Overheard on my volunteer shift in the bookstore the other day: one member of a couple declaring very seriously to the other, as the duo browsed the $5 bestseller table, “I’m just opposed to time travel in general, you know?” I was unable to crane my head around the computer without it becoming obvious I was eavesdropping, so I didn’t hear the rest of the conversation– but it did go on, giving the impression that there was much of urgency to discuss, in the way of real-world possibilities (and their attendant merits, ethical dilemmas, and so forth) of leapfrogging from one era to another.
Sure, this topic has provided grist for literature and film both great and inane; I’ll admit to finding the first Bill and Ted movie, well, excellent, maybe because it could really qualify for membership in both of those categories at the same time. And why not discuss time travel seriously; not too long ago, space tourism was inconceivable, and now we’ve got bazillionaires chomping at the bit to spend a few hours in oxygen- and gravity-free zones, rather than throw down some of that cash on, say, the alleviation of global poverty or at least something that won’t pollute the atmosphere with a sloshing tank of rocket fuel and other detritus.
But I digress. Maybe confronting supposedly impossible scenarios, such as time travel, could act as a training ground for development in mature civil discourse. After all, getting shouted down and insulted by your opponent regarding the ethics of popping into your parents’ teenage years is far less likely than being (emotionally, at least) mauled by an ideologue at a town hall meeting. I’m certainly not going to base a curriculum in civics on the possibility, but maybe because there’s less at stake in digging into far-fetched hypotheticals, people are more willing to entertain each other’s conflicting views and arguments– and if they realize they can get along even in a heated debate about worm holes or the risk of retro- (or would it be pro-, here?) actively annulling your own existence, they could take it to a real-world level and be willing to work together to confront anything from potholes to prison reform.
That rosy little pipe dream is probably akin to the faith I want to have in kids– and adults– who really took Harry Potter, especially volume 5, to heart. If those readers can remember that particular volume’s beautiful elucidation of how ideology works– and the entire series’ wrangling with the noblest way to confront very difficult, very terrifying situations, and apply it to their own world, I’m willing to refrain from throwing in the towel just yet. And if an examination of magical worlds can do that for us, well, so, too, can a variety of other apparently frivolous conversations. Carry on, then, with your bookstore conversation, sci-fi couple. Carry on.
Obviously, I’m a supporter of that obsolescent form of showroom known as a bookstore. Wherever I go, I make it a point to head into a city’s purveyor of texts, even if it’s a box store, to do my part to keep that genre of business alive. But sometimes, these merchants really do their best to shoot themselves in their own foot.
The other day, friends and I were hanging out on the top floor of one of the city’s go-to indie bookstores, one I’ll roam around just to hear the creak of old floorboards and inhale my requisite amount of dust for the week. And even though they’re ridiculously overpriced, I’ll still make a purchase with them every now and then, because they’re one of the few places I can find the obscure Norwegians and forgotten modernists and minor Soviet dissidents I love. But here’s the thing: being so hung up on their own excellence, inevitably, something like the following, which occurred at our last visit, happens: a seventy-year-old overall-clad Jessie Duke lookalike, noticing one of your trio is snapping a picture of the other two, makes a special trip over to your corner to huff that pictures aren’t allowed in the store. It wasn’t the policy itself that was offensive, but the hipster-sneer manner in which it was hurled, complete with a disdainful look down the nose at us squares, who might as well have been a bunch of tweens snapping selfies and harassing the surrounding area with flashes and squeals. Additionally, I’m uncertain why said policy exists, especially when no one was taking pictures of the merchandise (which is all used, and so hardly in danger of having its innovative newness spoiled by premature exposure to the public), and when the layout and contents of the store hardly constitute a trade secret.
Sure, there are places where a grouchy owner/curator is part of the charm– and in fact, there’s a bookstore across town I love, partly because the dude who sits there all day snarls at mobile phone addicts and who, I suspect, ups the price if he senses you’re not serious about the written word. Yes, I really would be happy if the guy let some sun and a bit of philanthropy into his life– but his across-the-board misanthropy is somehow different and more bearable than the brand of snottiness that resulted in one of our group’s putting back the stack she was going to purchase at the store the other night. I can only attempt to describe it as that sort of interaction in which you seem to have been placed right back in junior high, in the middle of a bunch of mean girls who’ve caught you on the worst hair day of your life, and just when you decided to wear the pair of knock-off shoes that are only a sad approximation of a brand you couldn’t afford. In the shrinking book business, there may be room, and the need, for very discerning decisions in terms of the content you carry– but chasing off anyone who was ready to lift her fist in solidarity against the onslaught of e-pulp? Bad move, old cool kid. Seriously bad move.
