The Yellow-lighted Bookshop by Lewis Buzbee

The following is an excerpt from the memoir The Yellow-Lighted Bookshop by Lewis Buzbee, published by Graywolf Press.


When I walk into a bookstore, any bookstore, the 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 of absolute banality. Standing in the middle of this confluence, I can’t help but feel the possibility of the universe unfolding a little, once upon a time.

I’m not here just to buy a new book, though. Much of my excitement at being in a bookstore comes from the place itself, the understanding that I can stay here for as long as need be. The unspoken rules we’ve developed for the bookstore are quite different from the rules that govern other retail enterprises. While the bookstore is most often privately held, it honors a public claim on its time and space. It is not a big-box store where one buys closets of toilet paper or enough Tabasco sauce for the apocalypse; nor is it a tiny boutique that sells prestige in the shape of sequined dresses or rare gems; and it’s no convenience store either, raided for a six-pack, cigarettes, and a Nutty Buddy on the way home from a hard day at work. The cash register’s chime does not define how long we can linger. A bookstore is for hanging out. Often for hours. Perhaps I’ve come to crib a recipe from a cookbook or hunt down the name of that Art Deco hotel in San Antonio or even reread one of my favorite short stories. I might browse covers awhile after meeting up with a friend, the two of us chatting about our lives. Or I can sit down in History and read the first chapter of a charming treatise on the complex language of hand gestures in high Renaissance Naples. As you might be reading right now, taking your own sweet time. If there’s a café, all the better; a piece of cake and a cup of coffee, and time can run loose all over the place. I might even buy a book.

Imagine going into a department store, trying on a new jacket and walking around in it for half an hour, maybe coming back the following Wednesday to try it on again, with no real intention of buying it. Go into a pizzeria and see if you might sample a slice; you’re pretty hungry, so you taste a bit of the pepperoni, the sausage, the artichoke and pineapple, and they’re delicious but not quite what you’re looking for that day. In other retail shops, the clerks and management are much less forgiving of those customers who would consume without paying.

Part of the allowable leisure in a bookstore comes from the product it sells. Books are slow. They require time; they are written slowly, published slowly, and read slowly. A four-hundred-page novel might take years to write, longer to publish, and even after the novel is purchased, the reader can expect to spend hours with it at one sitting over a number of days, weeks, sometimes months.

But it’s not just the nature of the book that determines the bookstore’s permissiveness. The modern bookstore has long been associated with the coffeehouse and the café. In eighteenth-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, with cafés and couches and study tables.

Books connect us with others, but that connection is created in solitude, one reader in one chair hearing one writer, what John Irving refers to as one genius speaking to another. It’s simple to order books online, over the phone, or via catalogue and wait for the delivery man to scurry away before we open the door. But 90 percent of us who buy books still get out of the house and go to the bookstore, to be among the books, yes, but also to be among other book buyers, the like-minded, even if we might never say a word to them. Elias Canetti has described cafés as places we go to be “alone among others,” and I’ve always felt this was true of the bookstore, too. It’s a lovely combination, this solitude and gathering, almost as if the bookstore were the antidote for what it sold.

Perhaps the bookstore isn’t as mindful of time and space as other retail shops because there isn’t very much at stake. Most booksellers go into the business because they love books, and they have a natural leaning toward the mercantile life. Books are inexpensive, with a markup over wholesale that’s as low as the laws of economics will traffic. Books are heavy and take up lots of space, and because each title is unique and there are so many titles a well-stocked bookstore requires, inventory and stocking create a high payroll, so most booksellers don’t get paid much over minimum wage. Time may be money in the rest of the world, but not in the bookstore. There’s little money here, so we can all take our time.

The bookstore has always been a marketplace where the ideas of a given period were traded, and so has played a formative role in the shaping of public discourse. The bookstore is often a stronghold in attacks against the rights of free speech. Under the aegis of Sylvia Beach’s Paris store, Shakespeare and Co., Ulysses was first published, and without Lawrence Ferlinghetti’s City Lights, Ginsberg’s Howl might have taken years to enter the literature; these are only two of the most celebrated cases.

There is a fundamental democracy in the mass-produced book. For example, Don Quixote, one of the great achievements of Western literature, is roughly the same price as the most tawdry celebrity biography, maybe even a little cheaper since the nuisance of paying the author has expired. And location has little effect on the price: Don Quixote costs the same at the swankest New York City carriage-trade shop as in the most windswept Kansas City strip mall. Mass production in other commodities not only affects price, but also affects quality. I expect a custom-made bass guitar that costs several thousand dollars to sound and play better than my Fender knockoff, which costs two hundred. A pristine copy of the first Hogarth Press edition of Virginia Woolf’s The Waves may be a collector’s dream, but a new paperback version of it is as beguiling and compelling. The quality of her prose does not lessen with the price or edition.

In the bookstore, the finest writing is as accessible as the most forgettable, and both are accorded the same respect: here it is, is there a reader who wants it? No matter the book, there’s always someone who does. A bookstore is as likely to carry Proust’s In Search of Lost Time as the newest book of cat cartoons, or books on automobile repair, military history, self-help, computer programming, or the evolution of microbes. There’s something for everybody.

And there’s somebody for everything. The bookstore is not only for the literary. Readers come with their particular obsessions to find the information they seek: the price of antique coins, effective weed eradication, the proper enclosures for small-scale pig farming. Any good bookstore carries high and low.

The book is a uniquely durable object, one that can be fully enjoyed without being damaged. A book doesn’t require fuel, food, or service; it isn’t very messy and rarely makes noise. A book can be read over and over, then passed on to friends, or resold at a garage sale. A book will not crash or freeze and will still work when filled with sand. Even if it falls into the bath, it can be dried out, ironed if necessary, and then finished. Should the spine of a book crack so badly the pages fall out, one simply has to gather them before the wind blows them away and wrap with a rubber band.

Most important in the democratic nature of the book, is that aside from basic literacy, books require no special training to operate.

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.

—Excerpted from The Yellow-Lighted Bookshop © 2006 by Lewis Buzbee. Reprinted with the permission of Graywolf Press, Saint Paul, MN.