Monday, June 04, 2007

Trying to read subtexts while book-browsing

I was browsing the poetry section of Bookaholic this afternoon when a man I didn't know, with a couple days' worth of beard and straight black, haphazardly-combed hair, suddenly appeared beside me and said, conspiratorially, "You know, there's that bookstore in Kansas City that's burning its books."

I hesitated just a bit before I responded. Coming as his remark did, out of the blue in Wichita's largest used-book store and directed to someone with three books under his arm, I wasn't quite sure what he was, you know, getting at. The ambiguities of this particular speech act's subtexts were not clarified by the fact that this fellow looked and sounded a bit like a better-groomed Charles Manson. Why was he saying this? And to me?

And it wasn't just where and to whom he was saying it; it was his manner of saying it that was unsettling as well, as though the bookburners would be here in a few weeks or months or indeed may even be in our very midst as he spoke and, well, don't you think you should be picking out something worth devoting the rest of your life to committing to memory? Or perhaps he was testing my loyalties: my response would indicate my allegiances . . . in which case, what allegiances was this man beholden to?

Oh, how tangled these webs.

I decided simply to respond with a quick, neutral acknowledgment that I had indeed heard about the store. I chose not to elaborate further on Prospero's Books' owners' rather incoherent and, to its current and potential customers, insulting action. I wanted to browse in peace, and even if I wanted company, this fellow was not my idea of a boon companion. But my answer seemed to satisfy him, and he immediately, and appropriately, wandered off into the Mysteries section.

* * * *

Were state-sanctioned bibliophobia to possess Wichita, Bookaholic would be the meeting-place of the Resistance. There's no coffee bar there, no fancy tilted shelving displaying the stock, no subdued, recessed lighting. You go there to buy, sell, trade and talk about books. But not in a pretentious or refined way. Books are the commodity there, just as with any bookstore, but nothing there detracts from the books. You don't go there for Atmosphere. You go there for books. Period. It possesses all the analogous refinement of a livestock-auction arena; it's a meat-market for book-lovers. Everyone in there is on the bibliophilic make. You hope to get lucky and pick up a few to take home. Everybody knows why you're there, so you don't have to pretend. Drool. Fondle. Grab an armload of books--the implicit promise of a trip home--until something better presents itself around the corner (I toyed with poor Hannah Arendt in just this way today. The Human Condition, indeed. Eh, I figured, she'll be there next payday; her type always is). Take one over to the comfortable (if well-used) couches for, um, closer examination. Hope for jouissance.

The inventory is catch-as-catch-can, of course, and it's mostly what you'd expect: Mysteries. Romance. Sci-Fi. On the other hand, though, it has much of what Carlos Fuentes has written that's been translated into English: something the Borders and Barnes & Noble stores here (two of each, by the way) cannot claim, even as they make room for three shelves of Danielle Steele. Bookaholic has far more than that of Danielle Steele, too; the point is that it has room for both.

It has room, indeed. Its total floorspace is not much less than that of the Borders or Barnes & Nobles here in town. In fact, it has more actual space devoted to books due to its lack of a café and music and DVD departments. And yet--imagine!--people still come.

Though they did recently shorten their hours, I'm pleased to report that Bookaholic for now appears immune to the sort of foolishness that possessed Prospero's Books' owners. Indeed, as I was heading to the checkout counter, I overheard one of the staff say, in response to a question I didn't hear, "Oh, we just make more room." Given the store's nature, you don't even have to ask what they would be making room for.

UPDATE (June 5): Some book-lover I am--I go there, I spend a few hours browsing, but I don't do a little chest-thumping later on about my conquests? I'm not usually the kiss-and-tell sort, but I'll make an exception for you good people:

Pocket Oxford Spanish Dictionary. "Pocket" should be in scare-quotes: it's a translating dictionary, so it's quite hefty. Not quite as thorough as my beloved Larousse, but the Larousse does me no good over there in my school office. This one appears to be more than adequate.

Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close, by Jonathan Safran Foer. When this first came out, I started reading it in the bookstore and knew I had to get it . . . when it became available in paper. Aside from being beautifully-written, I'll be curious to see how its images are integrated into the narrative.

The Portrait of Mrs. Charbuque, by Jeffrey Ford. A novel about a portraitist who agrees to paint someone whom he's not allowed ever to see?? Let's buy it!! This was my one true impulse buy.

The Anatomy of Memory: An Anthology, by James McConkey. A collection of writings--narrative, poems, essays--on the nature of memory. Mrs. M. has begun writing a novel whose central theme is memory, and so I picked this up for her. I wouldn't want her to miss out on the fun, now would I?


Joel said...

Well said.

"Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close," I read back-to-back with Ian McEwan's "Saturday." As far as post-9/11 novels go, McEwan was much more meaty. But Foer brought me to tears.

Gwynne said...

This sounds like a trip to Leon's in San Luis Obispo, CA, a bookstore I miss dearly and for which, I have never quite found a replacement. Sounds like a lovely afternoon! And with some good take-aways to boot.

John B. said...

Well, Gwynne, Wichita is a lot closer than San Luis Obispo.

It's indeed a good place to browse.