By WENDY HODGE
In all of my travels, in this country and overseas, I’ve seen monuments and artwork, natural wonders and famous folks. I’ve listened to symphonies and watched famous plays. I’ve been to concerts and parties. The memories I’ve made while on a trip are priceless.
But while my friends and family flock to tourist shops to buy T-shirts or postcards stamped with the Eiffel Tower or the Atlantic Ocean, I can inevitably be found in what I consider to be the treasure of each city I visit — the local bookstore.
Neil Gaiman once said, “A town isn’t a town without a bookstore.” I agree wholeheartedly. There’s nothing like the rush of wind as you open a bookshop door. The bell above you tinkles to let the storekeeper know another bibliophile has entered. There is a quiet in a bookstore that is unique. It’s a silence filled with comfort and excitement all at once. The occasional whisper can be heard, and the flutter of pages … even a sigh of contentment now and then, if the bookstore is worthy.
And then there’s the unmistakable scent of print on paper. New books smell like print shops and endless possibilities. If you scan enough pages, it is quite possible to get slightly lightheaded. Fresh pages with crisp corners are as lovely as clean cool sheets on a freshly made bed.
It’s the used books I love best, though. The weight of a previously loved book is unique, as if the hands that have held it before you have shaped it, realigned the spine a bit … broken it in. The pages yield when you turn them because they know the words they hold are being absorbed by new eyes. A used bookstore has a scent that I wish could be bottled. It is the smell of faded ink and gold-edged paper, of coffee stains and teardrop marks on favorite passages, of dust and weather … it smells of time itself.
Virginia Woolf said, “Second-hand books are wild books, homeless books; they have come together in a vast flock of variegated feather and have a charm which the domesticated volumes of the library lack. Besides, in this random miscellaneous company, we may rub against some complete stranger who will, with luck, turn into the best friend we have in the world.”
I first discovered my favorite author in a used bookstore. It was on a trip to Savannah when I entered The Book Lady for the first time. The owner, it turned out, was from my hometown. Her giant teddy bear of a dog lounged at her feet while she and I chatted about people we knew and places she missed. Talk turned, as it often does when you’re talking to a bookshop owner, of favorite authors. We compared our tastes in literature and writers, and she directed me to a bookshelf in the center of the shop. And there I picked up my first Jodi Picoult novel. I was not the first person to pick up that book. In fact, I was probably not the 51st person to turn its pages. The spine was broken. The pages were so soft they felt like fabric. The print was more gray than black, and the cover was torn.
It was perfect.
The book rode home with me and has stayed on a bookshelf in whatever home I’ve been in ever since. I will die with that book still sitting on a shelf, and I will carry the words in it with me until I breathe my last. It has become a best friend.
Since then, I have gone to that bookstore (and countless others) in search of more perfect volumes, Picoult’s and so many other writers’, to add to those shelves. And I have found them, countless times over.
I’ve found more than books behind doors that read “The Last Chapter,” “A Novel Idea” and “Your Books or Mine?” Often I have found a community … like-minded readers who know the value of words. Bibliophiles, just like me.
Gloria Steinem said, “Wherever I go, bookstores are still the closest thing to a town square.” For years, naysayers have predicted the downfall of physical bookstores. Kindles and computer screens make printed pages obsolete, “they” say. “People don’t read anymore,” is another opinion that’s been flung about. Even physical libraries, city planners predict, will be a thing of the past before the century is over.
But they’re wrong. Just ask the throngs of people, from grade school to nursing homes, who have read every page of all seven Harry Potter books. I’ve witnessed children and adults alike, waiting until midnight to get the latest installment of their favorite novel at their local big-chain bookstore. I’ve mingled with strangers in more cities than I can count, each of them with the same excitement when talking about the latest John Grisham novel or the debut work of Delia Owens or sharing a classic like “Pride and Prejudice” with their daughter for the first time.
I read these words by Alberto Manguel in a well-worn book I bought in St. Gervais, France: “Maybe this is why we read, and why in moments of darkness we return to books: to find words for what we already know.”
I have shuffled down crowded aisles between rows of books and boxes, reaching for that one novel I just have to have, while others around me (speaking French, or a New Jersey twang or Cockney British) reach for the same treasure. I’ve negotiated over a three-dollar copy of To Kill a Mockingbird with booksellers on a busy New York street, and once I even bought a book in an antique bookshop that was kept locked behind a glass door because of its value.
Books and the people who love them will never be obsolete. Stephen Fry said, “Books are no more threatened by Kindle than stairs by elevators.”
I, for one, will always be the girl Annie Dillard spoke of … “She reads books as one would breathe air, to fill up and live.”
To all my fellow bibliophiles out there, here’s to many more rainy afternoons in used bookstores and small-town libraries, to adventures that require no passport or suitcase and to the peace and comfort that come from reading new words and old words that speak to us across time and remind us that we are not alone in our thoughts and our experiences.