Diary: Lucy Ellmann, On Not Going Into Bookstores

I know how impossibly brave it is to run a bookstore in this rudderless, readerless age. I applaud people for persisting with it. Booksellers are a conscience-poking rebuke of philistinism. And yet, and yet … to my shame, I hardly ever enter a bookstore unless somebody else drags me in.

Bookstore stress triggers:

☙ Self-hatred, about my own ignorance of writer’s names and whole divisions of human thought: theosophy, astronomy, archery, accounting, Antarctica, animal husbandry, systems analysis, sequins, Manga, orchids, forensics, and party-planning.

☙ Embarrassment, about how slowly I read and therefore how curtailed my reading has been over my lifetime.

Bewilderment, when I can’t find my way around. This happens to me no matter how small the store is.

Amnesia, trying to remember all the books I meant to seek out.

Fear, of not finding what I want or, if I do find it, begrudging the cost.

Disappointments, especially common in those bijou bookshops that only have one copy of no more than a hundred titles, “curated” for the color of their covers and how good they look facing outwards on the shelves. (Once though, strangely enough, I found just the thing I was looking for in a store like this, and was even praised for my choice by the bookseller. I still can’t figure that out. Was I unusually lucky, or were that store’s offerings dependent on genuine magical instinct? I’d hate to think there were algorithms involved.)

Geriatric affronts, when they don’t have the children’s books I remember.

Bruising encounters with bookstore staff. Some are so gruff, some suspicious, some are eager beavers, some are never off the phone. There used to be a great guy way down in the basement at my nearest branch of the Waterstone’s chain, who’d order anything for you and even discuss the book with you—in a non-threatening way—when you came to collect it. But he’s long gone. He probably went off in search of a living wage. (I just signed a group letter in support of Waterstone’s staff campaigning for an increase in salary, but it seems the only thing on the rise there is the gender pay gap.)

Déjà vu, with all the usual suspects filling the shelves, as lurid as detergent packets: cookbooks, thrillers, bestsellers, sci-fi, exhaustive accounts of wild swimming; the same in their audio versions. A good bookshop should teach a little taste, not just load you down with genres and adultery advice.

Disgust, finding books like The Lovely Bones or anything by John Grisham given pride of place and a personal recommendation handwritten by an overworked junior bookseller. While real novelists languish for want of a dime! In reality, though, fiction doesn’t sell. Cat books sell.

Surprise, in realizing how prolific other writers are. Some people sure can pound these things out.

A sudden sense of defeat, following such shocks. Feeling crushed, I start to plod, searching the shelves for unlovely bones.

I never feel too sure what I’m doing in a bookstore.

These are places for bookish people, people who can’t get enough of books—I have plenty of books at home that I haven’t read yet. Bibliophiles wallow in the smell of books, the look of books, the aura of books, the passive readiness of books to be found and bought and absorbed. Or collected, anyway. Books mean a lot to me, or they do in retrospect, but when confronted with a plateful, I take them with a pinch of salt.

Bookshops I have known:

I’ve had no deeply traumatic experiences in bookstores, not enough to explain my timid attitude to them. Books never fell on my head or anything. I have never been waterboarded in a bookstore. Some bookstores are admittedly a bit grim, but others sparkle with warm lighting and woo you with trinkets when you get tired of books. There’s the thrill of finding books in English in a foreign bookshop, or at least cooling off. From afar, bookstores seem pretty innocuous.

A Waterstone’s bookshop in London—I did a reading there, and during the questions afterwards, a member of the audience asked me how I’d put the disparate elements of my novel together. Being incapable of giving a sensible explanation, and thinking of Schoenberg’s witty answer to a similar enquiry in Hollywood about his 12-tone scale, I said cheerily “That is none of your business”—for which I was thoroughly scolded later on by my editor. And, subsequently, by a friend of my editor. And maybe even a few other people too. I was just trying to be funny.

Bookstore readings are one of the more pointless activities invented by humankind, right up there with hanging upside down for twenty minutes a day, flying your own miniature model plane, and poking holes in Styrofoam with a cigarette. (I recommend doing all three at once.) There’s only so much you can read out loud to people in one evening, only so much stationery interrogation you can endure, and the fifteen-minute question period always falls flat. What purpose does it serve for the writer to show his or her face in public?

If publishers gave writers acting lessons, and a glad-rag allowance, things might go more smoothly, if more fraudulently: the mumblers might speak up more, the hacks would dazzle, and the shy might channel their inner Pavarotti. Instead, most writers are forced on stage willy-nilly, for the sake of sales, like overgrown, exhausted Shirley Temples, minus the curls and winsome ways. It’s in your contract: Shirley it up or else. It’s a new form of slavery.

I hate attending readings as a customer too, for pity of fellow slaves. But I admit it was a thrill to glimpse the aged Bette Davis in London once, as she made her way into Hatchards, Piccadilly, for some book launch of her own. Now, there’s a gal who knew how to handle an audience.

A Glasgow bookstore—this one was dangerous, but not in a good way. It was a fire trap, and felt like an overgrown tomb. There was just one room, piled high with books and magazines from floor to ceiling. I think a bulldozer probably dumped a new ton of books straight in through the front window every few days. People had gradually carved paths through the mess but, to examine any single book, you risked a hundred pounds of literary material collapsing at your feet. It was unlikely that you could find your way alive to a book you actually wanted, even if they had it, which was impossible to tell.

Stromness Books and Prints—after a ghastly three years spent at the University of Kent, where we mistakenly tried to teach Creative Writing (which should never be taught), we upped and quit, thrillingly, and immediately retreated to the other end of the British Isles, the top end. To Orkney, a set of islands off the coast of northern Scotland.

One of our chief amusements there, besides fish and chips, singing to seals, and filling hot water bottles (our only leaving present from the university), was a weekly visit to Tam MacPhail’s compact but worldly, even cosmic, bookstore. Every time we went in there, we made unexpected finds. There was a sharp-edged bookshelf island right in the middle of the store, with all the sharpest publications in it. As Tam said himself, the place was a work of conceptual art, with him at the center. The most quotidian thing he sold was a dictionary. We bought that too. And a joke book.

We didn’t know if we’d survive. We were broke, the heating in our house was perplexing, Orkney is extremely windy and that winter was particularly cold. For a few weeks our stove was on the blink. We didn’t know if we would just blow away one day. It now feels like we were sustained by books—as many Orcadians are.

For more, order a copy of the chapbook,  “I Dated Graham Greene,” by Lucy Ellmann, hand-bound and printed on 70-pound Zephyr laid in a limited edition of 1,000 for Independent Bookstore Day by the Biblioasis Book Store and Publisher in Windsor, Ontario, from which these passages are drawn. Copyright © Lucy Ellmann


Lucy Ellmann’s seventh novel, Ducks, Newburyport, will appear with Biblioasis in September.

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