Bookstores I Have Known

I love books, therefore I love bookstores. As most book-readers, certain bookstores crop up in their daily lives, each conforming to one's reading needs. These are the bookstores I have known. Some I have known intimately, others I have visited by dint of reputation.

The Strand

Eighteen miles of books

With its venerable history (opened in 1927), the Strand has stubbornly refused to submit to the mores of 21st century mega book-stores. No coddling, no lattes and certainly no new-age music. The staff is a motley collection of grizzled old-timers, and cash-strapped students, some of them as well-aged as the store itself. They conduct their business briskly, but efficiently.

It's get in; get your books; and get out, quickly.

The location is prime for NYC lovers of used books. The Strand lies a block away from Union Square, straddled between Greenwich Village and East Village, and just a few blocks north of NYU. These are some of the more bohemian parts of New York, where generations of celebrated writers (and countless more aspiring writers) must have passed through these doors.

To get in, you have to pass through a cattle-pen, where you surrender bags and are encouraged to pick up a little metallic carrying tray, indicating the high volume of traffic. It is after all, a second-hand book-store, and not a public lounge for soft readers who need plush sofas to peruse a book that they probably won't buy.

Once inside, I was overwhelmed. It is easy to believe that there is indeed 18 miles of books. Like many old-style NY stores, the Strand has 12 foot ceilings, where the shelving reach right up to the ceiling. To reach the top shelves, you climb up one of the many rickety ladders.

A dangerously narrow and crotchety staircase winds downstairs into a cavernous basement. What is overwhelming is not so much the quantity of books but the chaotic organization of subject matters. Books stacked precariously over each other, many shelves are double stacked where you have to expertly prise open the first level to get at the back. Signs demarcating the different sections are helpful, on occasion. Space is at a premium, where some of the aisles are just shoulder-wide.

This is an old store, and the decor does nothing to hide that. Chipped alabaster walls, fading wooden shelves, parts of the store are so dark and murky that you can feel the decades of dust that has settled on the shelves. If you've ever wondered where unloved books end up, chances are, they're here. It is the Bermuda triangle of lost books. The selection is replete with first editions and reviewer copies of long-forgotten books.

Ariel Books

Inner city art-chic

What first strikes you about Ariel is the glass front that wraps around a side and a half. The space inside is light and airy, giving you a prurient eyeful of the interior. The glass exposes, like a strip-tease, inviting yet coy. Such a design perfectly suits its location, on the nether end of Oxford St, the central axis of the downtown seed of Darlinghurst, home of the throbbing gay scene in Sydney. Yet Ariel can claim a smidgeon of respectability as it is in fact located on the border of Darlinghurst to the genteel yuppie suburb of Paddington.

And when you do look in you, as you inevitably do, you will find a tasteful interior that delights the eye. One would expect no less in the urban chic of Darlinghurst. What mostly attracts the eye, though, is the eastern entire wall, which boasts an impressive display of oversized books of photography and modern art, with a thick emphasis on erotica.

At the back is a collection of the most elite of magazines of art. And it was here, that I bought my first Moleskin notebook, a rare commodity many years ago. Ariel serves the local community of artists, and failing that, there are the flood of art students that attend the Sydney College of Fine Arts just down the road.

But the heart-beat of the store is the staff. Maybe they have a certain staffing policy, or maybe it's just natural evolution, but Ariel's seems to be entirely staffed by a certain type of young lady, which for brevity, I will call literary-chic. These girls are bookish, yet feminine. Prim, young ladies, attired in stylish dark turtle-necks, short-shighted, but wearing retro-thick-black rimmined glasses, they are probably carrying a pocket-edition of Anais Nin in their back-pocket. © 2001.

Noah's Ark

An oasis of reading in the desert of a country town

In Lismore, the small country town where I grew up, there ain't too much going on. On one side of Lismore is Byron Bay, a gathering spot for surfies, washed-out hippies and international backpackers. On the other side is Casino, Beef Capital of Australia, where hard country boys do hard country things. Lismore forms a nexus between these two towns, where red-neck farm-boy meets marijuana dope-head and both of them unemployed. There is not a great deal of culture happening here.

