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The Yellow-Lighted Bookshop (thoughts)

June 16, 2008

Poor Richard's, where I would spend a lot more time if I hadn't promised myself not to buy more books!After yesterday’s downer of a review, I wanted to be perky again. So, here’s an uber-positive review of Lewis Buzbee’s memoir The Yellow Lighted Bookshop with a ton of juicy quotes at the bottom. :) The picture is my favourite local used bookstore: Poor Richards.

Among many things, book blogging opened my eyes to a category of books I’d never thought of before: books about books. More specifically, books about book loving! I’ve been catching up since then, though: from memoirs by librarians (Free For All), collections of book reviews (Classics for Pleasure, Bound to Please, and The Polysyllabic Spree), bookish travelogues (Sixpence House), histories (A History of Reading and A Gentle Madness), just essays about books and reading (Ruined by Reading, Ex Libris, So Many Books, So Little Time, How Reading Changed My Life), and even how-to books (How Novels Work and How to Read a Novel), I’ve developed quite a love of this subgenre. Sure, it doesn’t always work out, but when it does, it’s pure magic!

The Yellow-Lighted Bookshop is one of my favourite reads in awhile. I checked it out from my library, but now I really want my very own copy; it’s one of those books I’ll come back to again and again. It’s a small book: the hardcover edition is barely larger than a typical mass market paperback and it just passes the two-hundred page mark. However, its size belies the delight in store for you. Buzbee has worked with books for most of his life: first in bookstores and later as a sales representative. Part of the book consists of his thoughts on books, the publishing industry, how people become obsessive readers, etc. Interwoven with this are chapters on the history of books, libraries, and book publishers.

So you’ll learn about the great library of Alexandria, as well as the original American-run, Paris-located Shakespeare & Co and how it came to publish Ulysses. Towards the end of the book, Buzbee touches on contemporary book-related issues, such as banned books and how big box stores and on-line sites have affected independent bookstores; he’s never polemical, so it’s refreshing to read his discussion of the issues. And as if that’s not enough, he ends the book with recommended bookstores throughout the U.S. and world!

Throughout, the book has an informal, wondrous tone to it that fits perfectly with the material: I immediately recognised Buzbee as a fellow book lover, so it was nice to settle down to hear his thoughts! I’ve marked passages on almost every page, which you can read at the bottom, but for now I’ll just share the book’s opening sentences. They provide a good flavour of what The Yellow-Lighted Bookshop essentially is: a love letter to books and reading throughout the ages.

When I walk into a bookstore, any bookstore, first thing in the morning, I’m flooded with a sense of hushed excitement. I shouldn’t feel this way. I’ve spent most of my adult life working in bookstores, either as a bookseller or a publisher’s sales rep, and even though I no longer work in the business, as an incurable reader I find myself in a bookstore at least five times a week. Shouldn’t I be blase about it all now? In the quiet of such a morning, however, the store’s displays stacked squarely and its shelves tidy and promising, I know that this is no mere shop. When a bookstore opens its doors, the rest of the world enters, too, the day’s weather and the day’s news, the streams of customers, and of course the boxes of books and the many other worlds they contain-books of facts and truths, books newly written and those first read centuries before, books of great relevance and of absolute banality. Standing in the middle of this confluence, I can’t help but feel the possibility of the universe unfolding a little, once upon a time.

Favourite Passages (The Yellow-Lighted Bookshop)
But 90 percent of us who buy books still get out of the house and go to the bookstore, to be among the books, yes, but also to be among other book buyers, the like-minded, even if we never say a word to them.

At Upstart Crow, and in each bookstore after that, I’ve always been thrilled by the arrival of boxes of books, and on opening those books, the goods that would spill out. I’ve never tired of this, and even when I visit a bookstore today, I’m drawn to the stacks of books that clutter the aisles-hey, you need a hand with those?

There’s nothing exceptional in my reading history, and that’s why I’ve chosen to detail it. For those who are afflicted with book lust, those for whom reading is more than information or escape, the road to our passion is quite simple, paved merely by the presence of printed matter.

Steinbeck’s words, and those of the writers who followed, took me out of my San Jose self and transported me to new worlds. In the course of one week, ensconced in the big chair, I might travel to Kenya or Peru, enjoy the decadence of an English manor, or get shipped to the Gulag; I could be man or woman, child or ghost.

