on The Yellow-Lighted Bookshop, essays by Lewis Buzbee (Graywolf )

On returning to Massachusetts in 1978 from graduate studies at the University of Wisconsin, I entertained the idea of opening a bookstore. I made an appointment to visit the venerable publisher David Godine through a mutual acquaintance. “You’d have to be nuts,” he said, predicting lean times for independent bookstores. At that time the B. Daltons and Waldenbooks were appearing in malls, the big-box bookstores were in development, and Amazon was a theory. So I trudged off to corporatania with Chekhov or William Maxwell or Louise Bogan in my briefcase or carry-on. In 2005 while working at a life sciences company in Waltham, Massachusetts, I watched as a determined man named Alex Green opened Back Pages Books around the corner on Moody Street – my abandoned life passing before my eyes. But nothing I could tell you about my bookstore yearnings and visitations comes close to the essence of book buying, selling and reading as flavored by Lewis Buzbee’s The Yellow-Lighted Bookshop (Graywolf Press, 2006), now reissued in paperback. In eleven book-besotted essays, Buzbee tracks his life as a bookman, the history of bookselling, and the status of independent stores including descriptions of some of his favorite haunts, mainly in the western U.S.

buzbee1.jpgBuzbee’s first aspiration after acquiring his very first books as a teen (Steinbeck, Cheever, Updike, Barth, Pynchon) was to land a job at the Upstart Crow bookshop in San Jose (a chain which grew to 50 stores before its decline). After several attempts to get hired, he was taken on as “a temporary shelving apprentice.” Soon he was assigned to regular shifts and learned the inventory system, point-of-sale operations, special orders, and customer service. “No matter how roundabout the path, it’s always satisfying to put the right book in the right hands,” he writes, “but the real thrill in bookselling is to put the right book into unsuspecting hands.” Later, he became a sales rep for Chronicle Books. His life among books is a life about books, such as the formative titles that ignite a readerly life. “The most important qualification of all, however, is that the book be compelling enough to draw the reader into the erotic space of reading,” he says, “where the mind is enflamed and the body in repose.”

In 1980 he moved on to Printers Inc., an independent store in Palo Alto. He describes his first visit: “Printers was shaped like a bookstore, at least an idealized one. One narrow end of the shoebox opened onto the street, and the long, high sides of the store, lined with crammed shelves, seemed to pull the reader down their long avenues. In the vast middle of the store, display tables heaped with stacks of new titles competed with blocks of freestanding shelves for a customer’s attention. The perspectives were clean and sharp, simple: a bookstore.” Buzbee holds forth on every imaginable aspect of bookselling. He spends three pages chatting on the nature of bookshelves alone (with a digression on shelf ladders). Printers Inc. was a bibliopolis, “a Manhattan of a store, stately and massive … There was a simple imperative at Printers: the store had to stock everything …and the owners gave us more than free rein, they turned us loose. With stacks of publisher catalogues in one hand, and piles of green and white inventory cards in the other, we set out into the stacks to keep track of every single book that was sold, and to re-order it, and to discover what those sales might tell us about the titles we did not yet stock.” The computer-based inventory system was installed in 1985.

buzbee.jpgThis book is filled with exactly phrased considerations of bookstore life, parsings of experience into insights that are as unique as they are familiar. “One of the least-publicized compensations of working in a bookstore, one that has always given me pleasure and reward, is the nature of the workplace itself, from behind the register to the back room, and especially the sales floor, which in any good bookstore is where most of the work gets done, hands-on. The nature of the bookstore workplace is one of freedom and flexibility, the sense of being in the public arena while doing private tasks, the sense of involvement with the day and the stranger who wander through it. This is the public square, an extension of the street.” Well, I recall moments of on-the-floor satisfaction during the many times I worked in my father’s liquor store, that sense of steering the public to its pending, happier wine moods. But of course, Buzbee is affected by the bookstore’s historic role as “a marketplace where the ideas of a given period were traded.” The pace of bookstore activity derives from the product it offers: “Books are slow. They require time; they are written slowly, published slowly, and read slowly.” The bookstore is associated with the coffee house: conversing, writing, reading, simply existing alongside the stranger in common. Bookstores are inherently democratic: “Don Quixote, one of the great achievements of Western literature, is roughly the same price as the most tawdry celebrity biography, maybe even a little cheaper since the nuisance of paying the author has expired.”

buzbee2.jpg“I am promiscuous when it comes to bookstores,” Buzbee proudly claims. The Yellow-Lighted Bookshop is filled with carnal knowledge of book handling, hoarding, and hawking, the latter fondly remembered in “On the Road,” an essay on his days as a publisher’s rep (“The job of the sales rep is to teach the buyer about new titles, so that the buyer can make calculated decisions as quickly as possible, saving more time to talk about other books”). His enthusiasm, extending even to his local Borders store, doesn’t linger on the discouraging topic of indie store closings or NEA reports on dwindling readership. When he wrote his final chapter on “New Arrivals” in 2004, total bookstore market share, for independents and chains combined, had fallen from 50 percent in 1995 to 35 percent in 2004. From 1999 to 2004, indie sales held steady at 15 percent of share. “Chain bookstores, along with the changes they’ve made in their selections, making them more true to the bookstore spirit than to the department store’s, have brought a greater selection of books to more people than the independents could have,” he says. “Let me reiterate something I tried to make very clear in this book: It’s never been an easy life for booksellers. We still have the same complaints that we’ve had for countless years, if not centuries. And yet, we still open bookstores, still struggle to keep them open. Why? Because booksellers love books.” This reissued edition includes “Not Dead Yet: An Afterword,” an update on the situation of bookstores and internet selling.

[Reissued September 30, 2008, $14.00, 225 pages, paperback]