The Yellow-Lighted Bookshop
By Lewis Buzbee
GRAYWOLF PRESS; 216 PAGES; $17
Just as John Masefield's classic poem "Sea Fever" captures the ocean's age-old call, Lewis Buzbee defines the equally seductive attraction of the bookstore. Whether a sea of books or a large body of water, the siren call that each exerts is undeniable.
In a series of captivating essays, Buzbee, who lives with his family in San Francisco, shares not only his passion for books but also his insight into the bookseller's trade that came from more than 17 years working in a number of Bay Area bookstores.
Buzbee's passion for reading began in his teens in San Jose after he discovered John Steinbeck's "The Grapes of Wrath." In the 1970s, the 15-year-old began hanging out at B. Dalton, explored the maze of cavernous used-book stores near the state college and then discovered Upstart Crow in the Pruneyard just a short bike ride from his home.
Thoroughly hooked on books, the young bibliophile badgered the owners of Upstart Crow for nearly two years of before he became a member of the staff. He writes, "I felt as if I had found the proper city in which to dwell." Buzbee was entranced by the "seductive glimpses" of the lives that dwelled between the covers of the books he was now shelving and selling. More to the point, he recognized that the store's customers and the other clerks were like-minded souls who wandered the streets of this magical city.
In the years that followed, Buzbee worked in other bookstores, such as Printers Inc. in Palo Alto, and spent seven years as a publisher's sales rep. Using his retail experience as a point of departure, the former bookseller provides a serendipitous historical account of the business from the ancients to today. Rather than reverting to a staid textbook approach to the subject, Buzbee focuses on eclectic bits and pieces that have caught his fancy. Fortunately, these informative tidbits are as interesting to the reader as they obviously are to the author.
For example, in the seventh century, Caliph Omar, convinced that the only book the world needed was the Koran, ordered the contents of the library at Alexandria destroyed. It took six months to destroy the library's entire collection of papyrus scrolls, which were burned to heat the bathhouses of the city.
Other surprising facts include the statistic that American publishers alone print 400 new titles every single day, that no royalties are paid authors on remainders (books that don't sell), and in 2004 only 47 hardcover novels sold more than 300,000 copies.
Waxing almost poetic when it comes to sharing memories of book browsing, Buzbee recalls wonderful days spent visiting Bay Area independent bookstores such as City Lights, Cody's, Kinokuniya Books, Black Oak Books, the Booksmith and Hucklebee's.
Moving further afield, there is a lengthy section on Shakespeare and Co. in Paris. Buzbee admits he once had a friend plant a copy of his first novel ("Fliegelman's Desire") on the famed bookshop's shelves. Larry McMurtry's Booked Up, Portland's Powell's Books, the Tattered Cover in Denver and the Grolier Poetry Book Shop just off Harvard Square in Cambridge also merit a passing mention.
Those who share Buzbee's "book lust" will remember these and other perhaps long-gone shops that had the power to entice one in for an afternoon of book grazing and perhaps a cup or two of coffee or tea. The author's ability to capture the sensual aspects of this romance with books is another major plus. The reader easily recognizes a kindred spirit who is able to express the sensations that accompany making a purchase.
As Buzbee describes it, the process begins when the colorful, elegant cover typography of a book assails the eye. Reaching for it, you weigh the fit in your folded palm. Next you carefully crack it open and thumb the thick and creamy pages as you give the contents a cursory inspection. Upon the completion of this tactile encounter, the volume is either returned to its resting place or is tucked under your arm.
Acting as our guide through the "city of books" he discovered in his youth, Buzbee tells us there's no hurry or rush. "[Y]ou could spend all day here," he writes. "Like any great city, there's a mood for everyone, and like any great city, there's a surprise at every turn."
Although he is no longer engaged in the business, as an incurable reader Buzbee admits that when he comes upon a bookstore he still can't resist the temptation to veer in the door for a quick visit. A bookstore is for hanging out. It's a place to connect with others in solitude. It's the marketplace where ideas are traded and public discourse is shaped. Within the walls of the store there's something for every taste and age group.
As the cover art of "The Yellow-Lighted Bookshop" -- showing a stack of books as lighthouse -- suggests, the bookstore is a beacon that beckons us to enter and spend a little time in delicious discovery. In describing its draw, Buzbee writes, "The bookstore is still the place where we may engage in the free and unrestricted congress of ideas." On a more mundane level, this is also where those afflicted with book lust connect with the gorgeous objects of their desire.
Robert Walch is a writer in Monterey.