Sometimes I go to the bookstore if the day is getting long at work. Does my boss know this? No, but he wouldn’t mind if he did know. I get my work done. But I keep these visits to myself is because it’s nice to have something to keep to myself; I pick up my keys slowly so those around me can’t hear jingling, which is always a tell that someone is leaving, and go through a side entrance. Usually it’s anywhere between 10-11AM, when the sun is just right in the sky, about the same time as the quiet period before the lunch rush, when people are going to dentist appointments.
This time of day and situation is important because it matches the idealized version I have in my head of this trip to the bookstore. In the ideal version the sun is out, the air has a slight chill, the store isn’t crowded, and I am able to browse the shelves at leisure. It’s important also that I am only barely conscious of being away from work which gives it the energy of playing hookie.
A good face to have when browsing at the bookstore is somewhere between contemplative and pissed off, to ward off any overly-friendly employees who may otherwise be tempted to ask if there is anything they can help you find. No, dammit. I am here to look. And here’s another important point. Much is made on the internet and elsewhere about the beautiful smell of used books, which is true: used books do smell good. But for goodness sake, don’t put your face so close to something someone could have been handling while sitting on the toilet. Even if you buy a used book and it sits in your house for a while, be wary. You have to buy a book new and then earn the smell to experience it without the uncertainty of people’s disgusting habits. This also goes for running one’s fingers along the spines on the shelves which I am always tempted to do. A used bookstore’s shelves have a nicely irregular pattern to them, without the calculated stocking of bestsellers and shiny new releases. The result is something like a literary genealogy of the area surrounding the store. Imagine everything people have read in this town. But one must remember that these books are not necessarily loved books. Indeed, they weren’t kept and instead were sold for pennies on the dollar.
The used bookstore is not only a good metaphor for the declining value of books but also a nice economic mitigation.
This next part is something I’ve always felt but have never had the words to express. And still don’t. So here goes:
Whenever I think about this ideal trip to the bookstore, or am actually on the trip, I also have an associated thought of watching documentaries in high school, PBS documentaries, which were shown in lieu of class. A substitute teacher would put one on. Or sometimes we watched them on the last day of class, as a formality, because final exams were already over and the teacher had nothing to teach—but we still had to be there. I would lay my head on my desk and fall asleep. The fluorescent lights would be shut off and the blinds drawn while outside the sun was shining on the baseball field and summer was waiting.
I still don’t quite understand why I think of this while I sneak off to bookstores. But a scene like this is usually in my mind while driving, or browsing. These seem like two totally unrelated moments in life. Maybe something having to do with the vague ‘educational’ feeling of bookstores brings back memories of school, of these anti-climactic endings to school, and the PBS documentaries which accompanied them.
But I have a hunch it’s something deeper.
This last point I want to make is about the sense of duty when browsing at the used bookstore. Excavating underappreciated works and reviving them. This is a powerful tonic for Today’s Age. It can do really big things for you. And this gets more to the point I was trying to make above, and book lovers often make this mistake. They want to make books popular by fetishizing them. Smelling them. Touching them. Taking pictures on Instagram with them in which they sit pensively by a latte and an open window. This is harmless stuff, but largely misses the point and will ultimately fail as an effort to revive the popularity of the book.
You don’t really have to do any of this. The best advertisement for the books you read, in fact, is you. Being an interesting person isn’t as hard as its made out to be. The hardest part is coming up with words to talk about what’s going on in your head. And so much is going on, I guarantee. Good books will help you learn how to say it. That’s all you really need.
Every once in a while I actually buy a book. It has to be a good one. And I’ll take it back to work with me, going back in the side entrance, and back to my desk. If I run into my boss he’ll give me a knowing nodding/smiling look. He knows. He has to know.
At my desk I put my keys down gently so as not to alert my surrounding colleagues of my absence. Why do they need to know? I can’t explain it to them. I set down the keys, noiselessly, and, if I have the time before lunch, I may even begin reading my new book. This also has to be quiet because believe it or not you can hear pages turning in an office. It’s an unmistakable sound amidst keyboard-typing and mouse-clicking. Phth, I turn the pages, quietly setting the book free while it quietly sets me free.