The other day, on the way back from a long, one-day round trip into the neighboring country, I finally stopped in at an indie bookstore I've been hearing great things about for years, Village Books in Bellingham. But before I could get there, another shop got in my way, Eclipse Books, an inviting used store a couple of blocks away that had an open parking spot in front. It was, among other things, the brightest used book store I've ever been in, with huge windows in front and back flanking its shelves. The shelves themselves were packed tight but neatly so, with hardcovers wrapped in plastic jackets. There were piles of books everywhere on the floor, but even they somehow seemed tidy. There were no cats to be found.
As it happens, someone posted a short video of the shop just a few days ago. It's hardly more than a pan across the aisles (and I think I'm still the only person to view it so far), but it captures a bit of the feeling (although it was Michael Franti on the stereo when I was there).
The fiction section, where I camped out, was excellent. Not encyclopedic--in fact, they had almost none of the books on my short mental shopping list (including Coetzee's Disgrace, Spark's Memento Mori, and anything by Sybille Bedford). But perhaps even better than having what I was looking for, they had intriguing books and authors I'd never heard of, seemingly on every shelf. I'm not even sure what elements on a unknown spine call out to me: something about the vintage of the edition, or a well-designed cover, or seeing a few books in a row by a writer I only have a faint awareness of. But again and again I'd pull a book off a shelf and feel like a lost literary world was opening up--and not a disposable one that the judgments of time had wisely freed us of, but one that likely contained forgotten knowledge still worth knowing.
I can't remember most of the names and titles (I didn't realize I'd be posting about it until later), but I do remember a couple of autobiographical volumes by Granville Hicks, a name I vaguely remembered from histories of the 30s Left, including Small Town, a memoir of looking for community in an upstate village rather than in the Communist Party, which he had left by then. I also looked for David Stacton, a midcentury historical novelist I hadn't heard of until the recent NYRB Classics reissue of his novel about John Wilkes Booth, The Judges of the Secret Court--they didn't have that one, but they did have People of the Book, his later novel about the Thirty Years' War. One striking thing about both books: how patient the promotional copy about the author on the back cover was. Hicks's biography was three or four substantial paragraphs long, much of it spent describing, in rather calm terms, what an alienating firebrand he was. And Stacton's biography, covering nearly the whole back cover in smallish type, was composed entirely of quotes from reviews of his books, knitted seamlessly into a narrative footnoted to the sources. Neither piece of copy would be imaginable in this day--no one would have the courage to presume you'd read that much in deciding whether to buy something to read.
Ever mindful of shelf space at home (and of what I might actually read), though, I ended up taking home instead a paperback of Thomas Berger's The Feud, thanks to the Guardian's recommendation in the first installment this week of their new "Overlooked classics of American literature" series. And then I went on to Village Books, my original destination. That store was even larger than I had imagined (incredibly large for the small city that supports it--I can think of cities five or ten times the size that don't have an indie of similar stature), and every bit as lively as advertised, full of book-club recommendations and community participation and scheduled author readings and a keep-indies-alive feistiness. And I came away from there with Charles Mann's new 1493--it took a bit of self-convincing to spring for the full $30 cover price, but based on what a thrilling, meaty read 1491 was, and how equally fascinating the premise of the new one is, if ever a book would be worth it... (I'm thrilled to see 1493 in Amazon's top 20, even without me there to plug for it, or build a crazily labor-intensive timeline for the detail page.)
But as a reader and browser, the new store, despite its size and spirit, wasn't as full an experience for me as the used shop down the street had been. That, no doubt, is due in part to the Amazon effect, which has hurt new stores more than used ones--Village's shelves were relatively sparse, with many full faceouts instead of spines (they didn't have any Coetzee, for instance). But even more so it's due to the type of reader I am these days. After ten years of riding wave after wave of new releases, the stories I find most compelling are the ones that are outside the churn of the surf entirely. It can be hard to remember, when you are in the middle of the cycle of promotion and publication, that for every new book published there are other books being forgotten, many of them good and relevant. (It's not really true that this interest in lost classics is new for me, of course, since some of my favorite "new" releases were always the rediscoveries unearthed by NYRB Classics.)
As much as I was glad to play a part in the seasonal drama of discovering new books, right now what I'm most curious about is the eternal one of rediscovering old ones. Am I not participating in my cultural moment by looking to the past? These days I tend to think that the fact that these lost books are not wearing the blinkers of the moment means that they might have more to tell us about how we could be living.