August 15, 2006
The Yellow-Lighted Bookshop
The Yellow-Lighted Bookshop by Lewis Buzbee
Finished on 8/8/06
Rating: B+ (7/10 Good)
I think that I still have it in my heart someday to paint a bookshop with the front yellow and pink in the evening… like a light in the midst of the darkness. (Vincent van Gogh)
In 1992, my husband and I left the sunny, salt-laden air of San Diego and moved to Lincoln, Nebraska. As she gazed at the map of the United States hanging on our laundry room wall, our youngest daughter innocently asked, “So, where’s the beach?” She was all for the move until she learned there wasn’t exactly an ocean in the middle of the country. I’m sure we did what most parents do in times such as these. Bribery. Believe it or not, she actually wound up loving Lincoln.
In 1997, we were casualties of yet another lay-off (we had both been laid off from Harcourt Brace Jovanovich back in San Diego in the late 80s). Cliffs Notes (yes, there really was a man named Cliff) had been good enough to give us the opportunity to move to Nebraska when they purchased my husband’s software company, but after half a decade we were back in the job-hunting arena. With a few more years under her belt, Amy was a bit more reluctant when we told her the news. Not quite as easy a sell as when she was 8.
Texas didn’t do much for any of us. It’s too hot. There are scorpions (in our brand new house, nonetheless!) and fire ants. People drive worse than they do in L.A. or San Deigo. So we pretty much spent the entire summer of ’98 camped out in front of our TV watching Sosa and McGuire battle it out in pursuit of Marris’ record. Inside. Air conditioning. No bugs (those came after we moved from the apartment to the new house). We also enjoyed hanging out at The Ballpark in Arlington. The Rangers were decent back then. Life was ok. Not great, but ok.
But I missed my friends. Kids make friends (eventually) at school. Hubby was too busy slaving over a hot computer to worry about his social life. I was getting tired of chasing the cats away from the scorpions. I needed a job! Lucky for me I found what would turn out to be the BEST job I have ever had. One guess. Yep, I got a job in a bookstore. Pure bliss for this voracious reader. And no, I didn’t spend my entire paycheck on books, but I came close. I took advantage of the employee discount days, my regular discount, comps and ARCs (advanced reader copies) from publishers, and reveled in the pure joy of being surrounded by books and people who enjoyed books as much as I do. (Incidentally, knowing how much I'd enjoy it, my former boss sent this book to me.)
I loved “hand-selling” my favorite titles to customers who’d come to me for recommendations. I loved unpacking & sorting the new arrivals in the backroom. I loved organizing a section that hadn’t been alphabetized in weeks. I loved going through my huge list of books to “pull,” filling up dozens and dozens of boxes to ship back to the publishers. I loved coming in at 6 am (really!) with the other shelvers, turning up the volume as we listened to Clapton, Van Morrison, CSN&Y, John Hiatt and the Subdudes while we shelved books in our favorite sections (Travel, Fiction, Cooking) and loathing the perpetually disorganized and troublesome sections (Transportation, Crafts, Computers). I didn’t mind that I was earning a “below-poverty-level” wage. I would almost be willing to work for free. Almost.
We’ve since moved back to Nebraska (couldn’t bribe the kid this time – for reasons completely incomprehensible to us, she now loves the state of Texas and will graduate from TCU this December) and while I no longer work in a bookstore, my love for reading is just as strong.
Lewis Buzbee’s bookseller’s memoir is a lovely gem of a book, both in content and appearance. Just over 200 pages and roughly 7” x 6”, it fits neatly in one’s hands. The cover is appealing, with its towering stack of books placed tidily on a wooden pier, a lake or ocean in the background with a seagull off to one side. The books are illuminated by the glow of a camp lantern. Lovely, lovely cover which almost invites gentle stroking.
