What We Gain from a Good Bookstore

“Will the day come where there are no more secondhand bookshops?” the poet, essayist, and bookseller Marius Kociejowski asks in his new memoir, “A Factotum in the Book Trade.” He suspects that such a day will not arrive, but, troublingly, he is unsure. In London, his adopted home town and a great hub of the antiquarian book trade, many of Kociejowski’s haunts—including his former employer, the famed Bertram Rota shop, a pioneer in the trade of first editions of modern books and “one of the last of the old establishments, dynastic and oxygenless, with a hierarchy that could be more or less described as Victorian”—have already fallen prey to rising rents and shifting winds. Kociejowski dislikes the fancy, well-appointed bookstores that have sometimes taken their place. “I want chaos; I want, above all, mystery,” he writes. The best bookstores, precisely because of the dustiness of their back shelves and even the crankiness of their guardians, promise that “somewhere, in one of their nooks and crannies, there awaits a book that will ever so subtly alter one’s existence.” With every shop that closes, a bit of that life-altering power is lost and the world leaches out “more of the serendipity which feeds the human spirit.”

Kociejowski writes from the “ticklish underbelly” of the book trade as a “factotum” rather than a book dealer, since he was always too busy with writing to ever run a store. His memoir is a representative slice, a core sample, of the rich and partly vanished world of bookselling in England from the late nineteen-seventies to the present. As Larry McMurtry puts it, in his own excellent (and informative) memoir of life as a bookseller, “Books,” “the antiquarian book trade is an anecdotal culture,” rich with lore of the great and eccentric sellers and collectors who animate the trade. Kociejowski writes how “the multifariousness of human nature is more on show” in a bookstore than in any other place, adding, “I think it’s because of books, what they are, what they release in ourselves, and what they become when we make them magnets to our desires.”

The bookseller’s memoir is, in part, a record of accomplishments, of deals done, rarities uncovered—or, in the case of the long-suffering Shaun Bythell, the owner of the largest secondhand bookstore in Scotland, the humdrum frustrations and occasional pleasures of running a big bookshop. While Kociejowski recounts some of the high points of his bookselling career (such as cataloguing James Joyce’s personal library or briefly working at the fusty but venerable Maggs Bros., the antiquarian booksellers to the Queen), he above all remembers the characters he came to know. “I firmly believe the fact of being surrounded by books has a great deal to do with flushing to the surface the inner lives of people,” he writes.

Some of them are famous, like Philip Larkin, who, as the Hull University librarian, turned down a pricey copy of his own first book, “The North Ship,” as too expensive for “that piece of rubbish.” Kociejowski tells us how he offended Graham Greene by not recognizing him on sight, and once helped his friend Bruce Chatwin (“fibber though he was”) with a choice line of poetry for “On the Black Hill”; how he bonded over Robert Louis Stevenson with Patti Smith, and sold a second edition of “Finnegans Wake” to Johnny Depp, of all people, who was “trying incredibly hard not to be recognised and with predictably comic results.” But more precious are the memories of the anonymous eccentrics, cranks, bibliomanes, and mere people who simply, and idiosyncratically, love books. “Where is the American collector who wore a miner’s lamp on his forehead so as to enable him to penetrate the darker cavities of the bookshops he visited? Where is the man who came in asking not for books but the old bus and tram tickets often found inside them? Where is the man who collected virtually every edition of The Natural History of Selborne by Reverend Gilbert White? Where is everybody?” Kociejowski’s tone, though mostly wry, verges on lament. “I cannot help but feel something has gone out of the life of the trade,” he writes.