However, if you like a good read then there is one saving grace - Noah's Ark Bookshop. In Noah's Ark, I must have spent thousands of hours perusing the bookshelves, touching the books, fingering the spines, breathing in that ripe smell of a newly printed book. It was there that I first learnt the hallowed names of publishers such as Vintage and Penguin.

Noah Ark's is mainly caters to the new-age crowd, no doubt influenced by the overflow from the hippie community in Byron Bay. They had books on the enviroment, spirit channelling, astrology and women's studies. And more importantly back then, for my nascent curiosity as a scientist, Noah's Ark had large collection of science books. Large that is, for a country town, all three shelves. It was there that I bought "A Brief History of Time" by Stephen Hawking. A book which inspired many a young child to become a physicist, but which none of them could understand. I still don't.

Noah's Ark is set in a grand corner building with beautiful wooden floor, high ceilings and large bay windows. The building was renovated when it first opened - sometime during my adolescence and has been tastefully painted. Throughout my years there, they grew significantly, slowly taking over the rest of the building and selling more and more merchandise. You can now buy the tie-died T-shirts hanging from the ceiling, get relaxation CD's, tarot cards, crystals and jewelry.

All sorts of interesting people would wander through Noah's Ark and I eventually got to know the people who worked there. For instance, there was Alan, a happy-smiling grey-haired hippie who has since opened up a smoking paraphenalia shop - for tobacco and pot.

At some point in the past, the owners put a distinctive gold buddha stands guard at the door. And even now, everytime I get a chance to visit my folks in Lismore, I make sure I pop into Noah's Ark, and walking past that peaceful buddha, fond memories of a younger me, eager to find out more about the world outside Lismore, would idly drift by. © 2001.

Citylights Bookstore

Worshipping at the Shrine of the Beat

San Francisco, they say, is the literary mecca of the United States, or at least, that of the Western Pacific seaboard. And deep in the heart of San Francisco, admist the tourists and seed of North Beach, lies the holy Kaaba of American literature, City Lights Bookshop. This is the place where the Beat Poets gathered, condensed, and poured forth a unique stream of writings.

Citylights is a specialist independent bookshop, and boasts one of the finest collection of poetry in the world, which is housed in the magnificent poetry room. It is a lovely room with wooden floorboards and solid wooden shelves. It is upstairs and you have to climb up a little wooden stair-case at the back of the stall. And as you climb up these stairs, you could almost imagine that you would accidentally stumble into one of the many spontaneous gathering of the beat poets in that very room.

Alas, the most famous of the Beat Poets have passed on, Kerouac, Bukowski. Yet there are some that are left. The other night, I went to my first reading at City Lights. It was advertised as a gala event, a poetry recital from Gary Snyder, one of the surviving Beats. Surprisingly, this, was the first time Gary had been invited to read at City Lights. His poetry is suffused through with the terse and concrete quality of Zen. Indeed, Snyder explained that he spoke fluent Japanese and had spent 10 years in Japan. Yet, his is not a blind devotion. When asked about the haiku form by a young lad (who wanted to know because, he, the young lad wearing a hat and waistcoat, had written many haiku's in his past, but that now, he just stopped and wanted to know why - don't make me puke), Snyder answered that a haiku doesn't really work in English, the play of grammar in haiku is unique to the Japanese. Nevertheless, he admires the concision of haiku's, and that, he brings to his poetry. His concerns are epic, mountains, volcanoes, life, death and the burning towers of new york. I was almost brought to tears.

