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Coronavirus and bookstores: One last hour inside Capitol Hill Books.
The first thing I did after I put on the gloves was I closed my eyes and breathed in. A smell so familiar it might as well be my own body: the brittle must of books, the dust and ink and decades-old fingerprints on a hundred thousand volumes. You might know that smell too, might be able to call it to mind right now. The smell of your university library, of the shelves at your grandparents’ house, of every used bookshop you’ve ever browsed. The smell of the last bookstore I’ll visit, I know, for quite some time.

A few days ago I saw a message on Twitter from a bookstore I like in Washington, D.C., inviting patrons to book individual one-hour shopping appointments. “Ever dream of having Capitol Hill Books all to yourself?” the tweet read. “Now you can.” I had, in fact, often dreamed of having a used bookshop all to myself, though my dreams mostly involved me living above the store, which I owned, because I somehow had become a rich dilettante. But I would settle for this one-hour quarantine version. Like everyone I knew, I was already feeling stir-crazy, missing not only human interaction but the mere experience of being in a place that wasn’t my home or the three-block radius around it. I reserved a slot Friday morning at 10.

The drive was ghostly, my familiar route governed by the old rush-hour tolls and rules but as empty of cars as if I was driving at midnight. I parked about 15 minutes early and walked around the block, bending big six-foot arcs around the dogwalkers, letting the joggers bend big six-foot arcs around me. The moment my phone read 10:00 I knocked on the door of the shop, with its now-moot hours of operation and its CLOSED sign. The man who answered had kind eyes, salt-and-pepper hair, a short beard. “Hi, Dan,” he said. His name was Kyle. We didn’t shake hands. He offered hand sanitizer and laid a pair of gloves on the counter. “I’ll be here,” he said as I snapped the gloves on, indicating the front desk. “The shop is yours.”

I started on the first floor: history, mostly. When I found a book I wanted to buy, I merrily tossed it to the floor; the store was mine, after all, and I didn’t need to carry my growing pile along with me today. I ran my glove-clad finger across spines like a stick across a fence, stopping at each title that seemed even a little bit interesting.

For every person who loves shopping in used bookstores, the moment your finger stops is the moment a decision tree flowers before you. Do you pull the book out a little, to see its cover? Do you pull the book off the shelf, to read its jacket copy?

Do you want to read this? (The answer, in the bookshop, is almost always yes.)

Will you actually read it? If the answer is yes, as it is perhaps a quarter of the time, you add the book to your pile.

If the answer is no, though, often you don’t immediately put the book back. You pause, you hold the book before your face, and you ask yourself one more question: Might you, one day, become the kind of person who would actually read this book? Should you buy the book just in case? I find that about half the time my answer to that question is yes.

Buying a book means making an investment in your own future, a kind of bet. It’s an expression of optimism about what your life will look like next week or next month, what person you will be five years from now. Freed by Capitol Hill Books for one short hour after weeks of anxiety about the future, I was hungry to imagine times to come in which I could read books about Victorian marriages or medieval trial by combat. After weeks of being the worst, laziest, most stuck-to-the-internet version of myself, I found myself desperate to imagine a version of myself who could settle into a chair, put away my phone, and read this gorgeous paperback of Thomas Merton’s No Man Is an Island. So all three of those books, and others, landed on the growing pile in the middle of the floor.

The ones that still don’t make the cut? You put them back, with sorrow, knowing that someday you will think back on at least one of those books and regret not buying it. Often the tightly-packed shelf no longer can comfortably accommodate the book that occupied that space just moments ago, and you lay the book horizontally atop its shelved companions, the resting position of the book that almost made it but faltered at the finish, an invitation to the next browser, if there is a next browser, to look more carefully.

I pulled a book about the Paris Commune out of Middle Ages, paged through it, and helpfully reshelved it in the section marked the Victorian Era.

Buying a book means making an investment in your own future, a kind of bet.
It was 10:20. I ducked my head as I trundled downstairs into the sci-fi section. I made my habitual check for anything by John M. Ford; as always, there was nothing. I picked up a fun-looking novel by a writer I’ve never read before. I picked up the first volume of Scott Pilgrim to replace the one my children lost. Downstairs is where the store mixes genre with academia, journalism with crappy golf books. It’s where the humor section lives, that mishmash of classic comics and Tim Allen books. Every book and quasi-book ever published has a chance at landing in a used bookstore, and a good shop collects the whole of the world of words for you: The erudite, the junk, the pulp, the pop, the exhaustive, the delightful, the ambitious, the embarrassing. Books by writers once beloved, writers lost before you had a chance to discover them, writers who deserved more of a shot.

