In The Stacks

There was a bookstore near my apartment in Chicago that had stacks from floor to ceiling of books that were older then I was. I’m not sure if there was really a system of organization—some hand lettered cardboard signs haphazardly balanced on edges that jutted out in to the tiny aisles. You had to squeeze around corners, and duck under arches and step over stacks. It wasn’t a shopping experience as much as a rugged scavenger hunt.

There was only one employee, as far as I could tell. I never knew his name, and he refused to tell me. He went by Sir and that was fine if not a little strange. He knew where every book in his shop was—he was the owner, not just the man working the register—and he would wave you in the proper direction with an eye-roll and a sigh and a few encouraging words.

There’s a quote from Good Omens, one of my very favorite books, about an angel- Aziraphale- who owns a used book store. “Aziraphale collected books. If he were totally honest with himself he would have to have admitted that his bookshop was simply somewhere to store them. He was not unusual in this. In order to maintain his cover as a typical second-hand book seller, he used every means short of actual physical violence to prevent customers from making a purchase. Unpleasant damp smells, glowering looks, erratic opening hours - he was incredibly good at it.”  I thought about that quote and that description a lot when I weaved my way through the shop, searching for new things to read.

This wasn’t a store you would go to with a specific book in mind. You’d come with a vague idea—a memoir maybe, or something about Latin American history, and you’d wander until you found what you wanted. And you always found what you wanted. Or, if you didn’t, you found something even better. Because that’s what used bookstores are—treasure troves or strange discoveries, new things to learn and novels to read. Strange places with strange people and weird pricing that doesn’t exactly make sense, or seem to have any basis in actual monetary value. It’s confusing. It’s delightful.

The owner of that store was mean. His politics were bad and his attitude was worse, and he would glare at me as I walked in and judge my purchases when he rung me up. It didn’t matter though. I would pass by his cash register perch-- elevated just a touch, so it seemed like he was always looking down at you and on you-- and lose myself in the walls and walls of books waiting to be discovered.
I didn’t live in Chicago very long, and I wasn’t very happy while I was there. But I loved that little shop. It was a good place for me, and I think about it often. I don’t know if it’s still open—small, independent bookstores aren’t exactly the most profitable of all businesses—but I hope it is. I hope it’s there for someone else, the way it was there for me when I was 18 and scared and living in a city I didn’t know, surrounded entirely by strangers.

Books are comforting. Even when they challenge you, books are safe. They’re there when you need them, and they wait for you to come back, and there’s comfort in the way they never really change. The pages might yellow a little, on your favorite paperback. If you drop it the tub the ink will run and the pages will stick together. But you know it’s the same book you curled up with on long and late nights, and that can’t be changed by age or water or stains from dirty fingers.

I’ll find a new bookshop one day. One in New York or one in Maryland, or one somewhere else I end up, somewhere I haven’t discovered yet. It’s shelves will feel like home, and it will let me discover some new, well loved, well-worn pages. Because books are everywhere, and so are the people who care about them. In the little stores and the giant chains, and the libraries right down the block. That’s comforting. That feels good. 

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