Book Browsing - A Personal History

The other day, I ran into the Barnes and Noble on Union Square to grab a book I'd been eying. Though I went in with a mission, but I had a half an hour or so to kill before meeting a friend, so I spent some time browsing. Much to my surprise, as I perused the various offerings of the second floor, a perfect stranger came up and asked me where I was from. He explained that I reminded him of a girl he'd gone to high school with, and she laughed like a horse, so he would make fun of her, and the long and short of it was that if I was that girl, he wanted to apologize. (Note: I'm not that girl, and I don't laugh like a horse)

Ok, I get that it is New York, and there are a lot of crazy people here. And even if I believed this guy's story (which I didn't), it's a strange thing to ask someone in the middle of a bookstore. But what annoyed me most about it was that he interrupted my otherwise peaceful and enjoyable book-browsing experience. After five minutes of explaining that I wasn't her, I wasn't from LA, and answering a series of other bizarre questions, I just walked away. And straight to the register and then out of the store.

It wasn't because I thought he was creepy, though I did think that. It was more that book browsing, to me at least, is an art, a kind of meditation, an adventure, a rolled into one experience. And having that interrupted by a stranger - and a creepy stranger, at that - just ruined it.

I guess what I'm say is that shopping for books, be it in a small independent shop or an oversized national chain, is a deeply personal experience. The mere act of picking each book up, learning something new, seeing a new idea, a new design, a new cover, setting it back down, filing it back in its place on the shelf... or not setting it down, walking around the store with it, deciding if you will purchase or not, is an experience - something to be relished, not treated as a mere completion of a task. And not to be interrupted.

Personally, when I browse, I end up with a collection of 5 or 6 books in my hands, then weigh each one against the others (and my budget) and escort the losers back to their rightful place on the shelves. It is a kind of ritual, a balancing of my options, an examination of the store's offerings. I like to think that what I pick up, and what I pass by, and what I carry around, are all markers of my mood, my mindset, my personality. This kind of shopping is an activity, almost a hobby of sorts. As much as reading is important to me, so is the process by which I select what I will read.

One of the first "dates" I ever went on with my now fiancé, although we didn't call it that at the time, was to the Strand. I was looking for a copy of A Confederacy of Dunces, which he miraculously spotted on a table just inside the door immediately upon entering the store.

But here was the true test of compatibility - what next? We had completed our book-finding mission. Luckily, what came next was an hour-long exploration of 18 miles of books, sometimes together, sometimes apart. I know that now, in hindsight, I can read more into this afternoon than I did at the time, but I strongly feel that our compatibility in a bookstore, combined with our mutual reverence for books, confirmed a compatibility in life. And that is because book brow is a kind of a ritual, a personal adventure, filled with personal revelations and new understandings and new discoveries - about what you are drawn to, and about what is available.

It is not to be taken likely, and it is not to be interrupted. It is only sometimes meant to be shared.

I realize I overstate myself - but does anyone else feel this way about bookstores? How do you shop? And how do you feel about creepy strangers interrupting your browsing experience?


  1. Great post Kerry. I also do enjoy a long stroll through a book store, always have. My other personal weekly ritual is at the comic shop where I do the same kind of strolling. Seeing what catches my eye, or learning about a new book I hadn't seen before.
    I do try to leave people alone while browsing but am always happy to help someone with a question, which I've gotten a lot, even though I've never worked in a book store.
    That's such a nice story about your date at the Strand.

  2. Good point about answering questions, Jay. I have only ever gotten questions about books I'm already holding, but then I don't mind so much. If it's related to the book-searching, it becomes part of the experience rather than an interruption.


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