By Steve Donoghue
I recently had a five-day visit from a friend who’s every bit as inveterately bookish as I am, so I couldn’t help but recognize the two foremost signs: extra room in the luggage (or an entire extra piece of luggage) reserved for books, and the intentional inclusion of bookstores on the holiday itinerary.
99 percent of the human race doesn’t read for pleasure and wouldn’t do it even if you had a loaded pistol to the head of their adorable puppy. So most people would find either one of those signs downright weird. Why would you actually plan to acquire some of the most awkward, cumbersome items you can find, on a trip where you’re worried about things like carry-on luggage or baggage-handlers sending your stuff to Estonia? And why would you spend time ferreting out a bunch of out-of-the-way bookstores when you could be using that time to see the sights, the parks and museums? To most travelers, it would make no sense at all.
Of course to bookish people it’s as natural as slipping on ice. Non-readers might, just might, see some point in visiting a bookstore if it were somehow famous — Powell’s in Portland, for instance, or Shakespeare and Co. in Paris, or New York City’s Strand bookstore. But even in those rare cases, they’d be going for a quick tour and a tote bag or key-fob; they’re always aghast when a bookish person actually wants to look at the individual books. “How about I go get some lunch and meet you back here in an hour?” And our response: “Better make it two.”
I’ve provoked my share of those kinds of questions (more than my share, in fact, since I don’t know how to drive a car and am therefore always on the sufferance of poor put-upon motorist friends), particularly since I tend to have a sweet spot for great sprawling used bookshops that are a bit off the beaten path and nowhere near any notion of public transportation. I’ve had such great hunting experiences at places like the Old Book Barn in Illinois, or Murphy’s Used Books & Media in Ohio, or the mighty Book Barn in Connecticut. In fact, it’s the whole being-a-burden aspect of these book-hunting expeditions that have always made me extra grateful for my own local bookshops, of course.
My visiting bookish friend had no such luxury this time around, of course. He’d flown hundreds of miles, and he’d observed the time-tested traditions: leave lots of room for the books you’re inevitably going to acquire the minute you start exploring your vacation destination. Leave some funds available. Be prepared to do some heavy-duty lugging. Expect to reach or exceed your carrying capacity on the flight home.
He indulged himself, as you might expect. Every bookstore, every charity shop, every possible venue for snarfing up more books – they were all harvested for anything my friend fancied and thought he might not be likely to find back home. In very little time, there were stacks of books on the living room floor.
And at the end of his visit, my friend had to deal with those stacks. Which once get crammed into his luggage? Which one gets carried in the free hand? Which ones will be left behind for me to mail in due time? It’s a mental arithmetic that will be familiar to most book-people.
It was certainly familiar to me, since I’ve done the same thing countless times. But every time I see a guest slowly growing those floor-stacks with new purchases, I experience a kind of split-screen memory. Yes, I’ve done this same thing, trekking to every bookstore in my target destination and then trying to figure out how to get them back home.
But the other side of the split-screen is almost the opposite. For many years, I traveled widely, sometimes for great thumping lengths of time – and whenever I did such traveling, I built no floor-stacks at all. In fact, I hardly ever even set foot in any bookstore, anywhere on my travels. Rather, I took the same little assortment of books, small paperbacks and sextodecimo-sized hardcovers, wedged them into the bottom of my foot locker, and simply live with those books on all my travels. I only went into a bookshop in Strasbourg or Chengdu or wherever if one of my books had somehow been lost or destroyed and I needed to replace it. And even in those very rare cases, I only bought the same book over again, never even really thought about hoovering up more. Hoovering up books was a treat I reserved for things that much more resembled “vacations.” Books that looked tempting on the front tables of some bookshop would be the very torments of the Devil when I was hacking through some Argentinian rain forest, so I just didn’t add any books.
My traveling days are now over, and in fact I think my vacationing days are pretty much over as well – so I’ll never need to face the kinds of book-hoovering challenges my friend did. There’s a big part of me that’s grateful for this – but it still made me wistful to watch.