I work in a bookstore. Well, I should probably say: I worked in a bookstore until the coronavirus pandemic of 2020 which caused an indefinite furlough. I have since filed for unemployment alongside 6.6 million other Americans last week alone.
But technically, yes, I work in a bookstore.
We are all book people here. If you’re reading this, you probably love to write. You probably love to read. You may have dabbled in poetry, plucking words from the air like berries and plopping them on the page and seeing what happens. So you know the feeling of picking up a book and flipping through the pages for the first time. For me, I flip to a random page and read one sentence. I do this a lot while I’m working, actually. I’m not allowed to read on the job–one of the only downsides.
The people who come into my store are, for the most part, book people too. When I walk the stacks, there’s most likely always a person on the ground, spine to spines, spreading potential reads in front of them like a rainbow. There are people so engrossed in the book they’re courting that they don’t even hear me greet them. And I understand. I leave them to it.
There’s a look every once in awhile that comes across someone’s eyes when I give them a book that they’re searching for. Maybe it’s a gift for their daughter. Maybe it was a recommendation from their therapist. Maybe it’s a book that they let someone borrow years ago and have still not returned. That look when I search, retrieve, and deliver the correct book is like I’m Santa, the Tooth Fairy, Jesus, and the Easter Bunny all in one.
But when the coronavirus outbreak came to its peak, all nonessential stores were ordered to close indefinitely. Including us. It killed that look in people’s eyes.
It goes without saying, a bookstore is not life-sustaining. Sure, we sell coffee and chocolates, but you couldn’t live on it. It’s no WalMart or McDonald’s. It’s not worth the health risk to stay open, encouraging customers to risk public streets, public doors to come in and spend money.
On the last day that we were open, I checked out an elderly woman who had a basket piled high with mass market romance novels. She looked at me and giggled.
“This is my last hurrah for awhile.” She looked at her basket like it was a sunset. “I’m so glad you guys are still open.”
After I told her that we were actually closing, she said, “Well, books are essential!”
We laughed. She took her books and left. But it made me think. Are books essential? Are they really?
Memoir, literature, poetry, plays, whichever you choose, all have one thing in common: they take you away. And in these uncertain times, we need to be taken.
Without books, I would have never known what it’s like to be an heiress to a grumpy, rich man who hid his wife in the attic. I wouldn’t know the sensation of being a ghost and slipping into a human body. Books to me are an escape. They’re also a connection. There’s a connection between the writer and the reader, and a connection between the writer and the characters. There’s a connection between the characters to the reader, and a connection between the bookseller and the bookbuyer.
You sit on a park bench and read a book. You see someone else, a few benches down, reading too. A connection forms. Another book lover. A certain type of person.
You read a poem and the words in front of you reach into your heart and pull the feeling right out. You feel that connection? You’re not alone. You’re not the only one feeling this.
What would we be without books and words? What would we be without bookstores, a place to walk into, and fall into a shelf of books–hundreds of connections waiting for you? What did people do years ago when they had to quarantine? Shakespeare wrote King Lear. I heard George R.R. Martin’s been writing like crazy too. Have you?
As we distance ourselves socially from one another, as the bookstores and libraries and coffee shops close down for the benefit of our fellow people, let’s not forget the connections that books give us. Lend a book to your neighbor (after sanitizing it first). Write a poem or essay about the crazy world we live in, and let the words comfort you. Record yourself reading your favorite picture book and post it on Facebook for the children in your life who are ready to drink in words like water.
To me, I believe books are essential. I believe hope is essential. I think we should lean on books, words, thoughts and feelings to get us through these confusing times. Let’s listen to what people before us have said. Let’s continue to make connections with words. With each other through words. Safely.
“There is a crack in everything.
That’s how the light gets in.”
― Leonard Cohen, Selected Poems, 1956-1968