I wrote the following for the now defunct web journal The Samizdat about two years ago. Enjoy!
A few weeks ago I went to a small used bookshop in a nearby town. It was run by a gentleman in his mid-sixties in a sweater and a neatly-trimmed professor’s beard. He was a classic bookman, snappingly intelligent, actively rather than passively gentle. Speaking fell into his column of wants rather than needs, and so he enjoyed it and curated his words to weed out the duplicates and the dull. He crafted his spoken sentences with the same patience as those filling the books he spent his days surrounded by. His shop was small, and to be perfectly honest, lacking in visual charm, but I quickly found several books to purchase, including a collection from Billy Collins.
The shop didn’t take credit cards, so I walked to the closest ATM for cash. When I returned the owner was reading my book of Collins. He told me his favorite poem in the world was in this book, and he showed me the title before launching into a reading. There’s no going half in when you start reading a poem to a perfect stranger; you have to own that shit. He read to me of students who tie poems to chairs and beat them with rubber hoses to make them confess their meanings instead of holding them up to the light like color slides. I have to wonder how long he had hoped to read that poem to a customer. The wait wouldn’t have bothered him. His economy of time was one of slow investment with safe and steady rates.
I don’t have it in me to make this article one more drop in the ocean of electronic tears over the death of bookshops. There are plenty out there if you want to read them instead, and some are quite good and they relate a real problem—books are easier and cheaper to buy online and people aren’t stupid. I can tell you all the reasons we need bookshops, and all the reasons losing them would be devastating. In the end though the only real thing I can do to save bookshops is to keep buying from them. That, and maybe start one of my own.
My friend Matt wrote a while back about his desire for us to open a bookstore in our town, and we’ve had many late night conversations about how impossible that would be, but exactly how much ass it would kick if we could.
In Matt’s piece he shared he has no interest in only providing books his patrons come in looking for. He sees a bookseller’s role as one of intellectual curator rather than entertainment merchant. Certainly those don’t have to be mutually exclusive roles, but I share his desire to raise the level of dialogue in this town by tending the literary soil that dialogue grows from.
Gender studies, including feminism and LGBT issues. Film history and criticism. Progressive faith. Leftist politics. Adoption. These are just a few topics I am passionate about but can’t find in a brick and mortar bookstore without driving to Troy or Richmond at the closest. This is not okay. I know what it is to hold an unpopular position in this town and feel alone in the world. Books by like-minded men and women have told me at many points in my life that I was not alone, that someone else had thought or asked or suspected the very thought or question or hunch I felt isolated for. I want to provide a repository for reading material that both bolsters those who feel isolated and, if they’re willing, changes the minds of some of those doing the isolating.
We have to create the culture we want to live in. I want to live in a culture where women are treated as the full equals of men, because any other arrangement damages both. I want to live in a culture where girls are told no career is off limits to them and boys are given a gentler and thereby stronger version of masculinity to grow into. I want to live in a culture where LGBT people are treated with dignity and acceptance. I want to live in a culture that values and cultivates the arts. I want to live in a culture that doesn’t equate faith with patriotism and Christianity with misogyny and homophobia. I want to live in a culture that invests more money on peace than war. I want to live in a culture that focuses more ingenuity on solving global hunger than designing military technology. I want to live in a culture that realizes we won’t have the luxury of politicizing environmental issues for much longer if we don’t get serious about solving them now. I want to live in a culture that values diversity rather than fiercely defending a myopic vision of American sanctity.
I want to live in a culture that has better conversations. And I want, in the small-town, semi-rural corner of culture I find myself in, to sell the books that help that happen.
Also? I really want to give my customers their Billy Collins moment. For me it might be Rilke: “And then, like whispers in a dark street, rumors of god run through your dark blood,” or “Only when we tarry do we touch the holy.” Or it might be Li Young Lee: “But there is wisdom in the hour in which a boy sits in his room listening to the sound of weeping coming from some other room of his father’s house.” It might be Margaret Atwood: “I don’t know who to forgive.” Or it might be Millay: “It is not enough that yearly, down the hill, April comes like an idiot, babbling and strewing flowers” (after which I would walk them to another shelf to handsell them Nancy Milford’s Savage Beauty, a thunderclap of a biography). I want to place a book in a reader’s hand and bless it with the prayer of a brief public reading and send it on its way.
We’re dreaming out loud, it’s true. We’re dreaming over pipe smoke and good beer on late nights, planning inventory and pretending we’d sell more than two books a month. But it’s a good dream, and for as long as they’re still printing books on paper, I’d rather keep this dream going.
We have to create the culture we want to live in. We live in Greenville, and we want to live in a Greenville with better conversations and a hell of a lot more books.