It’s in used bookstores that you see that just about everyone reads something. Here in Capitol Hill Books I discovered that in 1976 a woman named Beverly in Annapolis, Maryland was given a Farley Mowat book by someone who loved her. In a used bookstore in the Milwaukee airport, I once found a paperback novelization of the 1990 Christian Slater movie Pump Up the Volume with sentence after sentence underlined by someone’s attentive pen. In a bookshop in Savannah, I found a first edition of Harry Crews’ Body given to Dick Smothers by his friend “Lela” for Christmas 1990, and inscribed by Smothers to another friend, “Jody,” the following November. (Comedy legend Smothers loved the novel.)

It’s in used bookstores that you might find the book that will change your life. In fact, you probably will.

On the second floor, in the Mystery room, a radio played NPR, where commentators discussed the debate in Congress over a coronavirus relief bill, updated the number of Americans sick, the number dead. I pulled a mid-period Stephen King for my daughter and retreated to the back, to the store’s enormous fiction collection. I had 15 minutes left. My neck was sore from tilting my head just to the right for so long. I plucked two Alice Adams books and a 1989 Soho Press novel I’d never heard of by someone named Edward Allen. As I do in every store, I looked for Evan Connell’s Mr. Bridge and Mrs. Bridge. I own one, but can never remember which one it is. (Writing this essay, I just checked—it’s Mr. Bridge. Soon, I know, I will be the kind of person who reads it.)

And just before my time was up I saw something I’d never seen before, something I’d dreamed of for years: my own book, tucked into the Music section. Lying horizontally atop other books, in fact, the leavings of some previous customer who made it most of the way down the decision tree before deciding—with, I’m certain, deep regret—not to buy it. I touched it gently and smiled: a year of my life, nestled among all these years of all these other writers’ lives.

The author's book, Facing Future by Dan Kois, sits slanted over a stack of books marked "Music Theory"
Dan Kois
Kyle called up the stairs. “Our next group is coming. You’ll need to check out.” I picked up my selections off the floor and glumly walked down the stairs, leaving my book and all its compatriots behind. In just a few days, Washington would close all non-essential businesses, and Capitol Hill Books would suspend its one-hour reservations, only fulfilling orders by email. You should drop them, or your favorite used bookstore, a line.

At the register I noticed one last volume on the store’s small new books table, the first in N.K. Jemisin’s Broken Earth trilogy, which I’ve still not read. “And this,” I said, adding it to the pile even as Kyle, clad in his own gloves, rang the books up.

“If you had eight hours, would you still be grabbing books at the end?” Kyle asked after he told me my total, which I will not reveal here.

“Yes,” I groaned.

There was another knock at the door. My hour lost in this space felt like forever but also like no time at all. What a gift, this hour to be elsewhere, neverwhere, the Other World, in the place beyond the wardrobe. I tried not to cry as I stacked the books into two totes. Outside, the air was warm and the street was empty. I heard the bookshop’s door shut behind me. I looked down at my hands, holding my bags full of books. I was still wearing the gloves.
books  coronavirus  culture  bookstores  capitolhillbooks  reading  washingtondc 
4 days ago by dirtystylus
Coronavirus: The case for books being “essential” in a pandemic — Quartz
Food, water, and medicine are obvious essentials right now. We rely on these things to survive. Technically, however, we don’t need lots of the other stuff that was a given before the coronavirus pandemic made shut-ins of a huge chunk of the global population.

Thus, what is essential has become a matter of great debate around the world. Depending on who you ask and where they live, the answers differ drastically.

For example, in Belgium, where routine daily life has mostly ground to a halt, access to frites (or what we in English call french fries to the dismay of Belgians) is critical. Thus, friteries—kiosks devoted to the distribution of fries—remain open when many other businesses are shuttered.

In California, marijuana has been deemed essential. In the Netherlands, too, the herbal medicine remains available to soothe the people in these very stressful times. France considers wine and fine food essential. And in Germany, France, and Belgium, booksellers are indispensable (link in French).

In fact, one Berlin bookseller tells Quartz that the large, independent bookstore where he’s worked for the past year has seen some literary panic shopping of late. Readers are stocking up and aiming high.

“People are definitely buying stacks of books,” says John Owen. “More people are buying what might be called ‘ambitious reads,’ or big, fat books.” Children’s books are also in high demand, as were texts on the early-20th-century flu pandemic until they sold out. A lot of people are also reading Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel, a tale about civilization’s collapse.

