On Bookstore Compulsions

Books, Writers

I went to my favorite bookstore the other afternoon, a visit that I make at least once a week, usually when I’m bored, perhaps when I’ve had a bad day, or, often, when I can invent some reason to go, usually under the delusion that I “need” another book. I made this particular trip to replace Harold Brodkey’s First Love and Other Sorrows, which I’d given to a friend who was visiting from out of town. Not only did I feel compelled to replace this book, I also felt a strong desire to replace the exact edition, part of the Vintage Contemporaries mid-80s line, all featuring horrendous (and far-too literal) covers. And this is of course the first compulsion—the compulsion simply to go to the bookstore. Once in the bookstore I regularly experience a variety of other compulsions, which I’ll describe below.

But first, a little about this particular bookstore, which I will not name here because I am slightly ashamed of these compulsions, which are admittedly a little creepy. The store has two locations, one of which is a downtown café with a hip menu and the occasional art show. I rarely go to that one. The location I go to is a massive labyrinth, a twisty maze constructed out of books, sprawling out over a few connected buildings. To enter is to be immersed in that old book smell, that smell that makes me dizzy, that loads me with a strange anxiety. The staff seems to be in a constant state of reorganizing the flood of books that pours in each day. There are, quite literally, hundreds of thousands of books, from floor to ceiling. They take review copies off my hands for credit, so I haven’t had to pay cash for a book in years, which is, you know, nice. I also live 1.1 miles away. So, again, you can understand the repeated visits.

Anyway. Once compelled to the bookstore, I experience additional compulsions, such as

  • Offering unsolicited help to confused-looking customers: Most of the time these are high school or college students, searching for assigned reading, usually in the wrong section (Contemporary Authors when they should be in Classics). Not only do I feel compelled to point them to the opposite side of the store, I’ve even gone so far as to walk them over there, and then suggest particular editions of the book. I try to avoid a route that would put me in the direct scope of the legitimate employees as I perform this unwanted service.
  • Suggesting books to strangers: This compulsion is linked to another urge, the compulsion to look at what people are buying. If I see someone picking up a Philip K. Dick novel, I nosily ask about China Miéville, because I know that there’s a copy of Perdido Street Station that still hasn’t found a home. If some poor kid is in the Faulkner section to find As I Lay Dying for school, I become the creepy weirdo who suggests that she also read Go Down, Moses. On the “B” aisle once, my awareness of a used copy of 2666 became so distressing (why hadn’t someone already picked it up!) that I waited until someone else strolled down the aisle and tried to casually mention how awesome the book was, and that that person could not do wrong to buy it. Weird look ensues.
  • Desiring books I already own: The copy of 2666 (which disappeared by the next week, thankfully) highlights another strange compulsion. If I find a copy of, say, Tree of Smoke, I feel compelled to pick it up and give it to someone. I have to remind myself that giving someone a 700 page book that got incredibly mixed reviews is not really a gift; it’s a dare or burden.
  • Tracking books: So, yeah, I keep track of books. Why hasn’t anyone picked up Vollmann’s The Ice-Shirt in six months? Why is there still a used copy of Suttree? This is shamefully obsessive, but not as shamefully obsessive as—
  • Hiding books: I don’t even know how to begin to start to try to explain this. Let’s move on.
  • Buying books I’m pretty sure I’ll never read: I’m pretty sure that I’ll never get through all or even most of Roland McHugh’s Annotations to Finnegans Wake, but I had to buy the first edition. When will I have time to get through Malcolm Lowry’s Hear Us O Lord from Heaven Thy Dwelling Place? Why do I feel the need to pick up British Penguin editions of Aldous Huxley books that I already own (and have not read all of yet)?
  • Scouring for book marks: I don’t know why, but I like to find what people have used to mark their places in their books. I have, to my great shame, transferred, on occasion, a bookmark from a book that I’m not going to buy to one I am taking. This isn’t exactly theft, but it feels like a strange violation of sorts.

There are more compulsions of course, but this isn’t meant to be a case study of my illness, so I’ll spare you further details. So, did I get the Brodkey? No. They had about a dozen copies, but not that first Vintage Contemporaries edition with the ugly cover with sandcastles and butterflies that I wanted. So I picked up his later collection Stories in an Almost Classical Mode. I also picked up another book that I used to own but had given to a friend, James Weldon Johnson’s memoir Along This Way, and The Stories of Breece D’J Pancake by, uh, Breece D’J Pancake. Of course I won’t have time to read these before next week’s trip.