Like many memoirs, “A Factotum in the Book Trade” is a nostalgic book, wistful for the disappearance of bookselling—antiquarian books in particular, but also new titles—as a dependable, albeit never very remunerative, profession. The Internet dealt a major blow by creating a massive single market for used books, undercutting the bread-and-butter lower end of the secondhand market. Amazon, in turn, depressed the prices of new books. And then there are rising rents, which have devastated small businesses of all kinds. What dies with each bookstore isn’t just a valuable haven for books and book people but also “a book’s worth of stories” like Kociejowski’s, a book full of characters, of the major passions that heat up our minor lives. The fact that bookstores have been allowed to close, Kociejowski writes, represents “an overall failure of imagination, an inability to see consequences.”

While Kociejowski mourns bookselling’s past, Jeff Deutsch, the head of the legendary Seminary Co-op Bookstores, in Chicago, thinks through its future in his new book, “In Praise of Good Bookstores.” “This book is no eulogy,” Deutsch writes. “We can’t allow that.” Free from Kociejowski’s charming, twilight-years saltiness, Deutsch’s tone is an earnest, even idealistic consideration of what we gain from a good bookstore, and what we risk losing if we don’t overcome the failure of imagination—and of economics—that has allowed so many bookstores to close.

You may have heard that we’re experiencing a renaissance of the independent bookstore, but the situation is far from rosy. In 1994, when Deutsch started his career as a bookseller (and Amazon was founded), the U.S. was home to around seven thousand independent bookstores; that number was down to just around twenty-five hundred in 2019. Although hundreds of bookstores have opened in the past two years, fewer and fewer bookstores sell just books, Deutsch notes. Since books have a relatively small margin of profit, particularly titles published by independent or academic presses, bookstores have had increasingly to abandon their core mission in order to hawk what are called “sidelines,” such as coffee, stationery, candles, and, especially horrifying for Deutsch, socks. (This was, incidentally, Amazon’s founding model: use books to eventually attract customers to other, more profitable items.) Think of what’s happened at the Strand, where a coffee shop recently joined some ground-floor bookshelves and where you can’t adjust your glasses without hitting some Strand-branded merch. Even if you don’t have a problem with socks with quotes on them—or with the fact that the Strand will sell you, say, a foot of “Ember Orange” books for a hundred and thirty-five dollars—it’s not hard to see how a bookstore’s desperate struggle to survive can deplete its less quantifiable richness and literary ambience.

For Deutsch, a good, or “serious,” bookstore—the embodiment of the “highest aspirations” of the book trade—isn’t really about selling anything. It’s about creating a space in which a visitor can sink into “the slow time of the browse,” the state in between focus and distraction you feel when reading the spines of books on a shelf, opening one here or there, dipping in but only for a page or two before moving on. “The selling of books has always been one of the least interesting services that bookstores provide,” Deutsch writes. “The value is, and has always been, at least in the good and serious bookstores, in the experience of being among books—an experience afforded to anyone who enters the space with curiosity and time.” The good bookstore, Deutsch suggests, is what Gaston Bachelard called a “felicitous space,” whose real boundaries and character are much more than its physical dimensions, and whose purpose is more profound. It’s also the kind of institution, like a good bar or a good restaurant, that adds depth and substance to a community, but that, once lost, survives only in the winces and sighs of living memory. (The first location of Larry McMurtry’s bookstore, in Georgetown, now boasts an upscale clothing store and “beauty salon.”) Some of us, particularly millennials raised on Borders and Barnes & Noble and coming of age in the Amazon era, might never have even known such a place.

Deutsch’s ideal bookstore is like an English park, carefully cultivated to look perfectly natural and ever so slightly askew. “Browsing” itself is an agricultural term, he points out, in one of his book’s many divagations, often entertaining but sometimes a bit twee, on the culture and language of bibliophilia: it’s what cows do in a field, and only started to be used to describe reading habits in the nineteenth century. “Books, like the leaves and shrubs known as the browsage, provide ruminant-readers with their nutrients,” Deutsch opines, at his purplest. “What an unparalleled activity it is to browse a bookstore in a state of curiosity and receptivity, chewing one’s intellectual cud!” This isn’t the cheap, fast-food browse of the scroll but, rather, something more meditative, more nutritious.

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