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Lewis Buzbee’s “The Yellow-Lighted Bookshop”

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The Yellow-Lighted Bookshop, Lewis BuzbeeBooks about the love of books should be prescribed as a seasonal therapy to all the parts involved in the publishing industry in a more or less professional capacity. Working in the witch’s den and living this world from the inside is a great privilege, of course, but in the long run a daily routine made of proposals to reject, messy manuscripts to edit, translation deadlines and lousy back-cover copy inevitably sucks the mojo out of what used to be a magical, inexplicable, gratuitous and endlessly fascinating item, a blessing, not to say the reason why some people accept to work for peanuts in the first place. A seductive bunch of printed paper between two covers.

Ask your friends: next to stockbrokers, serial killers and Hollywood producers, book men are the most cynical people around. They have seen it all, the waxing and waning of dubious reputations, they know the dingy backyard of literary glory, they have adjusted their spines to the meanderings of compromise. They read so much and so promiscuously that they end up forgetting what reading is all about, they have little time for the exhilarating, dream-conductive regions between the infinitely small of hyphens and Oxford commas and the outer space of sales figures and curves. At the other end of the line — reviewers and academics. Show me one that never drank of the cup of bitterness and disillusionment, and I’ll show you a man who would be better reemployed elsewhere. If you are one to wonder how gynecologists cope with their sexual life at home, you will probably get my meaning.

I have to thank Lewis Buzbee and his memoir The Yellow-Lighted Bookshop for two reasons: for reminding me that in every callous literary man hides a voracious teenager whose heart used to pound at the mere sight of a bookstore window and for alerting me to healthier ways of being professionally involved with books that I had never really considered: for example being the guy who sells or pitches them “on the floor”, a full-time book vendor.

Buzbee has been both: a passionate, insatiable reader and a man of the trade. He has worked as a clerk, a retailer and a traveling sales rep, apparently managing — as the Spinal Tap quote goes — to “have a good time all the time”. His job among the shelves, at a safe remove from the bubbling cauldron and the Shakespearian toil and trouble of the publishing industry, has allowed him to retain an almost childlike fascination for books as artifacts from another world, something great that happens to be there and commands respect and gratitude. Books that materialize out of nowhere and know how to find you more than the other way round, every encounter with one being a small epiphany. The ineffable, Christmas-like joy of slicing open a parcel or a cardboard box from the mailman’s truck to see what the new arrivals are is one of the leitmotivs of Buzbee’s recollections.

Another recurrent theme is the interaction with people, the pleasure of satisfying strangers, surprising them, putting the right thing into a customer’s hands and waiting for “it” to happen. Selling books is a social activity, a sort of mission: it takes dedication, love, discipline, patience, self-restraint and muscular force (medium-sized shops, it turns out, may receive up to a ton of paper in a single day). It is also great fun, incidentally, or so we are told. From the archetypal coolness of a late-seventies campus store in Palo Alto, California, to the predicaments of today’s private enterprises, menaced by corporate franchises, online shopping and e-books, Buzbee takes the reader through the highs and lows of a bookseller’s life – the world seen from the other side of the counter.

Interspersed with personal reminiscences and literary anecdotes (most famously, Sylvia Beach’s epic fight for Joyce’s Ulysses in Paris), there are chapters on the history of the book and the book market. These parts come across as slightly less brilliant than the rest, perhaps even a little naïve from a strictly scholarly point of view, but whenever a roguish book seller of old is involved – from Horace’s publishers, the Sosii, to the notorious Edwin Curll in seventeenth century London – we are in for great entertainment, because Buzbee likes his predecessors raw.

I seem to have much in common with the man. Among other things, a predilection for such diverse masterpieces as Platonov’s The Fierce and Beautiful World, Saki’s Complete Stories and Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath — not a bad desert island combo. I recognize myself in most of his childhood and teenage experiences, as far as book-craving and book-geekness are involved. A quality I certainly don’t possess but Buzbee provides in invigorating doses, however, is buoyancy. He has the practical wisdom and cautious optimism of a terrain man: no sirree, books are not dying, more were printed over the last decades than in the entire history of mankind, how’s that?; no way, small bookstores aren’t being eradicated, just pruned: the most dedicated are just as competitive as Amazon; reading habits are not decaying, you see, just changing: a considerable percentage of the overall online purchases is made up of books.

What “booklusters”, as he calls them, will appreciate the most are the small details, the description of the self-indulgent habits and compulsions of a serial reader’s life, down to the pleasure of picking up a second-hand copy with a stranger’s marginalia. The Yellow-Lighted Bookshop (an indirect quote from a Van Gogh letter) is a celebration of the printed page in its every form, from expensive collector’s editions to crippled paperbacks, a love song in disguise. If this is the chick-lit of book perverts, so be it: bibliophiles should not be ashamed of their vice.

Translators, editors, proofreaders, literary agents, scouts, sales managers, reviewers and all the manners of people who zoom in on the finger and tend to forget about the moon ought to be prescribed this kind of material at least twice a year, as a memento or a vitamin cure. This may sound a little cheesy, but we happen to be in this profession for a special reason: forget what it is, and you will find yourself mourning your non-existent Rolex and Mercedes for the rest of your life. Books are commodities, investments, ways to scrap up a living when a career in finance is the last option you would consider, but they are first and foremost one of the best things that ever happened to us as a species and as individuals. We could just as well enjoy them while we can.
Sometimes we need the unassuming guy behind the counter to remind us of what it is like to be readers, just readers, grateful readers and nothing more.

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