Down at a restaurant on Sansom Street one night, waiting for a friend, having not gone into the bookstore on my way there, sensing how hard I’d just had to restrain myself again from going in to look at books, I began to think about what I wanted at bookstores, and what other people like me might want in their own way at bookstores.
Maybe it was just me, but the thought of having a bookstore all to myself seemed divine. To have hours alone in that public place so frequently full of people, that haven where, under the cover of our intent to browse, we’re free to spy publicly on strangers who interest us, if only for a few minutes, checking out their taste in books, remembering for some reason afterwards the height at which those books were shelved, the titles and authors’ names on display in vibrant colors, how those people’s expressions and postures changed as they held a book, then replaced it or took it home for reasons we would never learn, the story behind their actions untold.
Alone in a bookstore we could enjoy the accumulation of minutes spent like that with different strangers over the years. Those quiet echoes could come together in the empty aisles of the store, and we’d be free to maybe do something a little verboten, like lie down on the floor. With a valley of titles rising above us, folded between strong and sturdy shelves reaching from floor to ceiling, what secret meanings might rush to fill those public and private spaces. In our own atmosphere we could re-assemble the worlds that books have brought into our desires, remembering more deeply than allowed in the company of strangers the symbols upon the page that once had their way with us, banishing our worries about foreclosures and funerals, all the strife that awaits out on the street.
Those buried images could rise up without shame and blend with other, earlier memories about books and people: my mother’s pride as she read aloud from a holy book, how calm she sounded, as if those ancient words could somehow carry us with them into eternity; my father’s worried look as we explored a guide to wild animals, the way he tried to sound hopeful about the ferocity of the natural world we belong to.
For a night I went to sleep among the books alone. An anarchist ex-girlfriend volunteered to help get me into the Central Library where she worked. I put a few atlases on the marble floor, laid down and folded my jacket for a pillow. Stretching out, I held my breath slightly and looked around. The books I could see were glossy behind their dented plastic covers, labeled and stacked on the industrial shelving like dried specimens. Besides a few memories of high-school book reports and late nights lost in the university stacks, the experience was a failure. Having to creep around the library like a kid sneaking into a dirty movie, timing my movements in and out of the building to avoid an array of monitoring devices I’d been warned about by my ex, did little to help my cause. I thanked her for the help, but knew I’d made a mistake. I needed a bookstore.
I sent a careful email to an ex-boyfriend in which I described this experience, passionately conveying my ambitions to try and charm him into helping me. He worked at a bookshop on Spruce Street near one of the big universities in town. I was grateful when he agreed, and soon there we stood across from one another as he locked me in and we waved goodnight through the glass of the front door.
They sold new and used books. It was comfortable, with wood shelves and floors, just a big old house converted into a bookstore. I laid down in various spots, testing things out, relaxing slowly, my night there filling with memories inspired by stories and voices, in and out of sleep, embraced by the thoughts and images from the books I could feel washing over me. I even spent an hour crying on the floor of the children’s book section. I woke up in my sleeping bag the next morning to the sound of the front door being unlocked by my ex, who I couldn’t help hugging when he walked in asking how it had gone.
A few days later he emailed me the security video of my night alone in the store. I decided to watch it for fun later that week with someone I was dating. For some reason we had sex right after the video ended. We turned toward each other and just before we kissed those lips said to me, “Start it again. I want to be with you as I watch them take you. All those ghosts you have known.” The sex was good, then got inventive, and as it grew in intensity I started thinking about the endless number of things people never know about each other. Craving one thing, then another, it’s what we can’t see that we really want. Lying on the couch afterwards, I wondered about the world between books and people, remembering an old idea I’d read, that we exist first as thoughts, then as words on a page, and only by some ghost of a chance, when someone gets lucky, are we eventually made flesh.
It’s been more than seven years since that night when I first considered what bookstores might mean to me and other people. Every now and then I’ll beg a favor to get myself some time alone in a bookstore. I still browse the shops during regular business hours, too, of course. I always will, as often as I can. Being near books in this way seems to preserve something vital, a sense of the invisible beyond our memories, like a love we left behind on the page. It waits, urging us to unlock and reclaim it, enticing people in every language, anywhere hands have dreamt of tracing some lasting human design.
Matthew Jakubowski is a section editor at Asymptote and writes regularly for gorse, Music & Literature, 3:AM Magazine, Fiddleblack, Kirkus Reviews, The Paris Review Daily and various other publications. He lives in West Philadelphia and blogs at truce.