There are those who love to read books, and then there are those who love to read and love books. Here are three books that every book lover will want on their shelf:
1.”The Yellow Lighted Bookshop” by Lewis Buzbee
In “The Yellow Lighted Bookshop”, San Francisco author Lewis Buzbee does something few writers would be able to: he makes the history of books and bookstores something you just can’t put down. Buzbee has written both fiction and non-fiction, and has the ability to paint a vivid picture with very few words; when he describes a favorite bookshop on a dark, rainy Tuesday in November, you can feel the biting wind and see the inviting warmth of the store beckoning.
The book is billed as both a memoir and a history, and perhaps that is what makes it work. Right at the moment the historical aspect could start to become tedious, Buzbee switches gears to the memoir side, giving readers a glimpse into the world of the bookseller that few knew existed. And he is no newcomer to the book selling world, having started as a clerk at a San Jose bookstore during his freshman year of college, and continuing in either book selling or as a publisher’s sales rep for the next thirty years.
The history of the bookstore is obviously intertwined with the history of books and book making, and “The Yellow-Lighted Bookshop” takes the reader on a fascinating journey from the first papyrus scrolls and the great Library of Alexandria through the e-book and mega-chains like Borders and Barnes and Noble. Mixed throughout this 3000-year journey are Buzbee’s own journey, his love of books, and some laugh-out-loud moments. By the time you finish the book, you will definitely want to sneak a peek into the back room of your local bookstore, hoping to see some of the things he has seen.
Buzbee makes a convincing case for how much we need bookstores, and he laments the decline, Harry Potter notwithstanding, in reading across America. Some may be surprised that a man who spent the better part of his life working in independent bookstores bears no grudges against the major chain retailers or Internet sites like Amazon. He does, however, have a few caustic words for the large discount and warehouse stores.
What is evident throughout “The Yellow-Lighted Bookshop” is that Buzbee is a man who has a reverence for books (“book lust” is the term he uses most often). And his book lust is contagious. When you have finished this slim, 216-page volume, you may find yourself more likely to slow down and rediscover the joy of wandering through rows and rows of shelves on a rainy afternoon, stumbling upon the perfect book that you’d never even heard of before.
2. “Time Was Soft There: A Paris Sojourn at Shakespeare & Company” by Jeremy Mercer.
The title of Jeremy Mercer’s book comes from a line in his book, “Time Was Soft There: A Paris Sojourn at Shakespeare & Company.” He writes “hard time goes slowly and painfully and leaves a man bitter…. time at Shakespeare and Company was as soft as anything I’d ever felt.” This account of his time living at the Paris landmark is as much about the characters that reside at the famous bookstore as the books themselves, but books are ever-present in his narrative.
Mercer was a crime reporter in Canada who felt forced to flee to France following a threat on his life in late 1999. As he runs out of money and faces the prospect of living on the streets of Paris, he is invited to live at Shakespeare and Company by the owner, George Whitman, an expatriate American who has run the store since the 1950’s and who claims to “run a socialist utopia that masquerades as a bookstore.”
Whitman is not, as he claimed early in his life, the son of the poet Walt Whitman, and his bookshop is not the same as Sylvia Beach’s Shakespeare and Company, the store that published “Ulysses” and closed during the Nazi occupation of Paris. Rather, this store is the sister store to the famed City Lights Bookstore in San Francisco, and Whitman is a longtime friend of its owner, Lawrence Ferlinghetti.
Though Mercer is the narrator, and we learn much about his life before and during his time at Shakespeare and Company, Whitman is the central character of this book. We learn of his struggles to keep the store from falling into the hands of real estate developers, his unique ways of keeper the residents of the store fed, and his fascinating life story. Most importantly, we learn of his lifelong commitment to the idea that books are important, that they matter to us both as individuals and as a society.
3. “Sixpence House: Lost in a Town of Books” by Paul Collins
This book by Paul Collins tells the story of his time living in a book lovers dream: the Welsh town of Hay-on-Wye. With only 1500 residents and 40 bookstores, it is truly a bibliophile’s nirvana, especially if you love old books. Collins and his wife relocated there from San Francisco with their young son in the hope of finding a more idyllic life, and their attempts to purchase a house in the town, while having nothing to do with books, is as hilarious for us as it was frustrating for them.
The centerpiece of the town, and the place book lovers will most want to visit someday, is Hay Castle, a centuries-old castle now converted into a rambling bookstore and owned by Richard Booth, the self-proclaimed Ling of Hay-on-Wye. After meeting Booth, Collins spent a brief period attempting, with limited success, to organize the American Literature section at the castle. The remainder of Collins’ time is divided between revising his first book, wandering through the town’s myriad of second-hand bookshops, and trying to navigate English real estate laws that would drive most Americans mad.
“Sixpence House” is an entertaining read that will have book lovers planning their next vacation around the annual Hay Festival (May 22 – June 1, 2008), hoping to find a rare gem of a book in the mountainous stacks of Hay Castle. But make your reservations early; the event that former President Bill Clinton called “the Woodstock of the Mind” is Britain’s little secret no longer, thanks in part to “Sixpence House.”