One of my favorite things to do on a lazy Saturday afternoon is to browse a used bookstore.
It starts with the smell. The bookbinding glue, the ink, the paper itself…all break down and release one of the world’s best smells. Forget new car smell…I love old book smell! Bookstores that sell new books just don’t have the same smell to them.
And they’re quiet. Library quiet. Even if it’s busy, people will nod and murmur to each other. If you have a phone call, you take it outside. Books make great noise baffles, so a conversation at normal volume doesn’t even make it from one side of the store to the other.
I find browsing works best when you have a very loosely defined goal. If you go to a used bookstore looking for one specific book you’re not browsing, you’re shopping. Nothing wrong with that, but shopping stresses me out. On the other hand, if you go just to go you’ll get bored in a few minutes. You gotta have a sort of thing you’re looking for, without looking for one specific thing. I have a standing list of authors I look for the works of when I’m in a bookstore. If I find one, yay! If I find one that I don’t own, double yay, and I buy it. If I don’t, I usually tell the person at the front desk they need to step up their game. But in a friendly way. Like I’m joking.
Even though I’m not.
I like to turn my phone off when I go to a used bookstore. These days I usually just put it on “do not disturb” because I have enough responsibilities that I like to know some people can get a hold of me if they need me. But if I’m going to a bookstore for self-care, my goal is to shrink my world until it fits inside the confines of the store.
I usually look at the most prominent display first. Every good bookstore has a “staff picks” or “new” or “bargain” shelf. I look at every single book. I’m not really reading the titles, and I probably couldn’t tell you the name of a single one. After that, I start browsing the fiction shelf. Sporadically, almost frantically. I’m looking for something. The book that’s going to grab my eye.
When I find it, I pull it off the shelf and look at it. I read the back cover. I leaf through the pages. I imagine the person who once owned this book. I wonder if the author is still alive. I smell it. I put it back.
Now I’m calmer. Now my world has shrunk a bit. Three things that were swirling around my head have settled down on the floor and stopped moving.
I repeat the process, less frantically. I start retaining some of what I see. I find another book, and again savor it.
At this point, I’m calm enough that I can start looking for my authors. I also look for the answers to certain questions. Is this the sort of bookstore that puts Neil Gaiman in fantasy? Or general fiction? Or literature? Or sci-fi? Does it split his books up or put all Gaiman in one section? How about Ursula LeGuin? Are the Earthsea books next to Left Hand of Darkness or are the former in fantasy while the latter is in sci-fi? Or do they compromise with one section for both sci-fi and fantasy? Do they have a mystery section? Do they have any Rex Stout? Is A.C. Doyle under mystery, or has he been promoted to literature? Do they separate out literature and fiction? What is the most recently published book in the literature section? These questions let me get a taste of how the owner of the bookstore thinks about books.
After this, I will go through the fiction (and fantasy, and sci-fi, and mystery, if present) shelves and look at every single book. I might read the title and author. I might just look at the font and the colors and the design. I might zone out and not see the book titles for a whole shelf. But my eyeballs are going to pass over the spine of every novel I can find.
If the store is big enough or time is too short, I might stop this process before I’ve actually looked at every book. I tell myself I’ll remember where I stopped so I can pick back up there when I come back. I never remember.
Ideally, I only leave the store when hunger forces me to. Often about $50 poorer. Sometimes I will forbid myself from buying any new books until I’ve read through the ever-growing pile of books I haven’t even started yet. This is good for the budget, and I’m OK with it because buying isn’t the point. I buy mostly because I need used bookstores to still be around.