DC bookstore during coronavirus pandemic.
Practically speaking, bookshops are taking measures to prevent the spread of disease while recognizing the need to feed people’s minds. Customers are carefully following social distancing directives. Transactions with clerks are now handled through a plastic barrier and no cash is accepted as per the government’s request, Owen says.

He isn’t too worried about the shop surviving for a little while but doesn’t imagine it will be able to remain in business for many months in these conditions. He and his colleagues are already considering new ways to get books to eager readers, like deliveries of various themed packages designed for different tastes. There are those who wish to revel in delights and not think about the virus and those who are intent on digging in to all the disaster and dystopia texts they can get—and booksellers happy to serve them all.

A bookstore of one’s own

Similarly, at Washington, DC’s historic Capitol Hill Books, which sells used and rare texts, co-owner Kyle Burk is still hard at work. The store is closed officially but selling online and open by appointment to groups of four or fewer people in one-hour increments. Every slot was booked this week, Burk says.

Those who get in—like this reporter—must sanitize their hands upon entrance, wear plastic gloves, and keep six feet away from others.

pandemic measures at capitol hill books in DC.
As this safe distance, Burk shared his concerns about the shop’s future. Capitol Hill Books employs five people full-time, pays some of their insurance costs, and has limited financial reserves. Burk was an employee before he was one of the store’s owners, and he invested in the business because the narrow building with three floors lined with texts became “home.”

He imagines that the business will withstand two to three months of deflated sales due to local closures, but without significant government assistance, it would be difficult to keep everyone paid and insured and the store running for very much longer.

From Burk’s perspective, books are essential, and independent booksellers are too. “Cities are all becoming selfsame,” he complains. All around the world, you can go to a major city and find the same chains. Locally, he’s been dismayed to watch an area of Georgetown called “Book Hill” transform from a center for text consumption into a quaint shopping neighborhood devoted to literature only in name.

“This is one of the last unique spots,” he says of his shop, with its shelves boasting rarities and oddities. If it falls fatally victim to the pandemic’s economic effects, it will be a cultural loss for the US capital, and one that’s not likely to be replaced.

Books and death

Current crisis aside, Owen and Burk both find the bookselling business hopeful. In stark contrast to those who claim reading printed texts is totally passé, they say most of their customers are relatively young, in their 20s and 30s. In other words, people who are accustomed to being online still find value and pleasure in non-electronic reading.

Indeed, independent bookstores—in part thanks to Instagram—have been doing pretty brisk business in recent years, and being seen reading physical texts is very chic. The American Booksellers Association says its membership is continually growing. Meanwhile, sales of physical books have been on the rise since 2013.

That’s why Lisa Lucas, executive director of the National Book Foundation, wrote in Time last year, “Stop saying books are dead. They are more alive than ever.” Research that shows 24% of Americans no longer read books is anything but depressing, she says. It shows the vast majority of people are literary and that the US is “a nation of readers.”

Bursting bookshelves.
For many, books are essential. They provide food for thought. At a time when our thoughts are running wild, escaping into other experiences, or trying to understand what’s happening through the lens of historical accounts, is a kind of lifesaver.

But a book is not a respirator, after all, and so even in places where they are an important source of solace in an extremely challenging time—like in Italy—many dispute the argument that texts are essential.

Precious papers

Just as some French wine purveyors appreciated being classified as critical but acknowledged this week that they’re not quite as important as grocers selling food and water, some Italians, including literature lovers, reject the essential text argument. As Quartz’s Annalisa Merelli explains, the debate raging in her mother country, the notion is “cute” but reveals the elitism of some intellectuals.

While some booksellers in Italy certainly do believe they should be open for business—especially since newsstands were deemed essential and Amazon is delivering books—others are pushing back against those demands. Merelli’s friend Stefano Calafiore, a bookseller in Bergamo, recently posted on Facebook that he opposes reopening shops or allowing bookstores to deliver.

“If you have nothing to read, too bad. You should have gone to the bookstores first,” he wrote. He’s urging everyone to follow directives to stay home.

And Calafiore does have a point. If books were so very important to Italians, presumably people would have emptied the shelves of booksellers before they had to shutter as they did those of grocers who would remain open, snatching up almost all the pasta.

Even toilet paper is arguably more essential than texts if recent consumer behavior is any indication. That stuff has been difficult to obtain pretty much everywhere.

In early February, a toilet paper pinch was already being felt in Hong Kong, according to Quartz editor Tripti Lahiri. Now, it’s a super hot commodity in Washington, DC, too. It takes a certain resourcefulness and patience to find a roll (this reporter’s household obtained its small supply at a liquor store that’s now selling gloves and other pandemic-related products).

