There was an art to browsing in chain bookstores, but also a certain dull diligence. Book-neck only struck the most dedicated of browsers, or the frailest. You could find us wandering the aisles, massaging our necks and shoulders, mouths agape. We would make the moves you see boxers make in their corner of the ring as they await the bell for the next round.
How often in searching we endured the thousand Baldaccis and almost never found a James Baldwin waiting there for us at the end as an angry, beautiful reward for our patience. We cursed the inventory but were always alert for the golden seam hidden inside the great masses of stony prose. You could mistake this feeling for mere bourgeois taste or elitism until you discovered this: that the process of scanning the shelves began to resemble in radically diminished form the rage we felt at the world outside of the bookstore, where something real and worthwhile and beautiful or something simply and meaningfully true was always wedged between vast mountain ranges of bullshit and trash. It was not that our weary eyes couldn’t bear the sight of another terrible book, but that it presented in a uniquely visual and visceral form the spectrum outside, where the good and the true always held a minority position. The largest book inventory in the world, coming to you through ornate supply-chains from the largest warehouses, staffed by great numbers of underpaid and unseen workers and housing every conceivable book just out of sight of its ultimate readers, could not compare to the ornate, colorful vista achieved in even a modest bookstore, where thousands upon thousands of options peeked out at you, competing in colored slivers for your money, or at least your attention. The thousand Baldaccis and Picoults, or those you might name instead, forced some of us to a moment of painful clarity: I have tried to treat every human being as an equal; I need not treat every book the same way.
When chains started putting precious coffee and pastry shops inside their stores, the true social spaces of the bookstore were revealed. Most meaningful conversations and social activity didn’t happen there, where old men slept and college kids prepped for MCATs, but in the aisles, where you would encounter people interested in the genres you were interested in; where, unlike in the coffee shop (where everyone had her own cozy chair and pocket of silence) we often fought for space in front of the many books on display, jockeying for position, angling toward or away from nearby browsers, hoping to strike up a conversation with someone or hoping to avoid them altogether. Watching someone remove a book from among the hundreds and deliberate—scrutinizing its covers, flipping to pages at random and looking for something ineffable there—was like witnessing a small private act, a thin window into this stranger’s sensibility and character. Squatters might claim great chunks of the aisle, committed to one spot, a stack of books and a sweating beverage on the carpet next to them. The look they gave you as you passed them was the look the bored cow gives to the flitting bird.
Stumbling through Plutarch, Jim Morrison decides to style himself after Lysippos’ Alexander, angling that downy head of his toward his left shoulder, but we know that the heads of the true book-necks tilt in the other direction, at least where books in English predominate. Book-spines too thin to bear words placed level with the ground were forced to wear their words like drapery, the way you’d vacuum a curtain, to be read from top to bottom, and not from bottom to top, as in France and elsewhere. You’d see most of us here turning a left ear to the heavens. Oh, the relief of a French spine, here or across the sea! Staring at dozens of Simenons helped me realign in a way no masseuse’s efforts ever could. In Paris I felt a great cracking all up and down my spine, as the dust of decades trapped in English shook loose to settle elsewhere. Perhaps this is why Morrison, his Alexandrian left ear to the ground, found a home in France: it must have made cruising the aisles so much easier.
Browsing also had a taxonomy. Occasionally there was destination browsing: You are meandering in City Lights or Gotham Book Mart or Wahrenbrock’s because you decided you were going to meander in City Lights, Gotham Book Mart, or Wahrenbrock’s, and not just because you happened to be in the cities or neighborhoods that housed them. But more often browsing occurred because of other circumstances. There was targeted browsing: forced to buy a gift for someone, you could at least be thankful they liked books, and so you made a special trip to the local shop because it was nearby and because you were supposed to be giving their gift to them in an hour, your surgical strike carrying you past untold wonders for which you had no time. There was browsing in Godot-mode, which in my case usually coincided with incidents of minor auto repair. I would arrange to have the tires rotated or the radiator flushed somewhere within walking distance of a bookstore, and would slowly and methodically make my way around the store, confined and in no hurry. There was browsing with money and, all too often, browsing without. With money it was like looking over the menu at your favorite restaurant, already knowing you’d leave heavier and more unbuttoned than you arrived. Without, it was like so much else is: a day with a sheet of glass between you and the things you wanted most of all.
When I was a kid there was an addictive, rather drab-looking arcade game called Qix. You were a tiny marker moving around within an unforgiving rectangle, chased by sparklers on the periphery and a colorful stick-beast floating around in its center. Your task was to step away from the perimeter and create new enclosed spaces within the original rectangle, further hemming in the ravenous and captivating stick-beast, which looked like some kind of poorly rendered, sentient accordion. At first you might venture out only in quick bursts, terrified of being caught by it before you’d completed your circuit. Eventually, though, you would risk more and more, darting ever closer to the beast, closing off greater portions of its shrinking cage, watching its pixelated fingers leap out at you as you drew closer and closer, desperately trying to trap the beast in the tiniest imaginable space without getting caught. When you thought the cage could not get any smaller, still you found a way to shrink it even more, until finally you were practically upon the beast, unable to keep even the thinnest distance between, caught up and tangled in each other; and it would catch you, and it would all be over. Browsing the latest book chain shrinking into its final days of summer I thought of that game, as more and more chunks of the store’s great rectangle were emptied of inventory, their shelves and walls methodically denuded and roped off with yellow tape, never to be wandered through again. The livable portions of that great space kept growing smaller and smaller, the options and selection narrowed, the people hurried past each other in carrion haste, and the horizon diminished. In its final week of existence I could be found shuttling madly back and forth in its brittle square, one ear toward the unkempt carpet, my fingers lashing out at the last things there worth devouring.