A New York Times article, 3-26-14 “Literary City, Bookstore Desert,” describes the demise of bookstores in New York City. The cause, apparently, is huge rental costs. A very sad story.
The story, however, reminded me of my days growing up in NYC, and the many, many bookstores around town. Best of all was what I believe was called Book Row, a multi-block long section of lower Fourth Avenue—near Cooper Union—where there were many bookstores, one after the other. Twenty? Thirty? I have no idea. As a teenager, I loved to visit them, browse, and find books. When I turned sixteen, my father took me to The Strand Bookstore—it still exists, if in a different place. He then told me that for my birthday present I could buy twenty-five dollars’ worth of books—anything I wanted. “And if it goes a little over, that will be fine.” For me that was a huge sum of money.
As I recall The Strand was, in those days, a used bookstore. I wandered blissfully among what seemed like endless shelves. I found fiction, books about railroads (a fascination of mine at the time), jet planes, and who knows what else. I filled a large box with them.
What is special about bookstores? There are the new books, of course. If you love books, you—trust me—love the smell of books. There are the old books you always wanted. However, most of all, I think, there is serendipity: Finding what you do not know you are looking for. The discovery of pleasure. You really cannot do that outside of a library. And the internet just does not work that way.
It is no wonder that I recall that birthday gift as the best I ever received. Unbelievably, I still have some of those books. Serendipity, indeed, the joy of finding what you do not know you’ve been searching for. It is like love at first sight—by the volume.