Barnes & Noble was the most important bookstore in my early New York City days, but I did not restrict myself to it. If I had the time, I would check out the bookstores in whatever part of New York I was in. On the Upper West Side, I would go into a Shakespeare & Co., with its creaky floors and classical music. (I have heard classical music in other bookstores. I don’t remember, however, ever hearing country music in one.) Near Manhattan’s Columbus Circle was the Colosseum, with its multiple levels. On a tony part of Fifth Avenue was Scribner’s, with its balcony and the feeling that a spinster librarian was shushing the present patrons and the ghosts of hosts of distinguished writers. I would frequent Brooklyn’s Community Bookstore and other places on Brooklyn’s Fifth and Seventh Avenues. A marvelous used book store at 15-17 Ann Street, with sloping floors and bookcases that were steadier than they looked, was a great place for spending lunch hour when I worked around the corner on Park Row. I think it was then called the Old Ann Street Bookstore, but it was once named the Isaac Mendoza Bookstore after its original and longtime owner. That store, I have read, started in 1894, closed in 1990, and was at the same location all that time.
When traveling, I try to drop into any local bookstore I see. Forty years ago in New England, it was a barn bursting with used books. It was an amazing sight. I said to the spouse, “We aren’t leaving until we buy something that we otherwise would not get.” I don’t remember what she bought, but I purchased a volume that contained several Mr. Bunting novels, which I had never heard of. The books are about an everyman in WWII London and were delightful. This purchase was so successful that now, whenever I am in a bookstore on a trip, I try to buy a book unknown to me. And thus, in Lisbon or maybe it was the Madrid airport, which had a small English-language section, I bought what is a classic to many but not then to me by Jerome K. Jerome. Three Men in a Boat.
Bookstores are, of course, for buying books, but if you know the title you want, online ordering has advantages, and I have done at least my share of that. A bookstore, however, offers the chance for browsing. You buy a book you were not looking for because you see it and remember it got a good review or your friend Dean enjoyed it. Or you buy it because the jacket copy or the back cover makes it seem interesting or because you pick it up and read a few enjoyable paragraphs or because you are looking for a biography of P.T. Barnum and you find it shelved with other books about nineteenth century characters that appeal to you. In a good bookstore I can easily find the book I seek, but in a good bookstore the displays lead me to books that I did not know I wanted but end up finding provocative, thoughtful, interesting, enjoyable.
Recommendations are another advantage of a good bookstore. New York City bookstores are staffed with reams of bright people with liberal arts degrees who still have dreams of making a living somehow in a literary world. They read and often have to demonstrate that they read to get a job in a bookstore. As a result, they frequently have good recommendations for what you might like to read. Online stores try to mimic this by having on a webpage something like “Others who bought this book also bought. . . .” This does not come close to a conversation with someone who can ask if you have read and liked certain books and then makes recommendations based on that knowledge.
The spouse got a great recommendation decades ago. She told a Barnes & Noble clerk that she was going on vacation and wanted a good summer read. The clerk made inquiries about whether the spouse had liked certain books and authors and then recommended The Age of Innocence andWomen in White. We had not heard of Wilkie Collins before, who was largely forgotten then. But the spouse bought the books, read them, and loved them. She passed the book to me. I read and loved it, and we both went on to read other books by Wharton and Collins.
Bookstores have systematized recommendations by printing out what their sellers thought about some books. These aren’t as valuable as a personal recommendation stemming from a conversation, but I have still used them. Early in the trend, I saw a stack of books in a store above Union Square with a big card saying “First Novels,” and then smaller cards each containing a brief employee write-up of why a certain book was particularly noteworthy. I read an effusive one that was a mystery about racial relations in the Northwest. Based on those comments, I bought the book. Later, Snow Falling on Cedars was a big seller, but it was this recommendation that had me read and be impressed by it well before that.