How many books have been sacrificed to the fires of those who insisted on the need for only the one book: The Koran, The Bible, Mein Kamf, The Communist Manifesto, Mao’s Little Red Book? Too many, that’s certain, but it’s also certain that the tide of books cannot be stopped by fire.

Customers are seduced into a bookstore because it seems to thrive; we want to see lots of books. We are much more likely to be drawn to a messy bookstore than a neat one because the mess signifies vitality. We are not drawn to a bookstore because of tasteful, Finnish shelves in gunmetal gray mesh, each one displaying three carefully chose, color-coordinated covers. Clutter-orderly clutter, if possible-is what we expect. Like a city. It’s not quite a city unless there’s more than enough.

During the nineteenth century, 90 percent of all books sold in the United States were purchased from traveling book agents. For thousands of years, around the world, this was how most readers outside the city walls obtained their books, by taking notice of the bright rags and flags of a stranger coming down the road.

But the greatest pleasure I found as a sales rep came through decidedly noncommercial and one-on-one transactions. Sales reps get to give away books.

It’s estimated that before the printing press, there were only 50,000 books in all of Europe; fifty years after Gutenberg’s first Bible, there were more than 20 million.

From the fifteenth to the eighteenth centuries, books were stored horizontally on their shelves, rather than vertically, and the spines would have faced the backs fo the shelves rather than the customer. Most books would lack covers (title pages, however, were no included), be completely unbound, and stacked in loose quires (signatures of twenty-four pages). After choosing a book, the customer would then select the color and cost of binding that would most suit the volume and his library decor. Or one could choose to read the book as is, without covers, an early prototype of the paperback. After the eighteenth century, books were sold in their bindings, and shelved vertically and spine out, as they are today.

A timely addition to the evolution of the English coffeehouse was the introduction of tobacco from the Americas. The two new drugs formed a perfect recipe for the “sociable procrastination” of the coffeehouse, where one could now sit for hours, alternately buzzed up and mellowed out, talking with others under the same influences.

Books in Print currently lists nearly 4 million active titles and 1.5 million out-of-print titles. Since 1980, over 2 million new books have been created, compared to the 1.3 million titles published in the preceding 100 years. …If you read one book a week, starting at the age of 5, and live to be 80, you will have read a grand total of 3,900 books, a little over one-tenth of one percent of the books currently in print. It may be premature for social critics to claim the death of the age of literacy; we’re swimming in books.

Books do make perfect gifts, but by their very nature, books can also be a problem as tokens of affection. The delay factor is huge. …You can thank the gift giver for the gesture, but true thanks for the book have to wait until it’s been read. It’s always dicey choosing that gift book, too. You may have loved it, but your close friend, unbeknownst to you, doesn’t find books about talking Minotaurs that exciting. This is something akin to giving a sweater that’s the wrong size, except that there are 3.7 million sizes to choose from. A book gift can be a difficult transaction for both parties; the recipient doesn’t immediately know what to say, the giver may have to wait months or years for the final thank you. Awkward silences ensue. Don’t let any of this stop you, though.

23 Comments leave one →
  1. June 16, 2008 8:08 am

    Oh that first passage … 90 percent of us who buy books… Is so true! I have hundreds of unread books but I still want to go to the bookstore and library all the time. One of these days I have to read this book!

  2. June 16, 2008 8:20 am

    Wow, Eva. I’ve GOT to have this one! It seems like I’ve heard mixed reviews about this book in general, but based on your thoughts and the passages you included here, I can’t see how I could ever dislike it! Thanks!

  3. J.S. Peyton permalink
    June 16, 2008 10:52 am

    I’d buy this one just for the list of recommended bookstores at the end. Then again, do I really need to know where more bookstore are?…

    No, but I want to anyway. = )

  4. June 16, 2008 11:18 am

    Oh, just reading this review made me so excited! Sometimes I just want to TOUCH a book, hold it in my hand, run my fingers along a row of spines. This is dumb and cliche, but can any non-book-lover ever really understand?

  5. June 16, 2008 12:07 pm

    This really sounds like a book I (a book lover) would love!

  6. June 16, 2008 2:18 pm

    That sounds like such fun, I will have to see if my library has it! I have to say that I prefer libraries to bookstores (unless it’s an old, musty, snoopy, falling-down used bookstore… I like those the best). But anywhere there are books, I like.