And it seems possible that if this shortage continues or worsens, some people may even start ripping pages out of books to use as toilet paper (but please don’t because there are quite a few cultures that have not adopted this product and manage just fine with water and strict rules for hygiene!).

People of the book

Perhaps books aren’t essential then, not technically, in the existential sense. But conceiving of them as noncritical is problematic, too.

Used bookstore philosophy jokes.
We should not be so eager to jettison texts, to embrace the idea that we might not really need them. Because if we do, then perhaps when the next pandemic or disaster strikes, there will be no one reading our testimony, the tales we’ll write about what we’re living today, the way people are reading Albert Camus’ The Plague.

Maybe the real danger is that in conceiving of books as nonessential we will render them so and lose something incalculable.

As Ray Bradbury put it in Fahrenheit 451, a dystopian novel about a society that burned and banned literature, “Books were only one type of receptacle where we stored a lot of things we were afraid we might forget. There is nothing magical in them, at all. The magic is only in what books say, how they stitched the patches of the universe together into one garment for us.”

Say what you will about the glorious and sprawling internet, which is keeping us connected as we distance physically, but it doesn’t accomplish that arduous task quite as handily.

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coronavirus  books  bookstores  retail  reading  mentalhealth  capitolhillbooks  washingtondc 
6 days ago by dirtystylus
Not a Box - Antoinette Portis - Hardcover
A box is just a box...unless it's not a box. From mountain to rocket ship, a small rabbit shows that a box will go as far as the imagination allows.
Inspired by a memory of sitting in a box on her driveway with her sister, Antoinette Portis captures the thrill when pretend feels so real that it actually becomes real—when the imagination takes over inside a cardboard box, and through play, a child is transported to a world where anything is possible.
The simple text makes the book appropriate for toddlers, but the message and retro feel of the book also lead to it being an original and compelling gift to mark an occasion such as a graduation.
book:notabox  antoinetteportis  kids  reading  play  books 
10 days ago by dirtystylus
Alex Norris @ TCAF on Twitter: "… "
Pink: look I have many books

Orange: you must be very intelligent

Books: we are all unread

Pink: oh no
via:beep  humor  reading  books  by:alexnorris  cartoon 
april 2019 by dirtystylus
Audacious Fox: A Brief Explanation of How I Choose Between Buying a Physical Book or the Kindle Edition
A Brief Explanation of How I Choose Between Buying a Physical Book or the Kindle Edition

I don’t. It’s impossible. Sisyphus spends less energy pushing his boulder than I do when debating paperback or Paperwhite. The only compromise is to buy both. My budget hates me, my wife shakes her head in disapproval, but my bookshelves have never looked better nor been more portable.
humor  reading  kindle  books  via:joshuaginter 
october 2018 by dirtystylus
Tsundoku: The art of buying books and never reading them - BBC News
While this might sound like tsundoku is being used as an insult, Prof Gerstle said the word does not carry any stigma in Japan.
books  reading  japan  tsundoku 
july 2018 by dirtystylus
How I Read 100 Books in One Year (and How You Can, Too)
It feels unnatural to stop a book before you finish it, I know. It hurts to return it to the library unread. Or even worse, to let it sit on your shelf, knowing you’ll never make it through.

But you have to.
november 2017 by dirtystylus
don't look | sara hendren
Part of parenting is surely this—acting as nothing more and nothing less than a hedge around experiences we may watch but perhaps refrain from sharing. All I can think now is: Keep reading. Don’t look.
parenting  parenthood  reading  children  magic  by:sarahendren 
september 2017 by dirtystylus
An Answer to Fear - [ relay ]
The larger the Bible looms in your imagination, the more skeptical you become of the spirit of the age, the less prone you are to assume that whatever seems true to the people around you must, in fact, be true.
whatnow  bible  christianity  religion  reading  worldview  jmarkbertrand 
december 2016 by dirtystylus
The Science Behind Why You Feel Sick When You Try to Read in the Car
So what’s happening there is the brain’s getting mixed messages. It’s getting signals from the muscles and the eyes saying we are still and signals from the balance sensors saying we’re in motion. Both of these cannot be correct. There’s a sensory mismatch there. And in evolutionary terms, the only thing that can cause a sensory mismatch like that is a neurotoxin or poison. So the brain thinks, essentially, it’s been being poisoned. When it’s been poisoned, the first thing it does is get rid of the poison, a.k.a. throwing up. And as a result — so, like, as soon as the brain gets confused by anything like that, it says, oh, I don’t know what to do, so just be sick, just in case. And as a result, we get motion sickness because the brain’s constantly worried about being poisoned.
motionsickness  medicine  transportation  reading 
august 2016 by dirtystylus

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