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24 thoughts on “On Bookstore Compulsions

  1. I know all about hiding. If I don’t have the time, money, or armspace to bring the books home right then, I often construct secreted piles of highly desired tomes all over the bookstore. One day, I say, one day, I’ll go back and buy them.

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  2. Maybe this will make you feel less odd and maybe lecherous (do you feel lecherous doing all this, because I do): Not only do I do all of these things also, including the once a week visit, the small, small city (town, it’s a town, I don’t care what the mayor and the rest of the state says) has only one bookstore not a Borders/Barnes, and it only has five employees, total, one of whom works most of the hours, so he knows me by name and knows I do all these things.

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    1. @Doug — Thanks for sharing where I was less daring.
      @ PT — “Lecherous” is a bit extreme, but I definitely feel creepy, a feeling compounded by the occasional urge to tell the person I’m “helping” that I’m not really creepy (sometimes I tell them that I’m an English teacher, which does nothing to help). I have a similar dysfunction where, if I see teenagers studying in a coffeeshop or somewhere, I will not hesitate to ask them what they are studying; if it’s history or English I feel compelled to offer totally unasked for guidance. If my wife is with me she is mortified, and points out that this is “creep” behavior, which I know it is, but still. Can’t help it.

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      1. At least you can try to help the situation when you tell them that you’re an English teacher; I don’t even have that. I make up for it by, when people assume I am a student and try to figure out what class I am reading something for, giving them a brief scornful look before being excited to talk about the book, so long as they don’t act impressed that I’m reading even after I graduated.

        How often are people open to discussing the guidance you are offering? I love it when someone starts a conversation with me due to what I’m reading or I with them, but I’ve for sure had people really brush me away, and not just in the “I’d rather be reading than talking to a human” way that I also do.

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        1. People are generally not open to my unsolicited “guidance”; the general look is skepticism + “what do you want from me?” + that general anxiety that occurs when a stranger talks to you that maybe you are being scammed. I can always identify the look because I’m sure I dole it out all the time myself.

          Every now and then though, someone will talk to me—usually this person is a true bibliophile, though, and almost always is like, “Yeah, I know about that author, but do *you* know about so-and-so?”

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  3. Stop hiding the books. Isn’t it hard enough to be an Indie used book store without having your inventory hidden from you? Nothing worse than not being able to locate THE specific copy of a book an eager reader is looking for when you KNOW you have it.

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  4. Then again, my preference is for shops where you can’t find anything regardless. Yes Books in Portland, ME is an absolute favorite.

    http://tinyurl.com/3se67sg

    This is joy & I wonder how much they’d notice or care if you were hiding books. They do not have an online inventory. The store I worked at did and had it’s entire entire inventory accessible to customers in a real-time database, which made it very important to be able to find specific copies.

    At home I don’t organize my books at all. Well, cookbooks are generally closer to the kitchen and the books I feel closest too are on shelves in my bedroom. Books I’d like to talk about are on the living room shelves and books that suit the purpose are stacked beneath lamps to bring them to reading level. As a result, it sometimes takes me weeks to find a certain book & I am forced to browse all the others. I rather enjoy this.

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  5. I identify with 2/3rds of your version of the bibliholism. Mine starts with having a wish list on Amazon: as soon as a book shows up as in stock I start calling the four local indie bookstores; three of the four recognize me by voice now. For one of them, I’ve wheedled my way into back-room, advance copy stack ‘priveleges.’ But the book I absolutely have to have? After the hunt, the book can’t possibly live up to my expectatons, so I’ll put it on the stack–and instead start reading the last one I obsessed about, for which the ardor has cooled some. In another town I lived in two jobs ago, they let me open the newly received boxes that were sitting on the floor of the store…if I wanted something, they would log it into the computer as received. I knew what time UPS delivered there.

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  6. and they carry non-existent books. I love those Vintage Contemporaries covers, whenever I see one I always think of cocaine. Or Renata Adler.

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  7. I have a compulsion when I read blog entries about books… you mentioned China Miéville, and I’d seen his name mentioned a few times in the past week, so I assume it is serendipity and I feel the compulsion to purchase something of his, which I did, immediately, for my Kindle. Yes, I kno the Kindle keeps me out of delightful bookstores, but it also allows me to purchase far more books than I will ever read, in a far more convenient manner.

