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The Yellow-Lighted Bookshop: A Clean, Well-lighted Book

I waited to review “The Yellow-Lighted Bookshop” until the spring grades were in, so it didn’t look like I was brown-nosing Lewis Buzbee, who taught my spring lit class. (Not that I am above brown-nosing… every week I rearranged the classroom tables and wiped down the whiteboard; I would have stayed after to clap erasers, were that possible. I just don’t brown-nose electronically.)

Anyhoo… this is a yummy little cupcake of a book, so good to read, and so much a book for readers, writers, and librarians, it put me into an agony over whether or not to make notes as I read it. Chapter by chapter I agonized over interrupting the pleasure of experiencing words on the page so I could jot down words such as “Bibliopolis” and “book geek” and have a handy reminder of where the Buzz talks about the joy of opening fresh boxes of books. Most of the time I kept keep reading, reading, reading, while he walked me through the libraries of Alexandria, the history of papermaking, modern bookshop management, and his own unrepentant biblioholism, to name only a few of the journeys this book takes confidently in its stride.

The book doesn’t try to be unbiased, and Buzbee’s swift dismissal of libraries could raise some bibliohackles. “Lending libraries were quite popular in the United States until the end of the WWII, when postwar prosperity and a new consumer culture made us all into great buyers rather than borrowers.” Actually-factually, the modern public library arose in the second half of the twentieth century, and the last twenty years have been its boom time. Then again, he’s not the only person I know in San Francisco who prefers to buy, borrow, trade, and otherwise live a good book-filled life outside the world of “lending libraries,” and his particular experience in time and space is instructive.

To Buzbee, bookstores are seductive temptresses. He begins his book with the encounter–“When I walk into a bookstore, any bookstore, I’m flooded with a sense of hushed excitement”–and peppers his narrative with these book-porn moments many of us can connect with. He also delightfully recreates this experience through time, placing us before “one bookseller with pen, ink, paper, and a handful of attractively priced books spread on a carpet.” I want to be kneeling in front of that carpet, picking up a book, thinking about buying it.

“The Yellow-Lighted Bookshop” both celebrates and is fiercely protective of the Proustian book experience, of the way a book feels when you first touch it. After teasing us with a long, slow wander in a small bookstore, he finds The One. “The pages are thick and creamy, and thumb nicely. The end pages, unusual in a paperback, are colored, that riveting purple again. I tuck the book under my arm. Sold.”

So how does the book encounter stack up in your library? I recently walked into a small, weary library, saw a librarian arguing with a patron while children and adults jostled to get to the handful of library catalogs (nothing like wandering around a library waiting to look up a book), and the only emotion I was flooded with was a small surge of “fight or flight” adrenaline that sent me home and back to Amazon.

Buzbee’s tone in this book is confident, as if the future of bookstores was debatable –“This is where I eventually draw the line, not between chains and independents, but between bookstores and the absence of them”–but since I’m less convinced bookstores are here to stay, “The Yellow-Lighted Bookshop” feels elegaic. His evocation of books won’t pull me from behind my computer and into Kepler’s often enough to make a difference; like buying ready-to-wear clothes, I know I’m missing something important–the rustle of the paper pattern, the snick-snick of fabric under my scissors, the hum of the sewing machine–but I am too much a product of my time, and on to Amazon I go, buying my fifty-cent-plus-shipping used books. For Proust, I have a harried delivery man in brown shorts.

A bookseller, Buzbee reminds us, might remind me at point of sale that “The Crossing” comes before “Cities of the Plain,” just as a good librarian will turn a one-book transaction into three or eight. (I will never forget the librarian at one local PL who leaned forward to confide, “I’m a pimp, you see.”) Buzbee also reminds us that Amazon is just a huge information trash barge that makes browsing difficult and doesn’t love us back. But most of us will trade the slow, sensual bookstore experience, the surprise of a book on a rainy afternoon, and the taste of book dust on our tongue, for a little convenience. Fortunately, Buzbee isn’t most of us.

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