I think that I still have it in my heart someday to paint a bookshop with the front yellow and pink in the evening…like a light in the midst of the darkness. — Vincent van Gogh
I’m in escapist mode again, sitting here mentally constructing my ideal bookshop when all across the country independent booksellers are closing in alarming numbers. I’m emotionally incapable of writing about insanity in the world; for instance, big box chains that confused books with commodities, glutting the market then tanking, taking indies down with them. Or Republicans cutting sixty-some billion dollars from Federal programs when the annual military budget is 527 trillion, approximately equal to the military spending of all the other countries in the world combined. Any attempt would be sputtering. It was probably the same for Emily Dickinson who never mentioned the Civil War in her poetry, even though some 600,000 American men died during her most prolific years. So, I’ll have my fantasy. What would my ideal bookshop be like?
Well, my models will have to come from experience; I’m no J.K. Rowling who, I’m sure, could conjure up a bookshop that even Borges would feel at home in. My bookshop, like my religion, is an amalgamation of all the best aspects of others I have encountered. First of all, it would be small, small enough that it could only be called a bookshop not a bookstore. The word store is too modern, too impersonal, too consumerist sounding. It would be in an old building, time-tested like the books it carries. The books would be mostly used, some so old, so heavy with history, you imagine you can hear the worms gnawing. There would be no catering to bestseller lists, no postings of bestseller lists, no interest in customers who want what the masses are reading.
The place would be a bit disorganized, a bit cluttered, kind of how I imagine Brightman’s Attic, the bookshop in Paul Auster’s Brooklyn Follies. Or something like the bookshops in the films Funny Face and 84 Charing Cross Road, bookshops that convey by their mere lack of ambition a reverence for the thing that gives them legitimacy. They are, in fact, places as spiritual as cemeteries, memorials to writing and writers and sobering reminders of mortality, their modest displays of books and ephemera nothing short of shrines.
Lighting would be soft, a warm sepia glow falling on lots of old dark wood. The air would smell slightly musty, like the earth the books are slowing disintegrating back into. There would be worn but sturdy wooden chairs tucked in cozy corners and a maze of tiny rooms, each devoted to a different category, alcoves one could disappear in undisturbed for hours. Oddments and antiquarian paper would be scattered throughout—boxes of vintage greeting cards and postcards on countertops; stacks of outdated art and literary journals; old posters, photographs, maps, and hand-addressed envelopes with foreign stamps, yellowing with age, stuck to the walls and behind the cashier’s desk. There would be no cash register, just a handheld calculator and a receipt pad. And no fancy gift-wrap or shopping bags, or shopping bags at all. It might be possible, if you have a long journey ahead and the book is fragile or rare, to have it wrapped in brown paper and string.
There would be worn Persian rugs and random stacks of books on the floor and at least one sliding ladder. The shop would not sell food or drinks which tend to put people in a festive mood. For proof of this, visit Battery Park Book Exchange & Champagne Bar in Asheville, NC. It’s a party with pretty books as a backdrop. As a party venue, it’s great; if you’re looking for books as interior decoration, it’s also great. But the ideal bookshop fosters above all else an island of calm for the mind, or, to paraphrase Paul Auster: a vault of contemplation, a noiseless sanctuary where a soul can find a measure of peace in an America gone to hell in the clamor and crush of an ever-growing mountain of machines and money.
Okay, music is allowed but only if it is New World, Old World, Folk or Classical, mostly instrumental, soft, unobtrusive. It’s hard to be in another century or even in this one with electroacousticacidpunkraptechnoid noise. In the same vein, it would not be a place for young children. Children have that other kind of book outlet, the independent bookstore, which is a fine invention, necessary not only for children but also for adults who have occasional need for human contact, for social gathering, a place to meet friends in a slightly giddy atmosphere with live music and a background buzz of book/knitting/origami groups and book signings/readings, where everything is bright and colorful and smells new and you can buy all manner of reading and writing paraphernalia from bookbags to umbrellas. I also love indies and have taken great pleasure in the few my city has been blessed with over the years—AppleTree Books, Davis-Kidd Booksellers, Carpe Librum Booksellers—and when they closed, I was saddened and felt Knoxville was greatly diminished without them. But these were bookstores, not my ideal bookshop.
