Saturday, September 13, 2014

The Haunted Bookshop


Last night, for the first time in months, my dreams were not confused and dark. Last night, for the first time in years, I visited a couple of Magic Bookshops. 

Other than to (very occasionally) visit my friend Ellen at her shop, The Children’s Book Cellar, I haven’t set foot in any bookstore since I more or less deliberately got myself fired from the last one I worked at, The Colby College Bookstore. And that was a horrible experience. I was hired to be in charge of the Trade Books department, but for the first year and a half I was not allowed to do the job I was hired for. When at long last I was finally let off the leash and allowed to actually order books and manage the department, I was undermined at every step by the Insane, uber-micro-managing cow who called herself my boss.

I tried very hard to make the place into A Really Good Bookstore. I figured that I had a license to do this because our clientele, our “community,” was made up of students, professors, and other academia workers — that is, people with brains in their heads. My boss had been blindly stocking (and well over-stocking) every best-seller, every thriller, every piece of crap by writers like Lee Child, Tom Clancy (or rather his ghost-writers), James Patterson (or rather his ghost-writers)… crap that she had been told by the publishing industry that she should stock — none of which actually sold for us. 

I put an end to that as quickly as I could, and instead set about transforming the store into something that I could be proud of. Not “literary” fiction per se, but eclectic fiction that would interest a young audience. Lots of pop culture titles. Games. Art books with an emphasis on the creative process. Eclectic books from smaller publishers. Books on stuff like Haka Dancing that my boss would never have stocked, but which I knew would interest the students. Gaming stuff. “Geeky” stuff. The more esoteric, the better. Over the course of a couple of years, I made that place into the kind of bookstore I used to love to visit, and which has sadly gone the way of the dodo. 

Where my boss would order 20 copies of the latest unsellable thriller (18 of which would then go into returns and make more work for everyone), I rarely ordered more than one copy of anything: on the theory that this allowed me to stock a broader range of titles in less depth.

And all I got from the pencil-pushers, every year, was “Trade Book sales are down, Trade Book sales are down!”

— Like it was my fault that the book industry is killing itself. Like it was my fault that a student would discover a great book right there in our store — and then go back to their dorm and order it from Amazon.

Trade Book sales were going down everywhere. Not my problem. My only goal was in making an interesting bookstore that would draw people in, and you know what? Maybe sales were up in other areas of the store because I was drawing people in with a broader, more interesting, eclectic book selection.

They never could understand that this “Bestseller Mentality” of throwing all your resources into the Lowest Common Denominator basket has killed bookstore after bookstore after bookstore. It’s what killed Borders and it’s what’s killing B&N, because instead of bing the kind of stores that they were in their expansionist phase (when you could go into a new B&N or Borders and find all kinds of wonderful things that the local booksellers could not afford to stock), they regressed and contracted into Big Machines Pushing the Same Old Crap That Everyone Else Was Pushing. 

… which in turn opened the doors for the smaller Independent Booksellers to finally regain some ground and start Kicking Back. Which they have done.

There’s a B&N store not far away from me, but I haven’t gone there in nearly a decade, because I know that it will be the same old crap, nothing unusual, nothing but bestsellers and standards and book-lights. Not at all, not even remotely like the original Barnes & Noble I visited in New York City for the first time back in the mid-‘70s. 

Which was quite close, in a way, to the second bookstore I visited in my dreams last night. I think it had everything. I think it stocked every book that was in print from every publisher in the nation — plus imports. You could go in there and spend an afternoon just browsing, and find an armful of books that you wanted — although of course you couldn’t afford them all. Your brain could not even encompass everything that they stocked. Now that was a bookstore.

Except the one in my dream last night had books that showed the underlying Patterns, the actual design, of the Universe itself. Oh, and — a thick book of pop-up and punch-out jewelry designed by Edward Gorey. Created by him after his death, of course. That’s what Magic Bookshops do: put the impossible into your hands.

The first bookstore that I visited in my dreams last night was a very different sort of place. Its proprietor was a man in white who swept the sidewalk out in front every day, wearing a smug smile on his face and white apron tied around his waist like an old-time shopkeeper. His shop on the corner was so small that for days and days I did not go there, thinking that it could not possibly have anything of interest in stock. 

Then one day I went up to talk to him, and he ushered me into his shop, and I saw how wrong I’d been. 

The space itself was tiny; no larger than an average bathroom, and completely square. There were four wooden walls all around, with a shelf cut into each wall, and a single book sitting on each shelf. And what books they were!

I can’t tell you now, I literally can’t, because that’s what dreams do. But they were… everything you were ever looking for, everything you ever wanted to know. They were very old, with elegant pen-and-ink illustrations. Ancient maps. Near the corner of the room was a rope extending through the ceiling above. You pulled on the rope, and all four walls sank through the floorboards, while a whole other room came down from above. Four more shelves, four more books for sale. They were large and bound in tooled leather. You could pick them up off the shelves, and just by touching them you became a Better Person.

You tugged on the rope again, and another level came down from above while you stood in place. Three levels, all told. Twelve books altogether. Everything you were looking for, Everything that you needed to Know.

— Freder.

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