Monday, March 1, 2010


I'm glad I borrowed "The Yellow-Lighted Bookshop" from the library instead of buying it. I was that disappointed. I guess I should not blame the author Lewis Buzbee, for I borrowed it on the recommendation of a friend without knowing a lot about it. Still, though, I can't be blamed for thinking it was about one particular bookshop when I read the cover blurb "a memoir, a history".

It is not. There is no actual place called "The Yellow-Lighted Bookshop". It's just a place in Buzbee's imagination, an amalgam of all the comfortable and inviting bookshops he's loved, with warm, welcoming yellow light pooling through the windows.

There were some things I liked about the book and I found myself marking a lot of passages at the beginning, and then hardly any as the book became a compendium facts about the bookselling business, publishing, paper making, book making and even the world's first libraries and booksellers (the latter usually of dubious character). Don't get me wrong - if facts about books are what you're searching for, then "The Yellow-Lighted Bookshop" would be a good place to find them. 

Back to the things I liked about the book. They include Buzbee's description of the ideal time to be in a bookstore: "November, a dark, rainy Tuesday, late afternoon . . . The shortened light of the afternoon and the idleness and hush of the hour gather everything close, the shelves of the books and the few other customers who graze head-bent in the narrow aisles."

Having read this book, I feel absolved of the guilt I have felt about whiling away the hours in a bookstore, reading magazines, paging through books, even reading a few chapters. "Imagine going into a department store trying on a new jacket and walking around for half an hour, maybe coming back the following Wednesday, to try it on again, with no real intention of buying it. Go into a pizzeria and see if you might sample a slice; you're pretty hungry so you taste a bit of the pepperoni, the sausage, the artichoke and pineapple, and they're delicious but not quite what you're looking for that particular day. In other retail shops, the clerks and management are much less forgiving of those customers who would consume without paying."

In contrast, says Buzbee, the extended time spent in a bookstore is "allowable leisure". Time may be money in the rest of the world, he says, "but not in the bookstore. There's little money here, so we can all take our time."

I like the idea of browsing in a bookstore as "being alone among others". I love the name he gave to the fever that consumes me, him and so many other people. It's called book lust. "For those who are afflicted with book lust, those for whom reading is more than information or escape, the road to our passions is quite simple, paved merely by the presence of printed matter. It's a common story; fill in your own blanks: I was __ years old when I happened on a novel called _____________ and within six months I had read every other book by the writer known as ______________." (For Buzbee, those answers were 15, "The Grapes of Wrath", John Steinbeck. For me, the answers would be 15, "Rebecca", Daphne Du Maurier.)

In reading this book, I shared with Buzbee his delight in finding a new volume to take home, even in a bookshop he haunts almost daily. I enjoyed his reminiscences of the times he spent as a book seller in several independent California bookshops, and as a publisher's sales rep.

I was surprised and pleased that Buzbee is not of the opinion that chain bookstores are "evil ogres", rather, that they "have brought a greater selection of books to more people than independents could have." He also delivers the good news that the independents' share of the market has leveled to about 15% and that the remaining independents are stronger than ever. "Every bookstore," says Buzbee, "from the most opulent Parisian emporium to the anonymous strip mall in Tucson, offers its own surprises."

Considering how much reading I have been doing this winter, I was gratified to learn that "The actual physical movement of scanning the pages from left to right . . . stimulates and conditions the brain, a Stairmaster of the mind."

Toward the end of the book, Buzbee discusses some of his favorite bookstores, including "City Lights Bookstore" in San Francisco, famous for its publication of Alan Ginsburg's "Howl" and as a meeting place for the Beat poets.

Buzbee concludes that books and bookstores are not dead yet. However, as the book was written in 2006 (with an afterward added for the 2008 paperback addition), his statistics on e-books are already out of date. PS - I love this paperback edition. Obviously, Buzbee had a hand in choosing it, for it has end papers, highly prized but seldom seen in paperbacks.

"Take someone who likes to read; give her a comfy place to do so and ample time for doing it; add one good book, and then more; stand back."

~ Lewis Buzbee, "The Yellow-Lighted Bookshop".

1 comment:

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