I work in a bookstore. It wasn't my first choice of a job out of gradschool with degrees in music, English and Shakespeare, but as I've worked the last month and a half, I have been finding this job an increasing joy and privilege. Labyrinth Books is an independent academic and community bookstore in Princeton NJ, one of the nicest bookstores I think I've ever visited. We sell new, like new, used and bargain books, so if you're coming in hoping to find a pile of books for less than $10, you can do that. If you want the new releases discussed on NPR, we have them too. If you just want to browse some really well stocked shelves or need to pick out some books for your grandchildren we can provide a quiet, calm and focused environment for that. This is all stuff that one expects from most bookstores, what I think makes Labyrinth individual is the seriousness with which the staff approach their work. The manager and owner of the store both speak of this work as a duty, as a way of curating the knowledge contained in all these books. So Labyrinth also hosts many events, poetry readings, lectures and discussions with authors.
I think I first knew I was working in an exceptional bookstore when I came back to work after my shift to come to the first event of the season. It was a poetry reading, and I knew there would be three poets reading who's new work were carry, and the finalists for some highschool poetry contest were going to read as well. In my mind I imagined a number of local highschool kids reading middling breakup poetry and a few nice new poems by some relatively obscure poets, and there would be perhaps 10 people in the audience? Mostly the high school kids' parents and a few elderly couples. What I found myself attending instead was a large gathering (perhaps 70 guests?) listening to three exceptional poets (Tracy K. Smith won the Pulitzer in Poetry for her new collection, Life on Mars) and the secondary school poetry prize winners were not a few local kids. They were young poets from all over the country, whose voices rang clear and strong, and whose words startled me out of any expectations of mediocrity. I was humbled, and grateful to learn (once again) how much I have to learn.
Even "coursebook rush" a time of high stress and intensity in the shop as we sell all of Princeton their books for the semester left me impressed. I hadn't really thought too much about the fact that every semester college students spend hundreds of dollars in books so that they can learn. They're already paying tuition, right? It made me think perhaps in my new life post-academic studies that every fall and spring, I should budget out a fair amount of income to buy books specifically so that I can learn. The courses these students were taking made me drool a little too. There was a course on Women and Theater in which they were reading Paula Vogel, Gurira, I am an Emotional Creature, and a book written by the professor titled, Feminist Spectator as Critic. Another course, this one a religion course about fairy tales and good and evil narratives? They were all reading Ursula Le Guin and Tolkien and Susan Cooper, 100 Years of Solitude, and The Once and Future King. I would pack up the students' books for these classes and wish I were still in school, or I would make plans for reading them myself. But there were other classes which just made me glad for the future of humanity. In one class, (a Sociology class or Econ perhaps?) all of the books were about entrepreneurship and small business models and imagining a future without poverty. I don't have delusions about fifty people from this undergrad class at Princeton ending world hunger, but knowing that privileged, intelligent students choose to take this class gives me hope.
There is something rather tender about working at a bookstore at this point in the history of the world. I know the age of print is giving way to digital mediums (despite all the fervent ardor of book titles on the literature new release table), and one of the things making me so grateful to work in a bookstore is the knowledge that my grandchildren won't be able to. So as I shelve, or gather books for an order to the UK, or repair display copies of pop-up books, I am warm with gratitude. For the books, (their smell, their touch, their physical presence in the room) and all they hold for everyone who reads them.