When I was seven years old I dreamed of one day owning a bookshop. When I was seven years old I also thought that somebody in their mid-40s was very old; so old in fact I could not even imagine what it would be like to be in one’s forties. Hence, I thought I would die before I was 50.
Fear not, ill-wishers, if there are any of you reading this; there is still time. I’m now in my late-40s, unimaginably old, and I don’t own a proper bookshop. I might be still alive, but as for bookshops… only just. Entire chains, like Borders, have vanished, partly because people today are reading fewer books than yesterday, and partly because when they do, they tend to order them cheaper online rather than visit a brick and mortar store. Or they simply download them, like music and movies. Independent bookstores have fared somewhat better, particularly those that worked out a special niche for themselves and offer their patrons an experience instead of a mere transaction. But their existence too is precarious. As for the once ubiquitous second-hand bookshops, they have suffered even more. I remember thirty years ago, not long after I came to Australia, letting my fingers do the walking down the columns of listings in a phone book (what’s that, you might ask); if not every suburb with a retail strip, then at least one in two seemed to have a ‘book exchange’. A few still survive, most of them catering to the upper end of the market, including antiquarian and rare, but an average everyday one is largely gone. Increasingly, it’s getting difficult to construct a viable business model for a relatively small commodity that is losing popularity but also at the same time available online while the real estate and outgoings costs are not getting any cheaper.
For those of us who at some point in our lives have caught the reading bug this is a sad state of affairs. I was five when I learned to read, and for better or worse the rest is history. What’s killing reading is a debate for another time – more entertainment options, an internet-driven collapse of attention spans, progressing social de-literacy are just a few possible factors – but it’s in turn killing the middlemen and -women who traditionally were the conduit between authors and publishers and book buyers and readers. The love of books more and more seems like an exotic hobby that makes you a member of a small secret fraternity (and sorority), perhaps what birdwatching and trainspotting have always been. There are no secret handshakes to identify a kindred soul, but you certainly feel the familiarity and kinship whenever two or more come together, most likely in the presence of the flesh and blood – or rather paper and ink – books. And with the decline of a bookshop, those opportunities are becoming rare.
Books are one of those cultural objects which appeal variously when new as well as old. There is the fresh scent of print and the pristine feel to a new book, but equally there is beauty to yellowed pages and weathered covers – with an extra bonus of the feeling you get when you handle history. Even if not necessarily rare and collectable, an old book speaks to the past that was once its present, with all its interests, preoccupations and biases, often so different to today’s. The presence of age also makes you wonder about the book’s very own history. Who was the original buyer? Was it a gift or one’s own purchase? How many others have handled, read and owned it? Why did it change hands? Was it loved or was it a mistake? How did it survive for so long? It’s not just the story in the book, it’s the story of the book itself that intrigues us.
I might have written one and a half books, but above all I’m a consumer and a collector, though the latter term should not imply quality and sophistication as much as quantity and a hoarding habit. I’m a squirrel, or in the Polish equivalent a hamster, as a visit to my home, and particularly my garage, will attest. But I’m also a weekend bookseller of sorts. True, it only happens one day every two months, and the store, such as it is, is very much improvised, but the seven year old me shouldn’t complain too much; forty-odd-year-old dreams will inevitably look slightly different in reality.
At the risk of sounding peculiar and eccentric too (or even more peculiar and eccentric than usual), it’s not as much a bookshop as an adoption agency or a shelter for books. Every year, countless tomes get lost to age and damage or get otherwise taken out of circulation (and, if lucky, end up in a recycled afterlife). Infinitely more books yet still linger forgotten and forlorn on their disinterested owners’ shelves or packed in boxes or in some obscure retail places, waiting for unlikely buyers to rescue them from the oblivion of obscurity and dust. When I see a good book (and let’s face, too many titles out there, including plenty of popular bestsellers, at best only deserve to come back in the next life as toilet paper) I want to find a good new home for it and a good new owner; I turn into a one-man bibliophilic Tinder app that matches titles with their admirers. As much as it gives joy to meet fellow book-lovers, it gives even more satisfaction to unite a book (or two or five or a hundred) with someone who will read it – and hopefully enjoy it too. Knowing myself the buzz of finally finding a book I have been looking for (sometimes without realising I have been looking for it), particularly if it’s somewhere unexpected and at a bargain to boot, I know how it feels for others. It might not be as glorious or socially useful as finding new dog-parents for a three-legged Lab pup, but these days you have to take pleasure where you can find it.
I’m not one for lessons, but there are a few here of sorts, if you need some. Passions are important in life. Dream can come true even if not in exactly the same as you once thought. More importantly, this is not a passive process – it’s up to you to make it happen. As individuals we might not be able to stop or change the course of history or the broad social and economic trends around us, but we all have the power – and increasingly the tools that were not available to any generation before us – to make and shape our own reality, and then share it with others.
Oh, and the last one: the unimaginable is yesterday, today is life, tomorrow is a mystery.