The Yellow-Lighted Bookshop

In contrast to the modern caricature of the bookseller – in cardigan with cat and tea – for centuries the bookseller was regarded as a rogue, a hell-raiser, someone more than capable of making a few quick bucks off the grief-stricken, or of sowing the seeds of heresy and dissent. From the beginning of the trade, the bookseller existed independently, with little institutional or government sanction or censor, and would act as the conduit for the newest ideas and information of the day.’

YellowLightedBookshopYay for booksellers! Mavericks and subversives one and all! Reading Lewis Buzbee’s charming account of his life as a book addict, bookseller and writer, I felt he had his finger right the pulse of the beautiful double life that obsessive readers so slyly lead. It may look as if we don’t go out much, as if the fascinating people we know are figments of our imagination, as if we take our adventures sitting in an armchair, but we know that opening our minds to all sorts of information is a revolutionary thing to do. To hear the alternative story, to think the different thoughts, these are dangerous practices indeed. It’s only with the cardigan and the mild-mannered air that we can fool others enough to mask our insurrectionist activity; they are necessary props.

Well, maybe I exaggerate a tad. But the history of books and bookselling makes for fascinating reading, and it can’t help but win you over to the great cause of literature. Lewis Buzbee takes us from the first “impulse buy”: the Egyptian Book of the Dead which was considered to be ‘a travel guide to the underworld’ and thus a useful object to be enclosed in the tomb of the deceased, through the library at Alexandria, the first great collection of papyrus scrolls (apparently between 50,000 and 100,000 ‘books’ were held there, as much as your average large bookshop today would hold), to parchment, the Chinese invention of paper, and eventually the Gutenberg press. Meanwhile, the bookshop mutated from a wheeled cart or a blanket on the ground, to a stall, to an enclosed arcade, to the ‘shoebox’ shaped shop we know nowadays, with early shopwindows having little shelves attached to the leading of the panes of glass on which books could rest. At the end of the book, my edition had been updated to include extra chapters on amazon and e-books, although the digital revolution was still in its infancy when Buzbee was writing. For a shop and paper guy like Buzbee, amazon and e-books are pretty much anathema, but he struggles hard to be fair and even-handed, coming up with some advantages of the virtual form, though fighting valiantly against any notion that the world he adores should become obsolete.

For Buzbee’s book is very much about his own participation in a highly particular world with its own ideology and how it has shaped him. He is a passionate advocate for reading, having fallen in love as a teenager with Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath and then turned up every week for two years at his local bookshop until they finally hired him. The space of the bookshop is unlike any other for him: ‘Time may be money in the rest of the world but not in the bookstore. There’s little money here so we can all take our time.’ And it provides a vital space for readers to commune with one another the way they like best, ‘alone among others’: ‘It’s a lovely combination, this solitude and gathering, almost as if the bookstore were the antidote for what it sold.’ I particularly enjoyed reading about his experiences as a bookseller, how ringing up a customer’s purchases ‘represents a part of that person’s life. It’s not a mere tally of reading tastes, who likes what authors, it’s a gauge of what concerns people, what occupies them.’ He was also shaken out of his young man’s contempt for his parents’ reading choices, and told by his fellow bookseller that enjoying reading was the point. I have to say my own experience of bookselling was, alas, the opposite, as my let’s-read-it-all approach to books bumped into the delicately graded canon of superiority of which the other booksellers kept careful account. But it didn’t matter; I kept quiet, I learned a lot, and was only very occasionally caught out by someone saying ‘why on earth are you reading that?’

This is a delightful, charming, warm-hearted book, as safe and informative as the bookshops its celebrates. Wherever you perch in the food chain of book production and consumption, there’ll be something to relate to and something new to exclaim over. Lewis Buzbee is an amiable tour guide and enthusiast, the kind of bookseller you’d hope for when you have a fistful of tokens and the desire for a different kind of book, but be warned you might be left with an insatiable desire to go book browsing (and not online) when you’ve reached the end…. Recommended for book lovers of all persuasions.


24 thoughts on “The Yellow-Lighted Bookshop

  1. Oooh, it sounds lovely. I like books about books and also about bookshops so perfect for me! And I do so agree with your wonderful first paragraph…. 🙂

  2. I read this one a very long time ago now, or at least it seems like it and I must say I couldn’t muster the enthusiasm for it that you did. I love these kinds of books and really wanted to love this one but recall being only so-so about it at the end. I am, of course, very glad you liked it so much! I just wish I liked it more!

    • Do you know, when I first began it, I wasn’t sure I’d like it as much as all that because the first two chapters were like a compilation of about a hundred blog posts I’d read – you know, favourite books, how we got started reading, what it’s like to be an obsessive reader, etc. I did feel I’d read all that before. But I loved the history of bookselling. I knew nothing about it and have been a bookseller twice now, so that meant more to me. Not much mention of libraries in this!

  3. Books about books is my favourite ‘genre’, and this book is near the top of the list for me. Great book, lovely sense of nostalgia.

  4. This sounds lovely. Books are explosive things – or why would totalitarian countries burn and forbid them? So those who sell them have something of the rebel. 🙂

    • Heh, absolutely! There are great stories in the book about how some booksellers rallied around Salman Rushdie in the fatwa years, and how Shakespeare and Co disappeared overnight rather than sell a book to a German official. Rebels indeed! 😉

  5. Where or where did I first hear of this book? Perhaps looking at your “current acquisitions” or “currently reading” list? I don’t know. But I right away plunked it onto my Goodreads “Want to Read” list. I remember that I checked with my library and they didn’t have it. I absolutely loved this post and now I know for certain this is right up my alley. I have a gift card for Barnes & Noble. I was saving it for something special. I think this is it!

    • Grad, I do think you’ll enjoy this one. It has a wonderfully comforting tone, gentle and reassuring and yet informative too. I’d love to know what you think of it – do promise you’ll let me know one way or another!

  6. What a lovely piece, Victoria!
    I read this a few years ago, and I don’t think I got as much from it as you did. I think perhaps I was hoping for more about reading (and should have guessed from the title that this wouldn’t necessarily be the case!)

    • Yes, you’re quite right, he doesn’t go into reading in any depth, which you might well think he would. I found the start extremely reminiscent of about a hundred blog posts I’d read, too – how we all became book obsessives, how we love browsing in the bookshop, which books got us started, and so on, which made me wonder whether I’d get on with it well. But I did enjoy the history of bookselling and having worked now in two different shops could really relate to all that.

  7. Pingback: Sonntagsleserin Oktober 2014 | buchpost

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