Stacks, Spines and Bookstores
I have to admit, I'm a bookstore person.
I can only remember one time when I truly loved the library, and that was in first grade when my local library had a summer reading program where I earned an animal sticker for every book I read. They gave us a large sheet of paper with a
drawing of the wilderness and I could put my sticker where ever I wanted it to go. I thought it was awesome.
As a teenager I loved browsing my local bookstore and choosing new books to read. And when I wrote my first book in 2004, I wrote at a local B&N. I loved that they played music softly in the background and had large windows that let in lots of natural light (and the Cheesecake Factory cheesecake slices were a nice little bonus from the cafe).
And then a few things happened that made me leave that B&N and not go back. One day while writing I spotted a middle aged man stuffing books into his jacket as he shoplifted. By the time I told the cafe person, he was gone. From that point on I started looking at all of those secluded aisles differently. They weren't just stacked with books, they were a place where people could do things they'd never do in public. Which brings me to the second event. I was writing in a large leather chair in one section of the bookstore and a man sat in the chair across from me. I sat there typing for a while and finally looked up. Only to find the man had unzipped his pants, exposed himself and was touching himself while I was writing my book. I went nuts. I started screaming for the manager, yelling for them not to let this man out the door and to call the police. I remember my heart pumping and just not being able to control myself. I was so angry!! I followed him to the door and stood there so he couldn't leave until the police came. All I could think of was some young girl sitting there reading a book and what would have happened if she saw what I saw and how it would have affected her. Which brings me to the third event. Which involved a teenaged boy who sat across from me, pulled out a porn magazine and read it while he touched himself. And this, while two other people sat in the cluster of chairs with us.
Sadly, I've never viewed bookstores in the same way since. What was once a place to spend hours finding stories has been spoiled for me. Now I think about how those stacks give people a place to hide, a place to be alone with strangers and possibly young kids and to do things they couldn't do anywhere else. Bookstores are unlike any other store - which I once thought was what made them great. Bookstores are sacred places where you're choosing characters and places to let into your life, to spend hours engrossed in, and then let them live in your mind forever. Try doing that with a shirt you got at Abercrombie.
Today I still write in a bookstore, albeit an independent bookstore in a nearby town and in the cafe section, not the stacks. I love being surrounded by all those stories and the authors who sat hunched over a keyboard banging out what was in their head. But it's different for me now, and when I see kids browsing alone I can't help but think back to my experience. And I hate that those men ruined what a bookstore once meant to me. A place that was safe and welcoming and filled with possibility. I lament that ebooks will change the experience of so many people who once wandered book stores aisles looking at colorful spines and reading jacket copy. I wonder if one day soon kids will never have to enter a bookstore and pull a book off the shelf, they'll just download a file onto their iPads. And even though our reasons for staying out of the stacks will be different, both reasons make me a little sad.