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The polar vortex finally reached us here in Texas - it's been colder than usual, but two days ago, it rained all day and dipped into the twenties at night. I waited up until 3:00 in the morning, nestled into my armchair with a flannel blanket, two kitties, and a book propped open in my lap in front of the fire, but alas, no snow. I did wake up the next day to find our lantana draped in ice, however. Of course, today it was 70 degrees, so I suppose that's the end of that.

However, I was in a meta mood, and within my stack of books piled precariously beside me, I fished out one called Shelf Life. Now, this is the third book I've read titled Shelf Life - the first being a series of short vignettes set in an Australian supermarket, the second an anthology of books about bookstores with a foreword by Neil Gaiman, and this one, a sort of memoir written about a woman's year working in a bookstore. I had high hopes, but - well, to back up, allow me to fill you in on the bookstores I remember.

The first bookstore I can recall going to that wasn't a chain Half-Price Books or the sterile aisles of Barnes and Noble, was a tiny shop next to our eye doctor that amazingly still stands. It was called Copperfield Books, and by the name alone, I knew I would love it. It sits unassumingly tucked into the corner of a shopping strip. As you walk in, there is a desk to the left, usually manned by a genteel woman with eyeglasses dangling across her shirtfront, who beams and tells you to have fun browsing. As you wander further, there are little open squares formed by the bookcases. It is one of those places that you have to get on the floor and run your fingers down the spines of the last shelf, searching for that one perfect title.

The second bookshop was appropriately named Bookland. It occupied a much larger space, but was filled to the brim with every sort of book you could want. There was a long table covered haphazardly with magazines, and thigh-high piles of National Geographics slipping out from underneath the legs. The place felt perpetually dim, crowded with the ghosts of authors slipping through the mystery aisles, browsing the history section, sitting in comfortable chairs by the mysticism portion, and sliding through the pages of my favorite place, the fantasy aisles. It was a used book store, and one got the impression from the overstuffed, sagging shelves that the owner never had the heart to turn down any book brought to him. It had pulp sci-fi novels with covers of half-clad women clutching at men clad in loincloths fighting aliens with swords. It had books forgotten and ridiculed, books loved and cherished, books read and re-read until they ended up here, hoping for someone new to flip through their yellowed pages. It was at the bottom of one of these shelves, nestled in the north-east corner, that I found The Green Rider and read the first twenty pages without moving, enrapt in my new find.

The owner gave the place its own color. You could stroll up and smile apologetically and ask, "There was this book... I think it had a dog?" and he would snap up immediately and say, "Oh, yes, we have that," and lead you directly to it without glancing at a computer. His assistant, a gangly, awkward teenage girl with red hair and round glasses, always sat hunched behind the counter, her face buried in a book. She was comfortable, like the place she worked - here, I thought, was a place with people who loved books as much as I do.

From there, I moved to San Antonio, where I found my third bookstore, Nine Lives Books. Another used shop, this one was more eclectic. The owners also ran the Tenth Life animal shelter, so cats would roam around the store, rubbing against ankles, hiding under the chairs, and nestled amongst the shelves. If you sat down to peruse a paperback you had tugged off a shelf, a warm body would immediately press against your lap while you absently stroked soft fur and turned a page. On special days, they would invite tarot readers, Celtic bands, and other misfits into the front of the shop. Especially in San Antonio, at that point of my life, Nine Lives was finding a place where I belonged, finding my tribe hidden, but not extinct.

All of these places I remember fondly. I still get lost in the Barnes and Noble and Half-Price Books of the world, and who knows how many hours I've spent clicking through Amazon, but those independent bookstores are still the places I find myself losing myself in.

So, what's wrong with Shelf Life by Suzanne Shea? She recalls fondly the bookstores of her own youth, but they're all sterile. She talks about bookstores with restaurants and furniture sections. She talks about best-sellers and self-help books, and dismisses those once-loved, battered copies that found new homes through the shops of my youth. It's all glossy and run like a fine-tuned machine. Rather than talking about readers, she talks about customers. Two pages were just a list of all the magazines the bookstore she worked at carried. It's retail, not reading.

To quote Sean, "I never trust a bookstore where people aren't reading."


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January 2014


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