Love letter to bookshops
OPINION: The book lust was upon me and a book token was burning a hole in my pocket when I visited Page and Blackmore's bookshop last Saturday.
It turned out to be New Zealand Bookshop Day and all kinds of celebratory bookish entertainments were on offer including tea and toast and random giveaways. I like random giveaways as much as the next woman, but I really had to do something about the smoke spiralling from the back pocket of my jeans so I ignored the beverages and the possibility of a freebie in order to browse the tables of appetisingly displayed books right away.
Browsing in bookshops involves much more than just looking. It involves a lot of stroking and fondling of the kind that you might be arrested for if the subject of your public attentions was a person. In The Polysyllabic Spree, his account of a year-long reading binge, novelist Nick Hornby declared that "books are simply better than anything else" and these days, books are so darn sexy it's hard to keep your hands off them.
In order to compete with the convenient but characterless, weightlessness of e-books, publishers have begun creating print books that are big on beauty and sensual appeal: clever and stylish graphic design; voluptuous colours; peek-a-boo dust jackets; velvety lamination; handsome paper; foldouts, pop ups and cut outs; clasps and hasps; slipcovers designed by origami masters.
Honestly, you can hardly wait to get your new book home and begin sniffing at the pages, flicking through them with moistened fingertips, bending them shamelessly to your will, cracking their spines, then slipping between the covers for what might be a one-night stand with a stranger or a life-long love affair.
Even the titles seem more evocative and mouth-watering. A string of non-fiction book titles reads like poetry: Bridge Of Desire, Republic of The Imagination, Invisible Mile, Lightless Sky, Lost Landscape, Barbarian Days, A Season in The Red, Brain Electric, Improbable Friendship, Brief Candle in The Dark, Something for the Pain, Easily Distracted, Brain Storms, The Idea in You, Choosing Hope, What Days Are For.
I haven't bought a book from Unity Books for years, but printed on their book bags there used to be a wonderful attempt to explain the multifaceted nature of a book: "Something that sings. That argues. That tells a story. Something that seduces. That explains how. That won't be shut up. Something that keeps you awake. That won't be put down. That recalls the past. That can see the future. That may not be seen again. Something that says just what you've been thinking. That's never been to your house before. That transforms the bus ride. That won't disturb the neighbours. That never gets tired. Something that remembers all the words all the way through to the end without a single mistake: something wonderful."
The container for all this wonderfulness is of course the bookshop. It's an endangered species. Book publication and distribution has changed enormously in the last decade. The fact that eBooks can be delivered anywhere in the world in minutes, books can be printed on demand, and that book publishing and distribution is being consolidated into fewer and fewer hands may mean that bookshops, in their current form at least, may become extinct. Which is why we should celebrate and be grateful for the ongoing existence of a real and independent bookshop in Nelson staffed by real people who are intelligent, personable, opinionated, and good-humoured and who know lots about books.
On NZ Bookshop Day I got to redeem my book token at Page and Blackmore and thus save myself from self-immolation. I received a random giveaway, a bright red t-shirt with "Your Place Your Bookshop" emblazoned on it in white. And I was invited to complete the phrase "I love my bookshop because . . ." on a white-board but after all the excitement my mind went completely blank.
The mental fog has now lifted. This is the love letter I should have written:
I love you. I love you because you are full of words and people who love words. I love you because I always feel at home in you. I love you for the company you offer. I love you because you contain multitudes. I love you because you've got room for everybody. I love you because you are a time capsule, a storehouse and a treasure chest. I love you because you are a mirror and a window. I love you because you are a magnifying glass, a microscope and a telescope.
I love you because you contain maps and guidebooks and sign-posts. I love you because you contain prayer and poetry. I love you because you contain much that is strange and fabulous and yet you remain so familiar. I love you because you are full of questions. I love you because you are full of answers.
I love you because you are full of voices. I love you because you are full of listeners. I love you because you harbour surprises, and jokes, and silliness and general foolishness. I love you because bookshops have survived book burnings and censorship, war and economic upheaval, and might survive digital technologies too. I hope so. Yours faithfully, Ro
Read previous columns at www.greyurbanist.com