Listen to this story
It was in Athens in the 4th Century BC that a man named Zeno walked into a bookshop. He had been a successful merchant, but suffered a terrible shipwreck on a journey out of Phoenicia, losing a priceless cargo of the world’s finest dye. He was 30 years old and facing financial ruin, but this catastrophe stirred his soul to find something new, though he didn’t quite know what.
One day, immersed in browsing a bookstore collection, many volumes of which have been lost to history forever, Zeno heard the bookseller reading out loud a passage from a book by Xenophon about Socrates. It was like nothing he had ever heard before. With some trepidation, he approached the owner and asked, “Where can I find a man like that?” and in so doing, began a philosophical journey that would literally change the history of the world. That book recommendation led to the founding of Stoicism and then, to the brilliant works of Seneca, Epictetus, and Marcus Aurelius — which, not lost to history, are beginning to find a new life on bookshelves today. From those heirs to Zeno’s bookshop conversion, there is a straight line to many of the world’s greatest thinkers, and even to the Founding Fathers of America.
All from a chance encounter in a bookshop.
It would be an understatement to say that great things begin in bookstores, and that countless lives have been changed inside them.
Stephen Greenblatt’s wonderful book The Swerve was inspired by a chance discovery of Lucretius at the Yale Co-Op almost fifty years ago. George Raveling, the Hall of Fame basketball coach, stops at the local indie in every town he visits and leaves with a bag or two for that reason. He discovers authors and subjects he wouldn’t have otherwise been exposed to at home or online. In 2012, a woman tweeted her adoration for whoever was behind the Twitter account for the Waterstones Bookstore in London; the two were married four years later.
In my own life, I remember quite fondly where I came across certain books and the effect they had on my life. There were the Louis L’amour books I got at Bookworm in Sacramento when I was in elementary school. I remember reading Flint under my desk instead of paying attention to my fourth grade teacher. Mrs. Whittaker was so happy when she caught me, she sent a note home to my parents.
There were the countless hours spent in the philosophy section of the Borders in Riverside, California while I was in college. Today it’s a Forever 21, but it was where I bought my first copy of Epictetus, and it’s where the woman who would become my wife bought her copy of Marcus Aurelius shortly after our first date. There was Robert Greene’s 33 Strategies of War, purchased at the front table of the Barnes and Noble in Union Square, who I became lucky enough to work for. There were the used copies of Aeschylus and Euripides and Sophocles from The Last Bookstore in Downtown LA, which taught me that I could understand plays. There was discovering Walker Percy’s novels at Faulkner House Books in New Orleans — which happens to be in the very apartment complex where William Faulkner once rented rooms and worked on his first novel — and returning the favor as the epigraph to my book, Conspiracy. There were the Hemingway novels I got at the airport bookstore in Oslo, and Ambrose Bierce’s Civil War Stories from The Strand. There was the copy of Mama Lion Wins The Race, which the saleswoman at Book Passage in San Francisco recommended for my son, and which we have now read together at least 150 times.
There was the time I was in a Barnes and Noble in Portland and a man buying some manga books seemed to be a couple dollars short. I fished some money out of my pocket and paid the difference. He started to cry. “I’ve just recovered from cancer,” he told me. “I was buying these books tonight to restart my normal life. I’m supposed to begin looking for a job tomorrow.” It was an experience far more gratifying to me than the first time I saw my own name up on a bookstore marquee for a signing.
These are not special experiences, although they were special to me. They are, in fact, incredibly ordinary experiences in the sense that they happen constantly, day-in-and-day-out, wherever bookstores exist. One only need see the nostalgic memes inspired by the Scholastic Book Fairs to be reminded of that.
In these divided, distracted times, we need the unmitigated joys that bookstores offer more than ever, to say nothing of the knowledge contained within them.
It was both interesting and unfortunate to see the controversy earlier this month over an altercation at a bookstore in Richmond, Virginia, where the alt-right propagandist Steve Bannon was accosted by an angry stranger. I’m no Bannon fan — in fact, he more than just about anyone has contributed to how divided the world is right now — but I love what the bookstore owner said when she explained why she called the police to protect him:
We are a bookshop. Bookshops are all about ideas and tolerating different opinions and not about verbally assaulting somebody, which is what was happening.
It’s exciting to see authors like James Patterson take active steps to support local indies. Ann Patchett even owns her own bookstore — Parnassus Books, in Nashville. A few years ago I followed the lead of an author I knew and started offering signed copies of my books through my local indie, Book People. I could probably make extra money buying the copies from the publisher and selling them directly, but I’d much rather create another reason for people to support a retailer.
Amazon has done wonderful things for the publishing industry — there are millions of titles in print and the average independent can only carry a small fraction of that — but the local bookstore provides an irreplaceable service (so do libraries, but there is something special about owning and writing in books). Bookstores curate and support and get behind authors that would be otherwise lost in the noise — particularly local or regional authors. There has been some worry about “showrooming,” where customers discover books at retail shops but buy online. In reality, the relationship cuts both ways. I have an “Amazon Wishlist” of books on my phone that I often pull up in bookstores when I am looking for something to buy right then and there.
Bookstores also host events. Bookstores get kids hooked on reading with weekly story time. Ethnic bookstores provide community for refugees and immigrants; feminist bookstores are a launching pad for political activism; for over a century, Christian Science Reading Rooms have provided a quiet place for prayer and study. Porter’s Square Books in Boston recently launched its own “writer in residence” program. Recovery Cafe and Bookstore in Florida hosts meetings for recovering addicts.
Great things begin in bookstores, and have for centuries. They serve, along with libraries, the function promised in an ancient inscription above the books belonging to King Ozymandias: Ψυχῆς ἰατρεῖον, or, “A House of Healing for the Soul.”
So here’s to bookstores: A haven and a lighthouse guiding us beyond the catastrophes and discord of our daily lives.
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