Finally, the shop would not employ large personalities, overly friendly types who feel compelled to engage patrons in empty conversation. Staff would be serious book people themselves, i.e., slightly hermetic, slightly off the grid, polite but reserved, happy to assist but never pushy or presumptuous. They might be like Vincent Van Gogh, who, as a young man, worked as a bookseller’s clerk at Blussé and Van Braam in Dordrecht, Netherlands—an oddball, the owner’s son, Mr. Braat, remembered him decades later, always making silly little sketches, pen-and-ink drawings of little torqued trees with many branches and twigs.
“What young gentleman would think of sitting about in a smock? He looked like an immigrant….” You can imagine how that went…after Vincent was long-gone and something of a celebrity, the Braats went searching through the little desk where Vincent had stood each day selling letter paper and halfpenny prints but found not a scrap of that silly doodling. And the corn chandler across the square who let a room to Van Gogh over the cornloft was sorry he trashed all those “childish landscapes” that Van Gogh had hung with nails “ruthlessly driven into the good wallpaper…..” Now the little square boasts a statue of him. You can see it here in a photo taken in 1905, ten years after his death.
These oddball clerks would be smarter and better read than ninety percent of their customers but never say what they are reading or who their favorite authors are. Their primary motive for working in the shop would never be money or retail or even books but simply because it’s where they feel most at home and, unless a customer has a specific request or is ready to check out, would be just as happy to be left alone. I imagine the same could be said for librarians. In fact, ex-librarians would make ideal bookshop clerks.
Whenever I travel, along with libraries and cemeteries, bookstores are at the top of my to-see list. I have spent many pleasant hours in many fine establishments—Strand Books and the original Barnes & Noble in NYC (which I hear is closing), Boulder Books, Harvard Book Store (forgiven for ‘store’ in its name because it opened in ’32 before the word acquired a negative connotation), Grolier Poetry Bookshop in Harvard Square, Balfour Books in Toronto, Wolf’s Head Books in St. Augustine—but only a few have felt like home: City Lights in San Francisco, Lion Bookshop in Rome, Shakespeare & Co. in Paris, Argosy Books in NYC, Downtown Book & News in Asheville, NC (yes, I prefer it over the much-touted Malaprops). Sadly, I know there are many more I will never experience. Where would I like to travel just to visit a bookshop? Maybe Atlantis Books in Santorini, Greece, definitely Antikvariát Valentinská in Prague where I could also visit the old Jewish Cemetery and The Strohav Monastery Library, and most definitely Livraria Lello in Porto, Portugal.
I feel sublimely fortunate to be able to say that I don’t have to travel very far to be in an authentic bookshop where I feel very much at home. For about 15 years I have been a devoted patron of The Book Eddy in its various Knoxville incarnations: a small concrete building in the Bearden community, in the back of Jackson Avenue Antiques in Old City, on Melrose Place near the UT campus, and on Chapman Highway. I feel especially fortunate after recently reading an online review of The Book Eddy by a long-time book collector who lives 200 miles away. He says he’s only able to make two or three visits a year, but the all-day travel is well worth it…“[it’s] very much like the bookshops in London, my very own 84 Charing Cross Road.” What he said. And I am only a 10-minute drive away.
Owner John Coleman has just closed the Chapman location and relocated to a smaller space a few miles North on Central Street where he is refining the model. The Book Eddy has now morphed into Central Street Books. I stopped in the new space recently and, although the shelves aren’t yet full and the smell of new paint overpowers the mustiness, it already has the familiar look and feel. Wonderful music was playing from fip, a French radio station that has no advertising. I don’t know if the yen-yang shop cats will come or the fossilized mandible and flying paper mache dog, but some of the old Book Eddy’s esoteric collections have started to appear—manual typewriters and folder cameras, a couple of birdcages, a ceramic Hotei the Happy Buddha, vintage bookends, and bins of vinyls. And, oh, yes, books you won’t see just anywhere—rare, out-of-print, affordable classics and cheap entries into other dimensions. This is a bibliophile’s paradise devoted purely to the Book and not to socializing, shopping, or noshing; a place that is nowhere and everywhere, that makes you forget who you are or what time it is, a place you leave feeling rejuvenated, as if you have traveled to some Farawayistan with Herodotus’ Histories your only guidebook, half expecting to find foreign dust or exotic spice still clinging to your sleeves.
John says, “Central Street Books’ goal is to become the physical portal to the best of the world of used and rare books, ephemera, and other interesting curiosities in East Tennessee.” I think he could have left off “in East Tennessee,” but that modesty is part of the package. Something the bookstore chains and America in general seem to have lost sight of. It’s the real deal, a light in the midst of the darkness.