From a very early age, the world of books was where my magic lived. I had taught myself to read at age 4 and bookstores and libraries have always been a part of my life.
Let me tell you about two of those bookstores.
The first lives in Novi Sad, the city where I was born, within walking distance of my grandparents’ house. It was housed in a building on the corner of a street, a grand old lady of an edifice with cornices and cupolas and tall windows.
The building housed an ancient and respected institution which went under the name of Matica Srpska, or, in direct translation, the “Serbian Queen Bee”. People working there were antiquarians, archivists, translators, librarians, publishers – that last being important, because my grandfather, in his guise as published poet, had connections there. All of this behind-the-scenes stuff took place in some nether region on upper stories, places I never went to. But the good-sized street-level room which you entered through the main door was a bookshop. And it was a pretty special bookshop.
You have to know one thing about the normal ordinary bookstores of my childhood – they never looked like the Western reader imagines them, no open shelves, no aisles where you could wander up and down and browse things on various topics and literary genres. No, those early bookstores had counters, like a deli, and you would go up and talk to people behind the counters, and they would fetch your books for you. It was a very orderly, very starched process. I don’t know that it would work today because there’s too much being published and you can’t KNOW everything you want to the degree that you would be able to ask for it as though it was a pound of cheese.
That’s why the Matica Srpska bookstore was different. It DID have those open shelves which you could browse. And when my grandfather and I walked into that store, he would let go of my hand and go off to talk to his friends and colleagues, the educated, erudite people with whom he could talk Literature with a capital ‘L’. In the meantime, I would take a sharp left and disappear into the shelves, and pull out a book that caught my eye, and sit on the floor, and page through it.
It was here that my parents “collected-works editions” (those were popular at the time – ten or twelve volumes of novels by the same author, published in a nice-looking set that looked good on bookshelves. Writers like Pearl Buck and Howard Spring came from there, both of those sets I had read before I was ten years old. This is the place from which my parents took home books by Henryk Sienkiewiczs, and Ivo Andric, and Sigrid Undsett, every one of those is a Nobel Prize winner for literature. Those I had also read before I was ten years old.
This is where I found books by a writer called Karl May, the stepping stone that pretty much all the young people in Eastern Europe checked off when embarking on a life of reading – books about the American West by a German who had never set foot there in his life. It took me years, as I tell people now, to unlearn all the stuff I thought I knew about the Apache that I had gleaned from these books. Even back then I itched at some of the things in them but oh my GOD it was quite the story and every twelve-year-old in Europe – at least back then – had a stage of bad infatuation with Winnetou the chief of the Apaches.
It was here I picked up Hans Christian Andersen. It was here I picked up my first Oscar Wilde fairy tale. It was there I discovered travelogues. And maps. And poetry. All in translation, of course; I was still years away from knowing English.
I remember that bookstore, vividly, with its cool marble floors on which I sat in between two bookshelves or (sometimes) in the sun in the large display window, like a Reading Child mannequin, cross-legged with a hardcover on my lap, quite happily turning the pages. If grandpa didn’t come to get me after he was done talking with his friends, I could have stayed there all day, with dust motes dancing around me in the sun and books breathing quietly, very quietly, all around me.
I was in a Temple of Words and I was a little lost worshipper, happy to offer whatever sacrifice was demanded in terms of my time and my attention. I had to be torn bodily from that place when the time came to leave and I would either walk out with a book (courtesy of grandpa) or had to leave the treasure I was currently perusing behind, until the next time.
These weren’t trashy cheap paperbacks either – they had some paperback editions, to be sure, but many of the books were solid old-fashioned hardcovers with glue bindings and marbled endpapers and silk place-marker ribbons, some with gilded page edges so that they gleamed golden when you picked them up hinting at treasure between the covers, or protective dustjackets showing writers in poses which I would come to know later as the Author Photo Pose (usually serious-faced, three-quarter-profile, with one elbow resting on one knee and the chin cupped in that hand, looking mysteriously somewhere behind the camera).