I had not realised how popular the reading was going to be. When I arrived, the door had just closed as there were so many people that they would have spilled onto the street. Having nothing better to do, I hung around outside. And sure enough, some weak-willed folks walked out before the event started and so I managed to be one of the last to sneak in. I squeezed into the hordes of people crammed into that bookshop, sandwiched between the books, listening to the Poet. It was so tight that my leg was starting to go dead from my awkard stance. I could feel the breathing of the person in front of me. I dared not move for fear of falling over someone. But at some point during the recital, during a moment when I got lost in the poetry, I realised that I had achieved communion with the fibrous vastness of the American imagination.


Satisfies your every esoteric need

Adyar is the Great Goddess of New-Age book-stores. Nowhere else in the world will you find such a large selection of titles ready to bring on the Age of Aquarius. It's a big claim I know, but I couldn't find a better one in New York or San Francisco, even amongst the counter-cultural haven of Berkeley..

Run by the Theosophical Society, Adyar started off as a place to buy the works of the late 19th century mystic Madame Balvatsky and those of her friends. But today, thank goddess, the collection has expanded to be broader than that. Adyar has a superb collection of Buddhist texts, sensibly categorised into Zen, Theravadan and Tibetan. There's a great Hindu section suitably sorted by Guru and there's even an extensive Sufi and Kaballah section.

They have a vast psychology section - their definition of psychology being broader than most, which includes self-help, Jungian, Freudian, dream analysis and a healthy dose of transpersonal psychology. It was at Adyar that I first encountered the work of the American transpersonal psychologist Ken Wilber. He is a man who is as prolific as he is brainy. Neither my budget nor my bookshelf space can keep up with his prodigous output. And so, I must admit that I spent many hours holed up somewhere inside Adyar, and tried to read as much as I could without paying. Sorry, Ken, but you are a wordy bastard.

The books are displayed in clusters of sturdy wooden shelves and the whole front wall is devoted to second hand books, and its a lot of fun just seeing how these books are classified. The staff are a motley bunch of bare-headed buddhists, wiccans and indian-philes and normally a hoot to chat to. Adyar is not your average run-of-the-mill new-age haven for tarot card readers and astrologers. For a new-age shop, Adyar has tastefully embraced technology. They've got a wooden automatic door, a decent web-site, a computerised system, and even have an interactive relaxation CD sampler. If salvation can be found in a book then this would be the place to buy it. © 2001. updated 2005.

Barnes and Nobles, Union Square

Big Fucking Bookstore

Remember the alien mother-ship in Close Encounters of the Third Kind. If Barnes and Noble are the conquering aliens of the reading public, then their branch at Union Square is the behemoth that lands on the mountain. Resistance is futile. This flag-ship branch takes up an entire building in Union Square, one of the busiest corners of Manhattan. Three humungous floors with 15ft ceilings, the building must have a bank in a previous life. This branch is out to impress with size and gravitas.

Personally, I have no beef to pick with Barnes and Noble. Yes, I do understand that they've driven a lot of small retailers out of the business, but is that a bad thing? I grew up in a small country town, where as a reader, nothing was more joyous than the arrival of a big franchise book store. The collection was noticeably better than the other bookstores and the best-seller lists were current. And in fact, niche book stores do survive, if they are well run and stay focused on a good theme of books.

At Barnes and Noble, what they lack in focus, they make up for in volume. A professor of acoustics once told me that the development of factory-produced violins tend to produce good, solid violins but that they were rarely brilliant. Same with the mega-chains, they're good but rarely brilliant. Unless you are very very specific (say for instance, you are a scholar focusing on late Heideger), you can find pretty much what you are looking for. Nevertheless, there's a bland supermarket taste to shopping at Barnes and Nobles. When the sheer number of volumes dulls the eye, books start feeling like commodities rather than the burning flame of civilisation, allowing the dead to pass on wisdom to the still living.

Yet I am grateful to mega-stores for introducing certain innovations that have now become de riguer for modern bookstores. Still, I can now enjoy a cup of coffee in bookstores, a plush comfortable seat to sit in, well-organized book-categories and book-readings by celebrity authors (I saw David Sedaris read there, and I didn't even know he was famous then). You couldn't do these things in bookstores 20 years ago.

