Book Review: The Yellow-Lighted Bookshop by Lewis Buzbee

I've been on a bit of a kick lately with books about books, it seems. First Shadow of the Wind, then The Thirteenth Tale, now The Yellow-Lighted Bookshop. To be fair, though, all three books were gifts; clearly my friends and family know me well, because I've enjoyed every one.

The Yellow-Lighted Bookshop is, as the subtitle suggests, part memoir, part history. Author Lewis Buzbee has spent his entire career in various corners of the bookselling industry: store clerk, publisher's rep, author. He draws just as heavily on anecdotal evidence as historic fact in his presentation of the course of the bookshop throughout our history.

Beyond memoir and history, though, Buzbee's book is a collection of trivia about the bookshop. Did you know, for example, that before the printing press, it is estimated that there were only 50,000 books in all of Europe? That's books, not titles. 50,000 in comparison to the 20 million estimated a mere 50 years after the first Gutenberg Bible was produced. Or how about the names of various pieces of those precious books that line your shelves? The right page is the verso, the left the recto. The groups of pages found in a hardcover are called signatures; when paperback pages are cut flush and glued to the spine, this is called perfect-binding.

Gives you a new appreciation for all that publishing lingo, don't it?

It seems to me that that is part of Buzbee's plan, here. He notes that the novel has died, books have died, and now, at the dawn of the e-reading era, there are those that make the case that reading itself is dying. Bookselling is certainly on the decline; one indie is closing down after the next. But amidst all the bad news, Buzbee finds the silver lining: there are new bookshops opening. There are avid readers who will never give up the paper pages they hold in their hands. There are people like you and me that get absolutely giddy at the prospect of a book about books; we keep authors like him and publishers like his going.

In the face of over 150,000 new titles published per year (that's 411 per day, for those not willing to do the math), we sift through our options to find something that will engage us. For the record, Buzbee points out that that is 50,000 more titles per year than the entire collection held at the library at Alexandria. Per year, readers. But do not despair, for that is why we have our trusty booksellers to guide us, selecting titles for feature tables, face-outs, hand-selling.

And on the question of the internet and its threat to these very booksellers?
" and other sits like it are not without benefit. If only because the growth of e-commerce hurt so many independent bookstores, the fate of the independent became newsworthy, and as a culture we began to value what we had taken for granted for so long." (p. 206)

"The Internet bookstore is here to stay, no doubt... But the Internet bookstore places barriers between the reader and the book that leach much of the pleasure the brick-and-mortar store has always offered. Until the odor-replicator program is invented, how will we know if a book smells right?" (p. 207)
Ha! I knew I wasn't alone in my love of the smell of books. Now I have proof in the comments of others on my blog AND in Lewis Buzbee's commitment of this sentiment to paper.

Bottom line: While certainly not destined to become a classic, The Yellow-Lighted Bookshop is, if nothing else, a reminder that we are not alone in our love of books; there are others like us. That is what makes the bookstore so important, just as we are what keeps the bookstore alive. Expect this one to be a book that will persist in appearing in our bookloving lives. From ancient Rome and China to the publication of Shakespeare to the dawn of corporate chains and internet discount stores, this is a complete, engaging look at the history of bookselling. Count on it to be the perfect gift for your book-loving friends; a balanced education about an influential institution; and full of quotable extracts for yourself:
"Books connect us with others, but that connection is created in solitude, one reader in one chair hearing one writer, what John Irving refers to as one genius speaking to another." (p. 6)

Note: All page counts refer to the paperback edition.


  1. It even has a lovely cover. And that quote from page 207 about a book smelling right? So true.

  2. A fine post!

    I bought the book for myself a few years ago but ended up thinking it a perfect gift. Three times I've done this, and three times I gave it away without reading it. One of these days, I think it will show up on my doorstep. Book karma. :)

    My boss suggested I read it as well, and it does sound very interesting. I too love books about books. Have you read A Novel Bookstore by Laurence Cossé? Or Penelope Fitzgerald's The Bookshop? And 84, Charing Cross Road? (I think you might have already seen my review of that, or read the book)?

  3. Oh good! A book about books - love them. And, the smell of books is a distinct and comforting scent - I like ebooks for the convenience, nothing replaces the sensation of holding a book and turning the pages.

  4. What a great review! Really. This sounds like a book I should really read. I want to learn about the history of books and as much as I can about publishing. Thanks, Kerry!

  5. that quote frm pg 207 is so true!....the smell of a book and the texture of its pages under my fingertips is an essential part of my reading experiences...before going into a bookshop i would always stop, take a deep breath and smell that fantastic scent of all those books waiting for me~......

  6. I'm reading Pat Conroy's My Reading Life and loving it right now, but it looks like this one might be a nice follow-up to that.

  7. I loved this book! It's one of my favorite bookish books.

  8. Mystica - Thanks!

    Trish - It is, all around, a lovely little book. I love paperbacks with French flaps, too.

    Steph - Oh! You have to read it for yourself, too, and THEN keep getting more as gifts. I haven't read the others, though I've had my eye on 84, Charing Cross Road for ages now.

    Ann - I know exactly what you mean. I appreciate the convenience of e-books, but then I miss my paper pages!

    Brenn - Thanks! It's a really easy read, but lots and lots of trivia and info packed in. I think you'd like it.

    Indira - I do the same thing. Seriously, this blog has been wonderful in many ways, and one of them is learning how many other people are ga-ga for the smell of books.

    Andi - I've heard a lot about that one, might have to track down a copy for myself soon...

    Softdrink - It is fun, isn't it? Thanks for stopping by!


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