November 30, 2010
Why do I love books? Let me count the ways! Obviously it’s much more than just the reading, the stories, the insights, the humor, the growth factor. It’s like with trout. I like the places they hang out. There’s something to be said about independent bookshops and meandering streams.
If it were just the words, well then I’d probably follow the vast majority of the reading public and trek like a wildebeest toward my local digital-reader connection. Not to say that words and the order in which they are presented do not a great read make. It’s just that they are only part of the total equation.
The sensual aspect of the book itself also plays a huge role: the touch, the smell, and the look are all part of the overall allure. Maybe, after one’s relationship with a digital reader matures, similar emotions would come into play, but I find it hard to foresee such a bonding in my future.
Two factors triggered this current diatribe: one, a book I recently received in the mail from a longtime cultural brother-in-arms and the other, the onslaught of pre-holiday media advertising trumpeting the advantages of using a digital reader.
Independent booksellers are fast becoming an endangered species. To those of us who consider these gathering spaces sacred, times are tough. Literature is being handed over to the moneychangers.
The recent book acquisition I received via mail was the June 2010 edition of The Paris Magazine, which is published by the legendary Left Bank bookshop Shakespeare and Company the current one, that is. The original shop of that name, the "Lost Generation" hangout run by Sylvia Beach, closed during World War II.
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During the heady expatriate-rich days of 1920s Paris, Ms. Beach’s joint counted Ernest Hemingway, James Joyce, D.H. Lawrence, Ezra Pound, T.S. Eliot, and Gertrude Stein among the many habitués who took advantage of her in-house "lending library" and no-interest loans. Such was the nurturing component of the bookshop of that day.
American George Whitman opened his English-language bookshop, The Mistral, not far from S & C’s Paris location in 1951. It became the Beat Generation hangout almost immediately with Allen Ginsberg, William Burroughs, Lawrence Ferlinghetti and others making it the base of their Paris shenanigans.
When Sylvia Beach passed away in the early ’60s, Whitman renamed his shop "Shakespeare and Company" in her honor. George’s daughter Sylvia Whitman runs S & C today, keeping the faith in a manner that would make both Beach and her father proud.
She maintains the creative sanctuary aspect of the overall bookshop ethic. "What other business encourages you to sit, meet people, browse, and read a book for hours?" she asks.
Both downstairs in the shop and upstairs in the "non-commercial library," single mattresses lie in wait between the shelves for the young writers-in-residence to sleep upon. They each put in a couple of hours per day working in the shop for the privilege of finding their muses in the footsteps of the literary ghosts of the past.
A good bookshop is a comfort zone where one roams unhurriedly from shelf to shelf and aisle to aisle. If on a mission to procure a specific volume or just anything pertaining to a particular area of interest, one might end up leaving the shop without success but never without the satisfaction of discovery. Epiphanies abound!
Many are the times I entered City Lights Bookstore in San Francisco or Ken Sanders Rare Books or The King’s English Bookshop in Salt Lake City or Dolly’s Book Store in Park City or the now-gone Books and Beyond in the Heber Valley with an idea of what I wanted, only to come away with a treasure previously unimagined.
These are landscapes in which to lose yourself. Time bends to suit the tempo of the dance between both hemispheres of the brain. Drinking in the ambiance of these shrines to literature quenches even the deepest thirsts. Much truth can be found when reading between the lines.
To me, the independent-bookseller environment exudes a redemptive quality. Of course, to others, the mega-store bookmart, with its volume-induced cut-rate prices, is more inviting. Shouldn’t one consider, however, the vibe of the presentation and transaction and the "feel" of the sacred space and the book itself when judging value?
To read or not to read independently, that is the question!
Jay Meehan is a culture junkie and a free-lance writer with a background in commercial and community radio, among other pursuits. He has been a columnist and feature writer for various Park City publications going back to 1973.