Serendipity at the Bookstore

I’m sure it will surprise exactly no one to discover that, for the most part, I buy people books for Christmas. Sure, there is the occasional toy or game, but by and large I buy books for everyone. My family is a literary one, and we will happily devour almost any book in our reach. My mother, for example, was initially uneasy about her first Kindle but once I showed her how easy it was to download eBooks, it was off to the virtual bookstore for her. The other day I had the following text conversation with my dad:

Me: Anything you want for Christmas? Books? Cookies?

Dad: Books.

Me: Any particular books?

Dad: No.

This answer inspired a lengthy (also by text) conversation with my librarian friend as I narrowed the field of choices down to two science fiction selections out of the six I had picked out while perusing the shelves at Barnes and Noble. My mom did not respond to my “what do you want for Christmas?” question, and so I spent the better part of an hour wandering around the fiction section, looking for just the right light romance novels that she prefers. I finally settled on two different titles, both of which are set in bookshops.

What you will notice, Dear Reader, is that I was in a bookstore. A real, physical bookstore. I did all of my Christmas shopping online one year. It was easy, and it was convenient. Everything promptly arrived in my mailbox with no shipping delays.

I kind of hated it.

While it was easy to click ‘add to cart’ as I sipped coffee from the comfort of my own couch, it lacked the serendipitous joy of discovery that one has in a real bookshop, when there are no links to ‘other titles similar to this one’ or a wealth of starred-ratings that might be by genuine readers, or maybe were written by people paid to say nice things. It’s hard to say. So yeah, on my one day off this week I had to put on real clothes and shoes, drive downtown, and walk to the bookshops. But it was time well spent. I got away from pop-up ads and computer algorithms that suggested more of the same, as well as the nagging sense that I should finish dusting the shelves and accomplish other, minor chores instead of getting my Christmas shopping done.

More importantly, though, I connected with people. Real, live people.

I am an introvert, mind you. An introvert’s introvert. I avoid crowds like the proverbial plague. I would rather spend a Saturday night home with a book than out at even the quietest of downtown bars. I hate talking on the phone, but happily use instant messaging and texting with my family and friends around the country.

And yet, there’s something about meeting people in a bookstore that’s different from meeting people just about anywhere else.

Had I shopped online, I would not have gone downtown to Francie & Finch, the newest of our downtown bookstores. It’s located in a beautiful, art nouveau storefront that stood empty for years. I used to walk by, hoping that something wonderful would go in there someday, and suddenly there was a bookstore! On Wednesday, I went searching for children’s books for the little ones in my life. The proprietor, Leslie, was listening to a ‘Women of Jazz’ playlist when I walked in, specifically Etta James’s  ‘At Last’. When it was finishing up, I asked her if she had heard Beyoncé’s version of the song, which Leslie promptly queued up, listened to, and fell in love with. While the song was playing, I poured myself a little cup of hot apple cider, grabbed a ginger cookie, and wandered into the children’s section. I had three children to buy for- ages four, seven, and ten- and no particular idea of what to get them. But I trusted the wisdom of the shelves. They steered my correctly when, while shopping for my little niece’s birthday, I spied Dragons Love Tacos at Indigo Bridge Books and couldn’t resist. It quickly became a bedtime favorite.

Roald Dahl’s Matilda was the first pick. This, for the precocious ten-year-old on the list who already loves the movie of the same name, but did not have the actual book. After some more wandering wherein I finished off my apple cider, I found a copy of Frog and Toad Are Friends by Arnold Lobel. Can any four-year-old boy resist frogs, toads, or new friends?  Then came the hard part- picking two titles for my niece. I had been wondering what to get for her for some time, but once again the well-stocked shelves came through for me. I spied a copy of The Great Mouse Detective: Basil of Baker Street by Eve Titus. Of course! Mice solving mysteries! And there’s a fun animated Disney movie to go along with it! Onto the pile it went. A bit more perusing turned up another gem: T.S. Eliot’s Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats illustrated by Edward Gorey. The stories about the cats are charming, and the illustrations are funny without being twee. Perfect for a little girl who A) loves animals, and B) loves to draw. And there’s a massively successful Broadway musical she can listen to that was inspired by the poems!

I spent a few more minutes chatting with Leslie about this and that while she gift-wrapped the books (for free! in beautiful, shiny paper!) and then headed out, having declared it another successful trip to Francie & Finch.

Then it was off to A Novel Idea Bookstore, my favorite bookshop of all the ones I’ve seen in the world. I don’t do much Christmas shopping there unless I find something spectacular that would be perfect for So-and-So, but I always stop in when I’m downtown, if only to pet the cats and try to resist whatever’s on the new arrivals shelf.

 

One of the shop cats, Padric, greeted me when I walked in, and I gave him a proper under-the-chin scratch for a few seconds until he decided that he’d had enough contact with me, the peasant, and walked away to happily greet the next arrivals, a pair of tired-looking college girls. The lit up when they spotted Padric, who basked in their attention and even put up with with the impromptu portrait session when one of the girls pulled her phone out. As delighted as they were with the first cat, they were even happier when I pointed out that the shop’s second cat, Eddie, was sitting in his basket in the front window. They spent a few more minutes exclaiming over both cats, and while I don’t think they bought anything, they left with half the stress they entered with.

I continued browsing, working my way up to the New Arrivals by the checkout counter, where the clerk and a customer were talking about video games. Somehow, the subject of post-apocalyptic settings came up, and I interjected by showing off the copy of Emily St. John Mandel’s Station Eleven, that was hanging out on the shelf. Neither seemed to have heard of it before, but both were interested when I gave them a summary of it. That was when the customer almost sheepishly told us about the post-apocalyptic book he was writing.

The clerk lit up at the thought of it, and told the customer/author that if he ended up publishing the book, the store would add it to their ‘Local Literati’ shelf and sell it commission-free. And so everyone left happy that day- the girls with their cat-encounter, the customer/author with the sense that he could have even a tiny audience for his as-yet-unpublished book, and me with a beautiful, 1960s hardback copy of Whitman’s Leaves of Grass.

I love the internet and the fact that it has opened up the world to me and allowed me to make friends from all over. But I wouldn’t have been able to have any of those chance encounters and conversations- wouldn’t have brightened two young women’s day by pointing to a cat or turned a couple of guys onto a brilliant novel without overhearing their video game talk- had I been shopping online. I wouldn’t have gotten a little misty-eyed while leafing through Pete Souza’s book of photographs from the Obama administration, or had my own day brightened by a little girl in the Barnes and Noble cafe trying to pick a cookie to decorate while discussing the relative merits of chocolate chip vs sugar cookies with her mother (for the record, she picked the sugar cookie).

And, yes, I’m aware that medical issues, time constraints, and lack of access to local shops mean that many people must do the bulk of their shopping online. I’m not opposed to it.

But if you can, try to get out of the house once or twice this season. Go to your local bookstore or bakery or boutique. Keep your mind open to the serendipitous conversation that could arise, because you never know where it might lead you. These days, it seems like there are so many people fighting, and too few people who are reaching out to each other in this season where we have traditionally said, ‘Peace and goodwill toward all’.

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Happy Holidays, everyone!

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