You know the world’s not quite done with you yet (or perhaps vice versa) when you find yourself still in disheveled office-girl garb, trying not to give drivers anything legitimate to honk at, as your beskirted self crouches on an urban sidewalk with a pail of chalk, scribbling out pleas and inducements to check out the sale at the bookstore you’re volunteering at. Is it strange for an exec-by-day to admit to the relaxing nature of clouding over hands and knees with multicolored dust as workers hustle past, occasionally stopping to wonder what sort of street art is being laid down before rushing off in disappointed recognition of an ad? Maybe. Within the space of a couple of hours, I colored on corners, shelved a lot of books, wrapped a dude’s purchase in metallic paper, and bought a little volume for myself.
And yup, I’m fully aware that the preceding anecdote has very little reason to be posted in this space– but I’d feel remiss if I didn’t somehow express my gratitude for 1) the fact that I can volunteer at a bookstore,* and 2) the weekly opportunity it provides me of getting out of my habitual state of navel-gazing. So, really, let’s just make a simplistic regression back to the source of joy and give three cheers for reading, and for the books that make so much of it possible.
* An independent one! Whose profits go to literacy and writing programs for public school kids! Who hosts author readings and signings and book clubs!
I’ve become quite the flâneuse in this city of mine. This afternoon, though, feeling the burning need to either get out of the apartment or start ripping things to shreds in isolated frustration, I ventured further west than I’d gone before, crossing bridges over rail yards, a river, and a highway to find myself right in the welcoming embrace of a fantastic bookstore I had no idea existed. And behold, reader: there on a bottom shelf was a volume by René Crevel, one of the many authors who’ve held a place on a long list of luminaries to check out ever since I devoured Cortázar’s Hopscotch (that brilliant invention, which, upon finishing, I flipped to page one and dove right back into all over again) about seven years ago.
As I explained, starry-eyed, to the cashier, I could have secured this thing ages hence by simply hopping onto Amazon and taking the easy path to gratification. But that’s the beauty of bookstore adventuring: not only coming across new authors and unexpected discoveries*, but also getting hit with that out-of-the-blue dose of joy at being confronted with something you’ve been looking for for years. That latter phenomenon has me suspecting that a book will often find you when the time is right– and the time was never more appropriate than it was today, when I was in desperate need of feeling that my life had some connection with, owned part of the same reality as, that displayed in Cortázar’s masterpiece. I know, I know: I’m never going to find the same atmosphere in an apple-cheeked American city that I would among one-time Argentine expats and their era-specific Left-Bank memories– but I did uncover a place that can put me in touch with what they read, the words that motivated, impressed, depressed, and/or inspired them.
Plus, I had a conversation with another human being, who, in addition to saving my sanity by agreeing to engage in some pleasantries over a financial transaction, now knows to watch out for me when I amble in, trying to balance the interests of my brain-heart-soul with that of my pocketbook.
Just two more days of this holiday seclusion to go. The bros across the hall and their periodic bellowing at something or other will surely keep me awake- and with that, I’ll try to wrap myself in my fantastic purchases** and kill a solid chunk of the next 48-plus hours.
* One of the best? A collection of Nietzsche’s aphorisms in German, in old script, found in November of 2005 in a little bookstore in Philadelphia– for $3.50. Every time I catch sight of it on my bookshelf, I feel lucky, and also remember events surrounding that bit of victory, among others:
a) Feeling sorry for the Liberty Bell, out there all alone and small, hoping to be seen as more than just its well-displayed fissure;
b) Getting catcalled by construction workers eating (no kidding) their philly cheese steak sandwiches, using the line, “Hey, doll!” Doll? It was so 1940s, I couldn’t really get offended.
** It’s a scene not remotely as salacious as Madonna’s “Material Girl” video, but more like something the Ur-Grandmother would embroider for placement over the fireplace: the picture of a reader bundled up in a quilt, if only the usual folksily entertaining caption could be made to fit the surrealist content of the featured book.