Friday, September 13, 2013

The perfect bookstore in my mind

We dream of the perfect bookstore. We search far and wide to find it. When we blow into a new town, we scour the cityscape for something somewhere that lives up to our notion of proper bookselling. But the only place we find it is in our dreams.
Tom Raabe, Biblioholism

Several weeks ago I imagined my ideal restaurant. (See The perfect restaurant in my mind, July 22). Today I want to do the same thing with bookstores. As Tom Raabe observes, there is no such thing as a perfect bookstore. And even if a shop did fit all of my other criteria, they still probably wouldn't always have a copy of the book I'm looking for. Not even Amazon can do that. But we can dream, can't we? Here are the qualities of my dream bookstore.

Books, books, books: I go to a bookstore to see books, and lots of them. I like to discover books I didn't even know existed. I really don't mind if a bookstore also sells magazines, greeting cards, DVDs, board games, coffee, donuts and other stuff as long as it is clear to anyone who walks through the front door that it is primarily a bookstore. I hate having to walk to the back of a store to actually find any books because the front half is devoted to displaying other items. I recognize that most stores depend on the sale of more profitable goods to stay in business, but I want them to at least pretend to be a bookstore.

The worst bookstore I can recall was the one at Grove City College back in the early 1990s when my son was a student there. They sold everything but books. If you wanted a Grove City sweatshirt or a Grove City mug, that was the place to go. But if you wanted to buy any book other than a textbook at the beginning of the term, you were out of luck.

Yesterday I visited Half Price Books in Columbus near the Ohio State campus. They've done some remodeling since my last visit, and now most of their books are in the back of the store. When you walk through the front door, all you see is DVDs, CDs and electronic games. To be sure, the back room with the books is much larger than the front part of the store, but I still want to see books when I walk through the door.

Both order and chaos: On my last visit to a Barnes and Noble store, I noticed a half dozen nonfiction books on a table supposedly devoted to notable paperback fiction. That offended me, for some reason. Don't Barnes and Noble employees know the difference between fiction and nonfiction? Maybe they don't, because this sort of thing happens all the time. If books are going to be organized in a store, I want them to be organized properly. I want authors on the fiction shelves to be in alphabetical order, and I want nonfiction books to be shelved under the proper categories.

At the same time, not all books necessarily have to be organized. I love sale tables where you are likely to find just about anything. There's a used bookstore in Akron that is much too small for all its stock. There are stacks of books everywhere that they haven't been able to find shelf space for. I don't know what the fire marshals think about all these books blocking aisles throughout the store, but I love it.

Something old, something new: My ideal bookstore sells both new books and used books. Haslam's in St. Petersburg is like this. About half of their books are new or remaindered. The other half are used. You can find just about anything in Haslam's. When I'm in Florida, I would rather go there than to the beach.

Bargains. Maybe it's a good thing books aren't as cheap as we wish they were. My house would look even more like that Akron bookstore than it does already. Even so, I like a bargain, and I hate to pay full price for anything. I bought eight books in Columbus yesterday for about $50. All the books were either used or remaindered. They would have cost several times that amount had I paid full price for them when they were first published. Even when I do buy new books, I expect a discount.

A place to get lost in: I mean this both literally and figuratively. One of the Columbus bookstores I visited yesterday was the Book Loft in German Village. This place has a maze of 30-some rooms on several levels, some the size of your living room, others the size of your hall closet. Different music plays in each room. (They also sell the music.) There are many dead-ends and constant twists and turns. You just have to wander until you find the only exit. I also wonder what the fire marshals think about this bookstore. A visit here is like a visit to Powell's in Portland, Ore., but on a much smaller scale.

Whether I can get physically lost or not, I enjoy a bookstore where I can lose track of time, where my mind can roam and my imagination can soar. I want a place where I can waste a whole afternoon, sort of a fantasyland for bibliophiles. Visiting a bookstore should be like going on an adventure, like taking part in a treasure hunt.

There are a lot of great bookstores in this world, but the perfect one still exists only in my mind.

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