These things smelled like real books, they had real weight, these words had substance. That floor was gray marble, the shelves were utilitarian metal except for the wooden ones which stood against walls, and for some reason the people in charge of this place simply trusted a child not yet ten years old not to damage, deface, or otherwise molest their stock. They just smiled, and they left me there, completely happy, surrounded by sunlight and dust and books and words, and I think that if there is a Heaven somewhere at least a part of it might look something exactly like this.
The second-hand emporium
The second bookstore had a brief and ephemeral existence, situated in what looked like almost makeshift premises, a building tucked underneath a bridge in a South African city, so small and so stuffed with merchandise that it felt almost cramped. There were shelves on every surface possible, some only reachable by climbing on none-too-safe ladders to reach the books tucked away under the rafters (wouldn’t you know, the ones I wanted were always up there); off the shelves, there were piles of books, all higgledy piggledy and anything might be anywhere, on every conceivable flat surface. This was strictly a second-hand emporium and as such it had the usual requisite amount of pure junk – but oh, some of the treasures I carted home from there. A book from 1901, with a Christmas inscription to someone’s grandfather from “Chicken”; several English-language copies of my beloved Howard Spring novels; my first hardcover copy of The Hobbit with Tolkien’s illustrations; a tiny-print two-volume ancient edition of Les Miserables; my first Roger Zelaznys.
It was utter chaos – in literary as well as physical terms – you’d be lucky if you found three books by the same author actually shelved together – and yet there were always people here, and they were always smiling, and they always had SOME book in their hand. It might not be the one they had come here seeking but this was the sort of bookshop where the books found you rather than the other way around.
It smelled very different to the other bookshop – no elegance here, no quiet sunshine, no erudition or serenity. No, here you could smell old paperbacks (aged paper, dust, sometimes a hint of mold), see the ancient covers curling back, sometimes the book itself yellowing and rough with age; some of the books were damaged to a degree where a decent bookstore would never even have carried them; some books were by people whose names you recognized and some were complete enigmas, neither title nor topic nor author ringing any bells at all and yet you’d pick the thing up and read three lines of the back blurb and go, hmmm. I spent a lot of money here, in the short while that this little shop and I were acquainted.
I have no clue who owned it or why they thought this would be a good thing to do with their lives – all I know is that it was there for just a handful of years and then it was gone, just as inexplicably as it had got there, with the entire little building it was in just… vanished, like it was a sort of bookish TARDIS, larger on the inside, unmoored in space and time, vanished from here to find some other roost somewhere else in some other city where some other readers needed to find them. And all I had left were the treasures I took home from there. It wasn’t fairy gold – they didn’t disappear when the shop did. I still own them. I still brush my fingers along their spines, sometimes, and remember. With gratitude.
Don’t forget the libraries
Now think of the other kind of book temple, the Library. I won’t wax lyrical about those – we can’t be here all day – but let me mention a few I carry in my heart.
The first library I went to as a child, whose kids’ section I blew through at a record rate and where they GRUDGINGLY allowed me to have an adult card when I was eight (under my parents’ supervision, but still). The library at my University, where I would gratefully crawl into one of the bays and, instead of boning up on organic chemistry like I was supposed to be doing, give myself over – in that book-lined silence – to getting lost (yet again) in Lord of the Rings.
The magnificent libraries I visited – the Bodleian, in Oxford, and the Irish library which led me, awed and speechless and adoring, to worship at the altar of the Book of Kells. And many more. Many, many more.
There were many more bookstores and libraries, of course. Of COURSE there were. How could there not be?
But now it’s your turn. Close your eyes. Go into a bookstore. Let it rise about you. What do you see? What do you hear? What do you smell? What do you feel? Write it down.
It might or might not be easy for you to do this, to bring back your memory of such things – these are places you’ve been, these are probably places you treasure. But you may not have paused to sift through the finer threads of those memories. Just what is it that makes it so beloved, so memorable? What sort of details spoke to you so well that you still carry with you a sense of that place?
Doing this with a place you know and love gives you the tools to do it, later, with places you may be literally making up of whole cloth. But it’s going to be a cloth with threads that are true, threads that will shine. And your memory of a real thing, applied with a very light touch, can ake an unreal place live and breathe forever in the minds of the people who are reading your words.
Essay 1st appeared on my Patreon