There’s a quote in Gabrielle Zevin’s The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry that I absolutely love: “People are attached to their bookstores… It matters who placed A Wrinkle in Time in your twelve-year-old daughter’s nail-bitten fingers…” It got me thinking about bookstores and booksellers, and of librarians as well, and how much a chance encounter for them may end up being a profound moment in someone else’s life.
I grew up in the Philippines, where we didn’t have many independent bookstores, at least any that I’m aware of. I vaguely remember once visiting a tiny shop that specialized in Philippine literature near the Ateneo de Manila University, but I can’t remember the name or where it was exactly.
The chain bookstores however — National Bookstore, Goodwill Bookstore, and later on Powerbooks and Fully Booked — played a significant role in my childhood. My mom, a lifelong book lover, instilled in my sister and myself a love for books, and we’d spend many weekends checking out the new releases. My mom formed many friendships in bookstores, and after she died, my aunt had the unenviable task of breaking the news to all the booksellers who wondered why my mom hadn’t been in their shop lately.
I grew up viewing bookstore visits as treats, and among my mom’s many legacies is that my sister and I still end up dropping by a bookstore at least once a week. Living in Toronto is a particular treat, with so many bookstore options (Glad Day! Bakka Phoenix! Type Books! and of course, Indigo!) and so many bookish events.
I remember a few years ago, seeing on Twitter how a bookseller (I think it was Christopher Sheedy from Re:Reading?) had a customer who refused to buy her daughter a book that the child really wanted. If I remember correctly, the mother’s reasoning was that the book would be a waste of money. Horrified at the statement and feeling for the child, the bookseller gave them the book for free, just so the little girl would be able to read the book. That story stuck with me, and I’d love to think that the child grows up always treasuring that book and always remembering the nice bookseller who showed her that a love for books is worth nurturing.
Unlike my mom, I never really took the time to chat with booksellers. I often knew what I wanted (the latest Sweet Valley, the new John Grisham) and I preferred solitude when browsing. That changed when I moved to Canada and particularly when I became a bookseller myself for a while. Now I enjoy asking booksellers for their personal favourites and, while I see a few deer-in-the-headlights reactions, I’ve also discovered quite a few amazing titles.
On a recent trip to Vancouver, I dropped by new indie The Paper Hound (gorgeous shop and if I lived there, I’d totally clean out their Agatha Christie selection) and asked bookseller Rod for the best book he’d read recently. Long John Silver, by Bjorn Larsson, he said (Kirkus Review here) then threw me for a loop by asking me the same question. I’ve asked quite a few booksellers for the best book they’ve read recently, but it was the first time a bookseller had been interested in what I’d been reading myself that I loved. Other booksellers asked what I liked reading, in general, so they can recommend me something great, but Rod’s reaction struck me because he wasn’t asking as a bookseller (he didn’t have Long John Silver in stock himself) but as a fellow reader, and if I lived in Vancouver, The Paper Hound would definitely become a favourite spot.
I did have a bookseller encounter as a child that stuck with me, and when I read that line about remembering booksellers in A.J. Fikry, this is what I remembered: We were in Goodwill Bookstore, and the owner (President/CEO?) was there. It turned out he knew my dad, so he told me to choose a book — any book — and he’d give it to me for free. I don’t remember the man’s name, or how he looked, but I do remember how I felt at his words. I rushed down the aisles, searching for the one book I would choose. After a few agonized minutes, I came back with Sweet Valley Kids #29, Andy and the Alien. It’s a good book, though probably not my favourite Sweet Valley title, and worse, I later discovered I already owned a copy. I wish I could say I treasured that book, but the truth is, I pretty soon moved on to other Sweet Valley Kids books. I do treasure that memory, however. Years later, and I can still feel that sudden burst of joy, that ensuing panic at the time constraint, and the most glorious sensation of being overwhelmed by a bookstore.
Goodwill Bookstore later cut back on its literary offerings, and began focusing more on textbooks, trade titles and office supplies. I don’t know if they’re still around, and even if they are, it’ll now be a very different store from the one I raced around in search of Andy and the Aliens. But that memory will always stay with me, so to that nice man who created such a memory for a young booklover: Thank you.
And to all booksellers and librarians creating similar memories for children around the world: Kudos.
What’s your most memorable encounter with a bookseller?