A Love Letter to Bookstores

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Lewis Buzbee

Lewis Buzbee's The Yellow-Lighted Bookshop: A Memoir, A History (Graywolf Press), a July 2006 Book Sense Pick, is one man's account of his journey from frequent reader to true bibliophile. It is also a sweeping history of bookselling, from sixth-century China to 21st-century America, papyrus scrolls to e-books. And it is, from beginning to end, a love letter to bookstores.

Buzbee knows bookstores. He spent a decade working at Bay Area bookstores Upstart Crow and Printers Inc., followed by seven years as a sales rep for Chronicle Books. And he's made several contributions to bookstore inventories. In addition to The Yellow-Lighted Bookshop, he's published a novel, Fliegelman's Desire (2000), the short-story collection After the Gold Rush (2006), poetry, and numerous articles and stories in literary journals.

It was shelving that very inventory that touched off Buzbee's self-professed obsession with bookstores: "It was all I did for the first couple of weeks at Upstart Crow -- and there was something about the presence of all those books -- and everything I learned from authors' names to reading the back of math books, that struck a particular chord in me. For better or worse, I got stuck."

Buzbee's descriptions of the rapture he feels upon entering a bookstore, his recounting of the moment that touched off his book lust, and his long list of favorite bookstores will inspire a strong sense of recognition in any bibliophile that turns The Yellow-Lighted Bookshop's pages.

Those cream-colored pages, and the other physical attributes of the book -- from its books-as-beacon cover design to the appealing size -- will likely prove irresistible to devoted readers who appreciate books for how they look and feel, in addition to what they contain.

Said Buzbee, "For me to publish a book, it's not just about the writing; it's about the whole package. The size of this book, the endpapers, the deckled edges, the price -- these are all aspects the publisher, Graywolf Press, and I worked on together. I think we made a luscious little object; we knew for this particular subject, the book had to be sensually alluring."

Appealing, too, are Buzbee's spot-on assessments of why bookstores go beyond mere retail. He explained, "Most of my feeling about people's passion for bookstores comes from having worked in them -- watching people's faces, how they are in [bookstores], from realizing early on that people didn't just come and say 'I need this, and I have to pick up a dozen eggs.' There's something else that goes on, people are looking for more than just an object.... There's some part of their soul or brain they want to connect with somebody else in the world. There's a huge difference between bookstores and other shops."

That shared passion among readers and booksellers has been influential in terms of The Yellow-Lighted Bookshop's sales. "That's why the book has done as well as it has so far -- because of booksellers, not from a huge ad campaign," Buzbee noted. "Booksellers liked it and started telling their customers.... It's a great example of how important booksellers can be."

However, he said, "I've taken some flack from independent booksellers who think the book should be only about independent stores. That's too narrow of a scope for me. Chains can do a great service, especially in outlying areas that have never had bookstores. And I find it really disrespectful when people say chains are stupid and horrible. Remember, a lot of independent booksellers started in chains, and there are a lot of booksellers in chain stores who are committed, smart, and passionate."

But, Buzbee added, "I don't mean to be too glib -- it's a very tough time for independents. Chains did a lot of eroding in the early 1990s, and the Internet is doing that now.... But I have to believe independents will survive one way or another simply because those who are passionate about books as something other than a commodity will demand places like [independent bookstores]."

Buzbee also doesn't think that electronic books will eradicate paper ones any time soon. Rather, he noted, "A paper book is such a durable, inexpensive, and friendly object.... We are still so sensually tied to books. We might run out of trees first!"

In The Yellow-Lighted Bookshop, he muses on the state of publishing, and cites author/publisher Dave Eggers as an example of the newcomers who "will produce the writers we'll be reading 30 years from now." Buzbee touches upon the inventions, innovations, and book-loving individuals who have gotten us to where we are today, with so many new books published each year, available to consumers in so many formats and venues.

And for civilians (or, those not in the book business), Buzbee explains ISBNs, describes the advent of the mass-market paperback, and spends five pages roundly debunking the notion that books are too expensive. Rather, he writes, "The durability and flexibility of the book make it one of the most value-laden objects in the shopper's paradise we call America."

Perhaps some of those objects will be created by students in the Masters of Fine Arts program at the University of San Francisco, where Buzbee teaches writing. (He received his own MFA from Warren Wilson College in North Carolina.) He said, "MFAs take a lot of hits ... people don't need them to be writers, certainly.... But for people to study and teach writing for two years, at the very least it creates generations of more passionate readers."

Buzbee's own eight-year-old daughter, Maddy, is already a passionate reader, and one activity that's been fun for father and daughter of late is Buzbee's next endeavor, a series of chapter books for kids ages six to 10. "My daughter helps me edit them -- she has a very good ear. And when I went into her classroom last spring, I took my first chapter and had the class workshop it, instead of just saying 'This is what it means to be a writer.'"

Also on deck for Buzbee is another adult novel, along with visits to bookstores in support of The Yellow-Lighted Bookshop, which, he said, "is not really my book. In a way, it sort of belongs to the bookstores. To see so many people excited about it, reading it, talking about it, I get to take part on behalf of bookstores. That's just really fun for me." --Linda M. Castellitto