Sunday Salon: Bookstore Rituals

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.

VanderVeldeGroningenMy 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?

12 thoughts on “Sunday Salon: Bookstore Rituals

  1. Eva

    What a fascinating post Iris!

    I don’t really go into bookstores unless I’m travelling, and then it’s more out of curiousity than to buy books. But I have lots of library rituals.😉

  2. Jeane

    It has been many years since I went into a real bookstores. Mostly because I usually can’t afford new books, and secondly because there are no indie bookstores near me- the closest being at least an hour away. But there is a wonderful place in Baltimore which is basically a five-room basement full of used books that are all free. I manage to get there once a year (it’s a full two hours from me) and have a definite pattern of which shelves I search first, according to what kinds of books interest me most. Also because sometimes my time is limited. I’m always thrilled with what I bring home, though.

  3. cbjamess

    You’ve got me thinking about visiting bookstores in Paris. I speak no French, but did visit quite a few bookstores while in Paris. It was lost of fun to browse around trying to figure out titles; many looked really interesting and made me wish I could take the time to learn French.

    In a store full of English books, there are two in Paris, I do limit my looking to certain sections. In the French language store I looked at all of the books including sections I’d never give the time of day to in English.

  4. winstonsdad

    When in London Iris the LRB is the one bookshop I try to get to because it is full of great translation ,nearer home is sheffield I like to buy three books at a go if possible not sure just a thing I like to do ,all the best stu

  5. Alex in Leeds

    I felt a little bit the same the first time I went into a big American out-of-town bookshop about five years ago. It was three times the size of any I’d ever been in before and the sections were just so huge I was worried that whichever area I explored first would just offer so many choices I’d never be able to sift through them all. In the end I picked a couple of sections to go check out and then went for a walk to clear my head. I’ve never had that sensation again but it was like someone scrambling my bookshop radar or something, a lovely dilemma to have but overwhelming all the same.

  6. Jenny

    I had rituals in my old bookstore, at home, but not so much here in New York. The bookstores are very very crowded. It’s hard to feel comfortable and at home in quite the same way — I feel rushed and in the way, instead of calm and at home. Oh well.

  7. nikki / clickclackgorilla

    Oh yeah! I have exactly the same sort of ritual (I live in Germany). I pretty much pop into every bookstore I pass, just to check out the English section (which of course is also what I base my entire opinion of the store on). It’s interesting too because in the States (where I’m from) I wasn’t much of a new book shopper. I always would go into used book stores, look at everything, and come home with a bagful of surprise awesomeness. In Germany the used book stores just aren’t the same (largely due to some really strict pricing laws they have here), so when I am back in the States I almost never go into regular book stores, but spend hours and hours in used stores.

    What are the names of those English book stores in Amsterdam? I will probably be going there in the next three or four months at some point, and I want to check them out!

    1. Fabiola

      Hi Nikki, I don’t live in Amsterdam (I live in the South of the Netherlands instead), but I think Iris is referring to the American Book Center (at Spui 12, Amsterdam) and Waterstones (Kalverstraat 152). Those are the only English-language book stores in Amsterdam I’m familiar with, so I’m not sure if there are any more.

      My experience with bookstores in English-speaking countries is more or less the same as Iris’. Overwhelmed but content is indeed the best way to put it.

      1. Iris Post author

        Additionally, there is a sort of “dump” store of English books at the very end of the Kalverstraat (meaning, if you walk into the Kalverstraat from the Dam, you will first encounter the Waterstones at the right hand side, but if you continue on, towards the very end of the street, you will find a store of English books at your left hand side (not sure what it is called, or if it has a name)). It usually sells most bgooks for 5 euro. I go there almost everytime I visit Amsterdam. You have to check every table etc, and most books are not new releases, but you can discover great titles there that were on long or shortlists a few years ago, etcetera.

  8. Joanna @ CreateYourWorld

    I do the same as you, living in Belgium. Although I do have an entire little shop of English books in the town near me, there are more expats here than in Groningen. When I go to London etc, I go into bookstores to look at books and yes, it’s easier to pick out the familiar authors. The deal I have to make with myself though is to only buy books that are on sale or some special deal. The others that interest me I just write down. Otherwise I’d be buying way too many in each bookstore I visit.

  9. Bookgazing

    I tend to hit the tables at the front of the shop first, but if I’m in my favourite shop (the big Waterstones in the city – no indies here so it’s the best i’ve got) I just wend my way around the shelves from A -Z. There’s so much and I always find things I’ve only seen on Amazon or have never heard of before. This year before my works drinks do I went there for an hour to calm myself, because I am a huge nerd😛

  10. Chris

    This was a really interesting post!! You gave me a point of view that I’ve never had before🙂 I can so relate to your first paragraph! I get that exact same feeling. But I can so relate to the rest of your post too. Our bookstores are so big that I go to certain sections and browse because if I went in just planning to browse the whole store I would be completely overwhelmed…aside from our local independent bookstores. I LOVE those. If you ever come to New Orleans, I’ll show you some lovely bookshops that would not overwhelm you🙂


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