  7. June 16, 2008 2:24 pm

    I’ve got Yellow Lighted Bookshop on my night-stand for a long time but never got to it. Now I’m saving it for the 24-Hour read-a-thon, knowing that I’ll enjoy reading it.

  8. June 16, 2008 5:34 pm

    “a love letter to books and reading throughout the ages.” sounds wonderful!

  9. June 16, 2008 7:10 pm

    This sounds really interesting and I need a Y title for the A-Z challenge – thanks!!

  10. June 16, 2008 8:40 pm

    Iliana, isn’t it?

    Andi, really? Mixed reviews? I’m trying to think of anything that would bother anyone, but it’s not working, lol.

    J.S., I know: I wrote down ones in areas I’ll be around soon, so I can go visit them. :D

    Raych, totally with you! And Buzbee is too. :)

    Jeane, I bet you would!

    Daphne, I like libraries and used bookstores equally…in libraries, it’s nice because I don’t have to spend money, but then in used bookstores I get that little tingle of ownership. :D

    Matt, awesome: I think it’d be a greta read-a-thon chocie!

    Rebecca, I hope you get to check it out. :)

    Suzi Q, no problem. And it was my first Y title too!

  11. June 16, 2008 11:33 pm

    I suppose it’s too much to hope that this would be available at bookmooch, but here I go anyway. Great review and I was bowled over by the picture!

  12. June 17, 2008 5:33 am

    Interesting! I’ve heard mixed things about this book, but it definitely sounds worth a try. I’ve fallen in love with the genre of books about books too, largely thanks to blogs.

  13. June 17, 2008 10:35 am

    Bybee, good luck! Isn’t it a great picture? Come to Colorado Springs, and I’ll take you there. :D

    Dorothy, yeah-I didn’t even realise the genre existed before blogs! I think back to how sheltered a reader I used to be and have to laugh. ;)

  14. June 17, 2008 3:17 pm

    You know, I don’t think I’ve ever actually read a book about books. This one certainly sounds like a good one to dive in with…frankly, it sounds positively delightful!

  15. verbivore permalink
    June 17, 2008 11:45 pm

    Well this is the first I’ve heard of this book and thanks for all the quotes – I think I will have to take a look at this. I also love books about someone else’s biblophilia.

  16. June 18, 2008 6:02 am

    I love books about books too. I was mixed about Buzbee’s book though. He and I didn’t click as well as I had hoped we would. But it was still a fun read. I love the photo of your fav used bookshop!

  17. June 18, 2008 6:20 pm

    I have flagged this one as interesting sounding a couple of times – your review is pushing it towards the top of my list now!

  18. June 18, 2008 6:21 pm

    ps. a couple more great books about books – 500 Great Books by Women, and another that I own but haven’t read yet, The King’s English which looks teriffic.

  19. June 20, 2008 9:07 am

    Debi, it is a delightful experience!

    Verbivore, glad you enjoyed the quotes. :) I always end up typing so many quotes, my post word count is almost always over a thousand, lol. It’s mainly for me, but I’m glad other bloggers enjoy it too!

    Stefanie, that’s interesting! I understand not clicking though. :)

    Tara, thanks for the suggestions! ANd I hope you get to read this one soon. :)

  20. June 22, 2008 8:09 pm

    I have to get this book! I haven’t read it yet, and it keeps coming up on blogs and getting rave reviews. I like the quote about the hush in the day before the store opens, because I’ve worked in both second hand and new books, and frankly, I love selling books, but there was always that moment before the doors opened when anything could happen for the rest of the day. you never knew what people would come in and what books they would want, and what books would arrive. I think I could quite happily spend my life in a bookstore and never want for anything! Well, my working life anyway, I’m not sure my family want to live in one, though right now we seem to be getting surrounded by books anyway! lol Great review, Eva!

  21. June 24, 2008 11:31 am

    Susan, that’s so neat that you’ve worked in bookstores. :) And your family could live above one!

  22. June 26, 2008 10:02 pm

    I just finished this and am reviewing it tonight! It was a great read and even more fun since I’m familiar with some of the bookshops he mentions (since I live in the San Francisco Bay Area)


  1. Books on Books, Gearing for Read-A-Thon « A Guy’s Moleskine Notebook

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