Where would you live, if you could live anywhere?
The options are numerous: beachfront living beside the sea, cabin in the mountains, ore a condo in the heart of a thriving metropolis with theatres and nightlife.
If I had my choice, however, it would be any of those as long as a well-rounded bookshop was available nearby. I love bookstores. I love the excitement of the hunt when I have no particular book in mind, and I wander the aisles looking at the huge variety available to me. Do I want a rollicking good story to take me on adventures in far-away places of universes? Or would I prefer a good non-fiction to explain history, science, politics or humans to me? Or perhaps a self-help book to aid me as I overcome my addiction to books. I can find them all in a bookstore.
Come to think of it, my favourite town in the world has to be Hay-on-Wye, a little Welsh village close to the border with England. Hay is known as the town of bookshops. Everywhere you go throughout the village you run into bookstores. They range from high-priced antiquarian shops where you can see and (if you have enough money) buy fabulous old books, ancient but loaded with both meaning and purpose. The smell of old leather and pages permeates your senses as you lovingly stand there. Across the way and stretching down the roads in all directions are more bookstores with reasonably priced new and used books. The interesting thing is that there is nary a gift idea display in sight. Nothing but books. Shelves and shelves of books. Wonderful! Even the town castle is a bookstore that demands hours of exploring. Even the castle walls house more shelves of books, this time available to buy on the honour system.
Here at home we have no town that compares. But there are still excellent bookstores available to browse and explore. Sure, the massive book/gift stores are around. But look carefully around your community and region and you will no doubt find an independent bookstore owned by a well read individual who knows his or her stock intimately and who loves to talk about books and reading.
My wife knows that our various shopping expeditions, whether at a mall or in a small town, usually means she’s off on her own looking around while I aim directly for the closest bookstore.
I get that many today are enamoured with books on tablets. Sure it may be convenient. And yes, you can “pack” hundreds of books for a trip in one tablet while I, restricted by the airlines, struggle to carry five or six with me. But my books don’t have batteries that fail. I don’t need to recharge my book every few hours. Plus I have the enjoyment of finding new books, holding them, and then taking them with me. I don’t have to download them anywhere and get that horrible “error 401” message. Nope, I can walk into a bookstore and spend a happy hour or three finding new treasures to read and then walk out with them in my hand.
But the biggest joy of a bookstore is simply being around other book lovers. I have a wonderful local independent bookstore, The Reading Room, in Penetanguishine. What fun to talk books with the owner, Debbie Levy. Or when I am in Toronto, to haunt the shelves of The Sleuth on Baker Street and get the latest info on mysteries and suspense from the knowledgeable staff. And there are other browsers, young and old, to talk to and exchange verbal reviews and recommendations.
I despise the Walmarts and supermarkets for whom books are just another product, right up there with lettuce, tomatoes and soup. No heart. No feeling. No appreciation.
I tip my hat to companies like Chapters and Indigo in Canada, Barnes and Noble in the US and Waterstones and W.H. Smith in the UK. The big chains offer the masses exposure to the latest best sellers. They are, hopefully, developing new readers even if great chunks of their floor space is given over to cutesy pillows, bric a brac and other non-book paraphernalia. At least they care about books.
But I take my hat off to the small, independent and sometimes boutique bookstores around the world. I found one in Llantwit Major in South Wales. I found another in Winchester, England and in Hampstead in London, along with many others. I have found them in Alexandria and Williamsburg, Virginia, the sun coast of Florida and the Jersey shore among others. independents are a shrinking breed, but they are hardy. They will survive. They are hidden treasure houses waiting to be discovered, hiding in your backyard.
So I share this paean of praise to bookstores. Seek them out. Spend time in them. Go in with no set agendas and no specific book purchases in mind. Just find them and enjoy. You won’t regret it.