Thursday, September 28, 2017

`One of Those Odd People'

In 1984, under the pen name “Aristides” he customarily used while editor of The American Scholar, Joseph Epstein published an essay in that journal, “New & Previously Owned Books & Other Cream Puffs.” It amounts to a qualified love song to bookstores, which he ranks first among his “four main agencies of education” (the others being, in descending order of importance, magazines, libraries and schools). A self-described autodidact, Epstein writes: “Books remain the essential tools of education and bookstores the shops where they are most commonly acquired.” Things have changed some in thirty-three years, for reasons cultural and economic. Though still important to some of us, bookstores are fewer in number and diminished in quality. Houston, the fourth-largest city in the nation, has no first-rate bookstore, and I haven’t set foot in one anywhere in seven years (Henderson Books in Bellingham, Wash., of all places). Still, thanks to online dealers and interlibrary loans, good books have never been so readily accessible.

Epstein looks at bookstores as both reader and writer. In the first role, he prizes serendipity: “One never knows quite what one will find in a used-book store, which is what makes them, to the book-crazed, such exciting places.” As a writer, he acknowledges there is “something a little sad about a used-book store,” adding: “Used-book stores, then, function in part as a retirement home for authorly hopes.” Here he echoes Dr. Johnson in The Rambler #106: “No place affords a more striking conviction of the vanity of human hopes than a public library; for who can see the wall crowded on every side by mighty volumes, the works of laborious meditations and accurate inquiry, now scarcely known but by the catalogue.”

Epstein refers us to an essay by his friend the sociologist Edward Shils, “The Bookshop in America,” published in the winter 1963 issue of Daedalus. A member of the Committee on Social Thought at the University of Chicago, Shils was formidably well-read. In “My Friend Edward,”written after Shils’ death in 1995, Epstein writes:

“. . . he had read more literature than I, a literary man, ever expect to read. I never mentioned a writer, no matter how minor, whose work he had not read and whose measure he had not taken. He was a great reader of novels. He read Dickens over and over again. He regularly re-read Balzac. He adored Willa Cather. We once had a swell talk about who was smarter, Proust or James. Our conclusion was that James was deeper but that, in seeking out a restaurant or anything touching on practical matters, Proust would have been the more valuable man. Edward was much taken with George Eliot and thought her particularly fine on the Jewish family in Daniel Deronda. Shakespeare he felt was simply beyond discussion--and so we never discussed him.”

In other words, a man whose judgments are worth listening to. In his own essay, Shils calls bookshops “an almost indispensable part of life. Like libraries, one goes to them for what one knows and wants and to discover books one did not know before.” Charmingly, Johnsonianly, Shils calls a bookshop “a place for intellectual conviviality.” He articulates a series of thoughts I could sign my name to:

“I have gone to bookshops to buy and browse. I have gone to them to buy books I wanted, and because I just wanted to buy a book, and much of the time just because I wanted to be among books to inhale their presence.”

I have gone to bookstores I knew from prior sad experience were lousy, just to wander among the shelves, hopelessly hoping for treasure. In such places, I have been tempted to buy books I already owned just to salvage something tangible out of disappointment. Shils formulates a theory of good bookstores contrary to conventional economic sense:
“A bookshop, in order to be good, must have a large stock of books for which there is not likely to be a great demand but for which there will be an occasional demand. This means, unlike the retail trade in groceries, or the practice in industry to produce on order, a bookshop must render its capital inert by putting a lot of it into slow-moving lines.”

Only once have I seriously contemplated starting a bookstore of my own, in a university town in Ohio. This was in 1974, and my would-be partner was a poet named Phil Smith. He and his wife Robin owned thousands of very slender volumes. We discussed names for the business and came up first with Omega Books. We shortened it to O Books, and then lengthened it a little with O! Books. And then we came to our senses. Shils had our number:

“The wonder is, given the unremunerativeness of the business, that bookshops exist at all. It takes a special kind of person, somewhat daft in a socially useful and quite pleasant way but nonetheless somewhat off his head, to give himself to bookselling. Why should anyone who has or who can obtain $10,000 or $20,000 invest it in a bookshop to sell serious books when, if he were an economically reasonable person, he would do better to open a beauty parlor or a hamburger and barbecue shop, or put his money into the stock  market? The bookseller must be one of those odd people who just love the proximity of books.”

[Francis Morrone borrows a title from Orwell and quotes Epstein and Shils in The Hopkins Review.]

1 comment:

MMc said...

Have you ever been to Kaboom Books in the Heights? You might enjoy it if you are in the area. be sure to check the hours they are open.