Working in a bookstore, one gets asked a perhaps-surprising amount of stupid questions. (I think my personal favourite to come out of my store thus far is, “Do you have The Great Gatsby by Hemingway?”)
Nine times out of ten, this doesn’t faze me. My entire life has been essentially nothing but a training-ground for fielding stupidity, so I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t well used to it by now. I nod, I smile, I re-parse their floundering statements inside my head until I get them what it is they actually want, they leave content and me very amused.
Except then there are days like today.
A young man meandered up to me as I was putting away piles upon piles of The Hunger Games. He asked a handful of harmlessly mundane questions as he looked the book over, and then he saw the price.
“WHY IS THE INTERNET CHEAPER” is one of those questions that I, and probably most other people in retail, get on an almost-daily basis. I explained to him, as I have had to explain countless times before, that the Internet lacks huge amounts of overhead. The Internet does not have to pay rent for stores, the Internet does not have to pay utilities for those stores, the Internet does not have to pay nearly as many employees.
Ergo, the Internet is, in fact, cheaper. Fancy that.
Most people will drop the issue, after that. A lot of them still walk out of the store to run right to Amazon, true, but at least then it is a valid and informed choice.
Not so with this man.
He looked at me, and spat out, “So what’s the point of bookstores?”
I have incredible amounts of patience with people. I did not even lose my patience when I had to help the customer easily old enough to be my grandfather, who spent probably upwards of twenty minutes telling me about just much money he had and constantly implying that he would like to be my sugar daddy; and finally, when I did not acknowledge his attempts at becoming such, suddenly waved a copy of Sex on the Moon at me and cheerfully announced, “I KNOW A SHORTCUT TO MARS!” (If you can keep your cool during that, then you’re well-equipped to handle just about anything, I’d say.)
But it was at that point that I began to feel as though I was dealing with some sort of alien instead of a person proper.
Still, I gave him a brief explanation, stated that I prefer to see books before I buy them to make sure that the ones I get are in good condition.
He began to look at me as though I was an alien. “It’s not like it affects the words.”
“No, but it affects the way my library looks.”
And then he snapped something about Amazon and stormed away, while I stood there blinking and wondering what in hell had just happened.
The point of bookstores? The point?
I knew, obviously, the minute he said that, that there was no hope for him, and so I didn’t even really try to articulate my point of view. Spewing Sindarin or Klingon probably would have been more effective, and I do not do senseless arguments.
I could have waxed on about the book industry, about how supporting your local bookstore supports the industry in a way that clicking on Amazon doesn’t. I could have mentioned customer service, how sometimes a good bookstore employee can point you towards to a new favourite title that you may never have found, otherwise. (While I do appreciate those “You may also enjoy…” listings, they are still not an actual person, whose taste I trust, pressing a volume into my hands and saying, “This.”) I could have brought up the general atmosphere, how you can’t get a cup of coffee at Amazon as you meander through its links, how you can’t pick up a book off an Amazon shelf and test it out by reading the first chapter or the last page (if you’re one of those so inclined).
I could have said rather a lot of things.
But none of them are quite it. None of them are that fabled point.
The point is this: Books are not coldly impersonal objects, and so it makes absolutely no sense to me to go about shopping for them in such a coldly impersonal way.
Books can be gateways, can be doors, can be any sort of self-medication (uppers and downers both), can be at least a moment’s escape or respite.
But mostly I believe that books are talismans.
If you want to find your way through one of those gateways or doors, you clutch the book in your hands as you pass through. If you turn to a book for self-medication, it is a placebo, dependent upon your own mind to properly work. If you turn to a book for escape, you embrace it willingly, even if subconsciously.
When I was very small, I remember carrying books around everywhere with me, even to places where I knew I wouldn’t want or be able to actually read. It was my version of a security blanket, I realised later; after all, what could make you safer than holding onto a talisman that could deposit you right into another world, should the need arise?
I would even constantly clutch at books as a baby, being pushed in my carriage.
But it’s more than just that.
I believe that paper carries memories.
If you kept or keep a handwritten journal, can you honestly tell me that it has no more sentimental value than your online blog? Can you honestly tell me that a brightshinynew copy of your favourite childhood book is just as special as your copy from childhood? The one you read over and over ’til you broke the spine, carried everywhere with you ’til you accidentally left it outside in the rain and turned its pages into a queerly yellow wave that made it look like a beach at dawn? Can you honestly tell me that a copy of your new favourite book, give to you as a present by your best friend, would be the same as another copy bought guiltily off of Amazon if you lost the first?
I still miss my original copy of The Shining: I bought it right before traveling, because Jaceybrain somehow looked it over and completely unironically exclaimed, “Oh, this would be perfect to read in the hotel!”
And I did, indeed, cheerfully read The Shining inside of a Lexington, Kentucky hotel.
As it turned out, right down the hall from room 217.
And no matter how much I may enjoy rereading the book itself, another copy just won’t be the same. It won’t have that memory buried inside of it, like a secret, like a treasure-mark x inked over the map of the book’s words.
I like the story itself, I do, but that memory is what made the book.
And there was another book, a few years later, that was particularly hard for me to read; infinitely more difficult than The Shining in a hotel. Not through any fault or lack of the book’s own, but because it reminded me so very viciously of someone I knew, someone I was not on speaking terms with at the time and missed dearly.
The book somehow perfectly captured not only them, but also the feelings behind our distance, with words like spotlights that put all of the shadows into a sharp relief.
And almost immediately upon my finishing said book — within twenty-four hours, I think it was — that person abruptly and unexpectedly found me again, just as the book foreshadowed.
I am still a little bit shaken, when I think back to it.
And even if you call the incident itself coincidence (it’s okay, I won’t be offended), you can’t erase the way that memory is buried inside of those pages.
Another copy would probably just feel wrong.
Either way, it serves to illustrate the point:
Books are not impersonal things.
This is why purchasing them in an impersonal way is not every single person’s accepted, default solution.
Some people care about the memories more than the scant savings of money.
And the books are their own point, unto themselves.