Bookstores are a little like a safe haven to me. When I step inside I usually feel at ease pretty fast, because I know that I am in a place where most others are looking for the exact same things that I am there for: books.
My favourite bookstore in Groningen. [image credit]
Browsing a bookstore in the Netherlands, where English is not the native language, for me means that I have a set ritual of where I look. I locate the English books section and I go through the shelves set aside for these books. I need not even be looking for a specific title. I admit: sometimes I go into a store just to look at books, see what they have, not planning to buy anything, just to see books. Because Dutch stores have to import their foreign language books and usually have a more limited number of customers that buy them, there is a definite selection in the titles they portray. It is this selection that I am often curious about: Do they have the titles that are receiving the latest hype in the blogging world? Do they have at least a few of the long or shortlisted books for the most recent book awards? Do I recognise some of my favourite books, or ones that have been on my wish list for long? I admit, I judge the store by the quality of their English book selection. Yes, it is unfair for a country in which a majority of the books sold in stores are those published in Dutch. But it is what makes me either love a store, or only go there because it is a bookstore and therefore inherently more interesting to me than, say, a shoeshop.
If I am lucky, the store will also have a separate bookshelf for English books in the Children’s or Young Adult section. This is my next stop in the store. Unfortunately I have to admit that these sections usually only lead to disappointment, as YA books featured in English are often only the very big sellers, like Twilight (again, it makes sense, but it’s not what I’d like to see).
So why do I bother to tell you all of this?
Well, when I was in London last December, and when I visited England and met up with a group of wonderful bloggers the year before, I noticed something every time we entered a bookstore..
Here’s the thing. I always dream of an all-English bookstore. There are a few in Amsterdam, but Amsterdam is at least 2 hours from where I live. I dream of a store where I can enter and not judge it by its having the books I already own, the books I already know about, the books that are familiar to me. I rarely go to a book store in the Netherlands to browse and find new titles, because I know the most effective way to find these books is in my online community where I am more in touch with the Anglophone market. When I am in the Netherlands, my time in a bookstore is limited because I only have so many shelves to browse (five book cases if I am very lucky). So I get to look at all the books they own in English. There is a finite number of books to see. And that is when I leave (with or without a book), because I know that I have seen all there is to see for me. And I can be either happy because I have found quite a few books that I own/want/have heard great things about (this always makes me want to find the shop keeper and tell him or her how wonderful their English books section is), or I leave slightly frustrated by the fact that I am living in a non-Anglophone country.
The thing is, when I enter a bookshop in England, my bookstore rituals go all topsy-turvy. And it confuses me. There is no finite number of shelves to browse (well, there are, but their number is exponentially bigger). There is no looking for the newest titles in between your standard classics, because there are whole shelves of new books. And the Children’s section? I am overwhelmed by the sheer number of books I want to read & touch & have. Same goes for the Fiction section. The Young Adult section. They might even have a separate Classics section.
So what did I do in London? Out of sheer overwhelmedness, I did not browse looking for new to me titles. I had no clue where to begin. Instead, I looked for the familiar, something I had never dreamed I would do in my English-bookshop-of-dreams. Of course, there are a very large number of familiar books. So much so that my partner experienced some of what I experience when we visit a large music store together: I always wanted to see more, him having to wait for me yet longer. The realisation that here are books by A.S. Byatt, by Angela Carter, by Patrick Ness, by Diana Wynne Jones.. They are there, physically there, to choose from. This probably sounds dramatic to any UK, Australian, or US resident, but it is something that definitely made me feel a little in awe. And just a tad overwhelmed. Where do you start? How do you choose? So I browsed the sections that usually make me feel comfortable: I looked for authors familiar to me but whose books I did not own. I held their books in my hand. Then I moved to the Children’s section, because there is something comforting about it being a self-contained section of infinite and yet finite choice. I looked for all the books I love. I stroked their spines. I stood there with 10 unowned books by Diana Wynne Jones before me. Overwhelmed, but very very content.
It brought home the limitations of my regional bookstores in the Netherlands: to see so many of the books you love, or want to own, together in one space, without having to browse Amazon for the titles.. it’s all kinds of wonderful. But it is also a lot to take in when you are not used to it. So I resorted to the familiar in the unfamiliar. More than ever, it brought home to me how my bookstore visits are almost ritualised. In the Netherlands because I only seek out those sections that bring me joy. In the UK because I look for something that helps me be somewhat selective in a sea of choice. And I always, always, touch those books familiar, loved, or that I feel would be loved by me.
It also made me wonder if any other book lovers have such bookstore rituals. Do you?