Back when dinosaurs roamed the earth, I worked for a time in brick-and-mortar bookstores.
Actually, it could be said I worked in five of them. Because two of the stores expanded their operations and moved to larger locations while I was in their employ. The first stores sold new books, and the final one (or the final two, depending on how you’re counting) sold mostly used books. This was in the seventies and eighties. Before Amazon, print-on-demand, ebooks, and all the rest.
Bookselling didn’t pay much then, but it was an adventure and an education. Every day, all day, I got to think about, handle, and talk books. Whenever someone mentioned a particular book, or the cover of one caught my eye, curiosity forced me to at least momentarily check it out.
Who, I’d ask myself, was its author? When was it written? How popular was it? What in-store category did it fall into? And where did it fit in my own ever-expanding mental model of the world of published material?
Then, after doing that all day, I’d go home at night and read.
For me, those were years of extreme exploration. I read things I’d never considered before. Books from lists. Books coworkers or customers recommended. Even books that didn’t fully interest me, but which I read because I wanted to see what was what with a particular genre or subject. I took chances. In those days, I prided myself on my ability to plough through anything, once I’d committed to doing so—no matter the story, no matter the exotic topic, no matter the density of the prose.
Now, while I still cultivate that ability, I know more what my tastes are. I have a better idea what I’m going to enjoy and what I probably won’t. In fiction and nonfiction alike. So, my exploration has a somewhat different flavor lately. Because my time is more important to me.
I miss the bookstore as an institution, though. Both the hole-in-the-wall shop and the sprawling megastore. As I miss my days of schlepping piles of paperbacks out from the storeroom to the shelves.
And of wondering if one day my name would ever be on the cover of one.