mystery in knowing whose eyes could have been there first is part of its beauty.

Barter BooksPick up a used book in your home. Think about where you bought it. Consider the path it took to land in your hands. Then, ponder upon the thoughts and feelings the book gave to everyone who read it before you. Some loved it. Others hated it. Some may not have even read it, stashing it away on a shelf out of hopefulness, always meaning to pick it back up but never having a chance. This book could have been someone else’s favorite.

Think about where your books will end up when you’re gone. Will they be loved, hated or ignored just like you’ve done with them all your life? Maybe more importantly – will you be remembered by what you’ve read – by the gaze you’ve left upon some ancient page – even if no one ever knows?

This was lovingly handwritten on November 10th, 2006