Monday, May 19, 2008

Bookstore as Time Machine

This weekend, TW and I had a chance to visit a couple of really well-known college towns a few states away. (If you're in higher ed, you know them.) My Mom valiantly volunteered to watch TB and TG, so off we went, sans children.

The travel was grueling – my kingdom for a cure for traffic – and our other obligations daunting, but we were able to set aside some time to wander the downtowns. I had forgotten how much I missed college towns.

Although my student days are alarmingly far behind me, some things don't change. The parking was awful, the sidewalk vendors plentiful, the cheap restaurants thick on the ground (and surprisingly good), the stores small and cute. In one chichi toy store, we found a nifty contraption for TB that makes the tornado-in-two-bottles trick easier. It's basically a connector tube with bottle cap ridges on either end, so you can put two two-liter plastic bottles in it and execute the tornado trick. Until now, we've had to rely on my skills at drilling holes in bottle caps and stopping leaks with duct tape, which is to say, we've written it off. This thing is seriously cool.

Then, there were the bookstores.

In my suburban way, I have plenty of access to books. We have Borders and B&N close by, and I don't even want to think about how much I've bought from Amazon. I'm also pretty adept at and, and I've been known to push interlibrary loan to its limits. These are all good things, and I would hate to lose any of them.

But there's something about a bookstore with a personality. In my twenties, I was quite the enthusiast.

On a grad-school visit to family in Northern Town, I found some wonderful long-out-of-print obscure scholarly stuff on a high shelf in a neglected section, not far from 'Americana' with its books on John Wayne and golf. I once visited Revolution Books in New York City, which was run by Trotskyists; I was amused (and relieved) to discover that they took MasterCard. (“Expropriate the expropriators at 19.8 percent interest!”) At Flagship State, there was a bookstore for about ten minutes in the 90's that decided that cultural studies was where the real money was. It wasn't, but it was great fun while it lasted. I've known used bookstores with House Dogs, with owners disturbingly close to Comic Book Guy from The Simpsons, and with organizational styles so obscure that the only way to find anything was to don a pith helmet and dive in. It's a fine line between “used book store” and “mosh pit.” Do kids say “mosh pit” anymore? I'm getting old. But I digress.

This weekend, visiting these college towns, I saw probably ten stores between them, none affiliated with a chain. It was glorious.

TW and I ventured into one, a worker-run cooperative with a clear socialist/lesbian/vegetarian bent. She immediately commented “this is your kind of place, isn't it?” It was. It had the requisite bumper stickers and lapel buttons – one that said “Queers Against Capitalism” pretty much captured the spirit of the place – along with entire sections devoted to “Social Change” and nearly everything Noam Chomsky has ever written, except for linguistics. (Surprisingly little on peak oil and alternative energy, though. Too mainstream, perhaps?) The staffers were young and earnest and profusely pierced, and we overheard one telling another “I'm defending tomorrow, so I can't work today.” That seemed about right.

I bought a copy of American Nerd: The Story of My People, by Benjamin Nugent, partly out of appreciation for the existence of the store, and partly because, well, never mind. TW suggested a book she found about the history of the school lunch program, but I just couldn't imagine devoting the time to reading it. I also made a mental note that Deer Hunting with Jesus is probably one of the best titles ever, and I'll have to read it sometime.

More than the book, though, the experience of the store itself took me back in time. Back in the early nineties, when I had more hair and less of almost everything else, that 'Lefty Librarian' milieu was one of the few constants in my world. I used bookstores as primary navigational tools, and derived real joy from finding super-obscure long-out-of-print copies of weird stuff that I and six other people in the world cared about, especially for three bucks. Back then, before amazon and blogs, we had used bookstores and 'zines. (Anyone remember Factsheet Five? No? Lingua Franca? Sigh.) The 'efficiency' level was low, and we all knew it, but there was a certain feel to it that I hadn't realized I missed until now.

I'm glad that world isn't completely gone yet. It may be a little musty, but it's still here, still giving painfully earnest young idealists a place to find the like-minded and wish they could afford books decrying their poverty.

Good. I needed that.

We're back in the burbs, back with the kids. That's what life is now, and I wouldn't trade it. But it's nice to check in when my old self once in a while. Good for the soul.