We met in a bookstore 16 years ago. I think this says a lot about our relationship, although my husband would likely disagree. But I left the bookstore to start a career in publishing, when he left, he went into biotech and never looked back. To him, the bookstore was just a job, and a not-very-well-paying one at that. For me, the bookstore was my support system and the antidote to the rest of my early 20s, utterly confused life. Yes, it is where we met, but I guess he'd say that we went on to make better memories after we left. I can't really argue with that.
The bookstore was part of a small chain in the first outdoor mall in the country. Both are now gone. The mall itself was something special, if that word could be used about a mall. In the spring, the center courtyard was planted with tulips, and at Christmastime there were enormous toy soldiers guarding the Gazebo where Santa received his guests for pictures. Eight live reindeer stood in wait for their appointed duties. It could be a magical place.
For me, there was magic in the bookstore as well. Surrounded by books, shelving, reading, recommending, I was in my element. If a book was not on the shelf, I had an uncanny ability to remember if it was somewhere within the many overstock books in the back room. My co-workers thought I was nuts, but my favorite time of year was the oh-so-crazy Christmas season, with the customers lined up all the way to the back of the store.
The bookstore attracted its share of real-life characters, both as customers and as employees. Many of the regulars had not-so-flattering names: Movie Tie-in man, The Breather, the Warlock (a guy who used to buy copies of the Necromonicon to resell in his occult shop downstairs), and so on. We'd have the SciFi guys who would come in and tell me we needed to stock more H.P. Lovecraft, we have the romance readers who would buy Harlequins or bodice-rippers by the stack. And we'd have the guys who would come in and read the Anonymous books in the far corner of the store.
Pillars of the Earth was a bestseller back then. It was a good read. A Brief History of TIme was a non-fiction bestseller for weeks. Tons of people bought it, very few read it. There was the annual Danielle Steele and a number of Stephen Kings.
I was at the bookstore for nearly three years. By the time I left I had a fiancee, a maid of honor, two roommates, and a bunch of really great friends and memories.
When I worked in offices in Boston, bookstores would be my refuge. I often ate lunch at my desk and then went out for a walk, frequenlty finding myself in a bookstore. The atmosphere of staid calm and shelves full of possible escapes restored my stressed out head and helped me return to work to handle whatever drama I had left behind in my office.
When I was a new Mom, I used to take T to the bookstore for story hour or to play with the wooden train set at the back of the children's section. Of course the bookstore with kids is never as relaxing as being there on your own, but in this case it was a refuge from boredom.
Bookstores are a great place to people watch, even in the larger chains. I can remember when both children were in school, heading out to the nearest Barnes and Noble just to work in a different atmosphere. I must have been up late the night before, because I had a hard time keeping my eyes open. Somewhere nearby, a cell phone rang, "Hello," said the old man answering the phone (pause). "I'm in Barnes & Nobles, taking a nap!" Guess I wasn't the only one.
We have two fine independent bookstores near us. They are good for finding great writing that doesn't necessarily make the best seller list. Though they often host signings and readings for local writers, I once met Madeline L'Engle at a reading here. If you are fortunate enough to have a non-chain bookstore near you, go there as often as you can, they need your support.
Every so often, I long for a simpler job, dealing with customers with whom I will interact only about 5 minutes at a time. I miss having all those titles and authors and sometimes even ISBNs in my head and little else that was worth worrying about. Sometimes I miss sitting on the floor arranging hardcovers artfully around a column. I miss knowing way ahead of time when the next book in a series is coming out. But when I really miss it, all I have to do is visit a bookstore. And if I hang around long enough, someone is bound to ask the salesperson the same question I got asked at least once a week.
"I'm looking for a book, I don't have the title or the author, but it's blue and I heard about it on a talk show the other day...."