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  8. Yeah, please do stop hiding the books. More and more, bookstores have inventories that are actually available to customers online, so you can check whether they have a book before you go. If they “have it,” but you go and it turns out they don’t have it, it just makes you frustrated and makes it seem like the bookstore doesn’t know what it’s doing. Give up the hiding. (I know you said you would. I’m just encouraging you.)

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  9. Pingback: librarianaut
  10. Funny, I relate entirely, 100%, both about book compulsions and also, more primarily for me, record buying. I’ve actually had to stop buying and and I’m now attending Debtors Anonymous meetings (not very anonymous of me to say so…) I found that I was destroying the value and meaning of my deepest passionate interests. It comes down to time; at some point, staring down a wall of cultural data that would take more time to consume than the length of the lives of all of the people in my (small) apartment building becomes more depressing than daunting. Good news is that I’m listening (and reading) a lot more now that I’m not buying. And using the library, as well, for both mediums. Much luck to you. I’ll recommend a book: Collections of Nothing by William Davis King

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    1. Thanks for the comment.

      I used to be way in to records, years ago—I just had to have that rare Wedding Present 7″ or bootleg Bowie tapes or whatever. It was pretty obsessive, and, like you mention, it wasn’t ultimately about listening to the stuff. The internet kinda destroyed record hunting for me, and acquiring a wife and then children took care of the rest.

      Thanks for the book rec, and good luck with your meetings.

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  11. When I find a photograph used as a bookmark, I buy the book. I’ll sit and imagine why the photograph was important to the old owner for hours.

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  12. = Hide-and-Seek Ain’t for the Meek! ==

    Many years ago, at a used-books store in Arlington, Va., I found a book that exceeded my go-for-it price by a few dollars. (It was an illustrated medical tome, circa 1950, surveying the practice of lobotomy.)

    So, in my OCD-driven determination, I hid the thing behind other books on the same shelf, fulling intending to return soon with the right amount of discretionary spending. When I did return, a couple of weeks later, I couldn’t find the book. To this very day, I still have guilt about this experience — not so much because I’d chosen to hide the damned thaaaaang as because I’d failed to hide it well enough.

    Someday, I suppose, I’m gonna have to face a major case of bibliokarma over this mind-set. On the other hand, maybe my recent commission of what I call “reverse shoplifting” (placing a copy, face out, of my 2010 book “Conjoined: The Story of Rex and Roxanne — The World’s First Androgynous Siamese Twins” upon the local Barnes & Noble’s fiction shelf) will somehow offset the dreaded karmic retribution. — Larry W. Bryant (21 May 11)

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  13. I’ve found the solution to my compulsion to buy a new book to add to my gargantuan pile is to make a note of it. That way when I’m feeling low and slightly more affluent than usual, I can browse my list and go looking for one or two. This also helps as i work in a bookstore and otherwise my pay cheque would go straight back into the tills each month.
    Oh, and coming from someone who works in a bookstore (it’s a chain with an inventory and everything,) I’d say hide EVERYTHING. The fun’s in the looking. I don’t really care if i can’t always find it. Browsing is better anyway. That probably doesn’t go for every bookshop though so don’t take it as a rule….

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  14. == To Have and to Hold ==

    All this good-cheer discussion prompts me to wonder how many times (if any) couples have chosen to marry inside a used-books store. (Quirky matrimonial ceremonies have occurred — and continue to do so — in such places as the main cavern at Luray, Va.)

    If indeed any of your readers/contributors have experienced this event (or even just witnessed it), would they please summarize it for us here — so that we vicariously may savor its sweetness and light? And: if it’s never occurred, do you share my wonder at WHY NOT?

    On a personal note: If I HAD to get married again in this lifetime, I’d certainly welcome its taking place amidst the ambiance of a (big) used-books store, especially if the bride happens to own the store. — Larry W. Bryant (25 May 11)

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  15. Update: Went to the bookstore this past Friday. Filled with high school kids, out for the summer, and their parents, looking for books from the summer reading list. Like a dream situation for me. Spent over half an hour helping 3 sets of parents and kids; kids more creeped out than parents (I had my one year old with me; I also pulled my “I’m an English professor” card out at one point).

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