I was immediately entranced by Buzbee’s anecdotes, identifying with not only his life as a bookseller, but as my contemporary, tripping down memory lane as he shared tidbits from his childhood. I found myself nodding in agreement as he reminisced about they joys of perusing the Scholastic Weekly Reader, recalling how I, too, carefully marked the boxes with dark x’s, anticipating the day my fourth-grade teacher would carefully unpack the boxes, calling each student up to collect his stack of new books. Ahhhhhh. The Box Car Children. Encyclopedia Brown. Ramona. Homer Price. What a thrill! And as I type this, I wonder about the children who didn’t get to order any books. Did Mrs. Goodrich purchase a few extras to hand out to those less fortunate than me?? I’m willing to bet that she did.
But more than the pop culture recollections, I relished the details and terminology that booksellers (and former booksellers) share: Face-outs; Co-ops; End caps; the café with its “punkier” baristas with their multiple-piercings, tattoos and sloppy attire; the quirky regulars who never seemed to have a job to go to and lived in the café or slouched in overstuffed chairs scattered about the store; the camaraderie among the employees. Buzbee began his bookselling career at Upstart Crow and Co. Bookstore and Coffeehouse (the Bay Area location). I have fond memories of discovering Upstart Crow in San Diego’s Seaport Village. It was the first bookstore of its kind that I’d visited. A restaurant and coffee bar. Comfy chairs. Hardwood floors. Chess and checkers available to those who wished to play while sipping a hot drink. This was not the B. Dalton or Waldens I was used to. This had charm and character and I wanted to move in.
In addition to recounting his life as a bookseller and sales rep, Buzbee packs quite a bit of historical information about the trade into his slim book. I wasn’t nearly as interested in these details, finding them somewhat dry, and wound up doing a little skimming when he strayed from his more personal stories. He also touches on widely diverse topics: used bookstores; the decline of reading (bah!); the advent of paperbacks; censorship and the fatwa against Rushdie; the Patriot Act and book purchases; and the indies struggling to survive against online, chains, and mega stores (Sams, Wal-Mart, Costco).
I can’t imagine any bibliophile not finding something of interest in Buzbee’s lovely memoir. Definitely a keeper to be read again and again. And of course, I won’t have any trouble locating my copy as it will be shelved (yes, I still shelve my books in alphabetical order) in the company of Sara Nelson (So Many Books, So Little Time), Anne Fadiman (Ex Libris), Anna Quindlen (How Reading Changed My Life), Ronald B. Shwartz (For the Love of Books) and Paul Collins (Sixpence House: Lost in a Town of Books).
OK, so maybe Texas wasn’t all that bad. After all, I did discover the joy of working in a bookstore (and got to attend some great baseball games at The Ballpark). And I still know someone in the biz who is generous enough to send me comps and ARCs. Now if only Borders would come to Lincoln. Somehow, Barnes & Noble just isn’t the same.
A few of my favorite passages:
November, a dark, rainy Tuesday, late afternoon. This is my ideal time to be in a bookstore. The shortened light of the afternoon and the idleness and hush of the hour gather everything close, the shelves and the books and the few other customers who graze head-bent in the narrow aisles. There’s a clerk at the counter who stares out the front window, taking a breather before the evening rush. I’ve come to find a book.
It’s not as if I don’t have anything to read; there’s a tower of perfectly good unread books next to my bed, not to mention the shelves of books in the living room I’ve been meaning to reread. I find myself, maddeningly, hungry for the next one, as yet unknown. I no longer try to analyze this hunger; I capitulated long ago to the book lust that’s afflicted me most of my life. I know enough about the course of the disease to know I’ll discover something soon.
And a "me, too!" moment as I had just recently mentioned something very similar in a previous post:
I became a voracious reader and book luster at fifteen, after discovering The Grapes of Wrath.
But there is one indisputable assessment we can make of Steinbeck, placing him in a category that’s often overlooked in literary and cultural histories. Steinbeck’s books are important because they are formative ones. They often spark in younger readers a longing to know more about the world, to engage, and to continue reading. Maybe the proper term for such work is books of engagement.