The cafe at Barnes and Noble in Union Square is a very large and impressive space with lots of tables and chairs. Dark wood panelling with high ceilings make it the envy of any decent reading room. There you can read prisitine books over a cup of Starbucks. Since this is one of the busiest bookstores in the world, you will have to wait for a seat. But if you find a seat, sit back and look, I guarantee that you will see the most diverse bunch of people pass through in this cafe (random sample: a hebrew study group, a group of african-american spoken word performers). This is one of the best places in the world for people-watching. © 2001.

Dover Books

Hidden shrine for the truly devoted

Dover Books is not, strictly speaking, a bookstore. After all, a shop on level 9 in a building in an industrial area does not exactly scream out "good street frontage". Nevertheless, Dover Books is the retail office of a small publishing house that specialises in publishing out-of-print books in affordable quality paperbacks.

As a physics graduate student, I felt it was my duty to collect canonical physics textbooks. Unfortunately most physics textbooks do not sell well, and are dropped quickly by the original publishers. A small number of textbooks are still published by publishers like Cambridge and Oxford, but these publishers try to gouge out the flesh of poor physics undergraduates by charging a grossly inflated price for said classic textbook.

Thank God for Dover. They find classic books that have passed into the public domain and print them at a very attractive price. Their physics collection is superb. I sit here now, browsing my bookshelf and see that over half of my physics collection is made up of Dover titles - Einstein, Pauling, Tolman, Landau and friends.

So, when I was in Manhattan, I was curious enough to track down their display shop. It was not easy finding the right building and in the foyer of the building, the only evidence that I had found the right place, was a small metal plaque that said "Level 9: Dover Books".

I took a very slow elevator up to level 9, an elevator that did not feel entirely safe, whereupon I found myself in a non-descript corridor. I wonder up and down a few times before I found the right door, which was indicated by the words Dover books embossed in tiny print on a thick iron door, which was very very hard to see. I pushed open the door, which took some effort, and entered. The shop was staffed by two grizzled employees who were seated at office desks that guarded the door. They looked like they were surprised to see anyone actually entering.

It was a smallish office space and the back section carried the books. Interior decorations were kept to a minimum - cheap metal shelves from floor to ceiling and yellow-tinged linoleum lined the floor. Kiddie books on rusty rotating racks filled the middle section and the staff hogged the space near the door. There were many wonderful books there, which is not surprising because Dover have the whole back catalogue of the public domain to chose from.

I chatted to the staff where it turns that the whole Dover Books operation used to take up a couple of floors in the building but now, everything had been transferred to Queens apart from the display shop. I proceed to make a few purchases and took them to the front desk. After taking my money, the staff asked me if I wanted a receipt. I nodded, why not? The man at the desk then pulled out a receipt book, and hand-wrote the receipt for me. © 2001.

Galaxy Bookstore

Nurtures your inner Luke Skywalker

Have you ever wondered what happens to hard-core Star Trek fans, when the broadcast networks, as they must, program a pause to the endless stream of Star Trek repeats. Do they go into withdrawl?

When that happens, Trekkies can find solace in the sanctuary known as Galaxy Bookstore. There, all manner of books of a science fiction and fantasy nature can be found. Books on serious topics of studies can be found. Did you know there's such a thing as Star Trek physics. It's just like real physics, only stupid. Not only books, but Galaxy stocks videos, action figures, comics and even Captian Jean-Luc Picard toilet paper, boldy taking your butt where no butt has gone before.

That is, unless you're really more a purveyor of the Force. But don't worry, they've got you covered as well. You can work out to the Darth Vader fitness video.

Now, I don't know about you, but reading Lord of the Rings once through was more than enough for me. Not for the fine folks at Galaxy. You can reread this important document, and you can even choose an edition to suit your mood. If you're feeling perky, there's the Lord of the Rings with the bright cover. If you're feeling high-brow, and slightly ashamed of your love of hobbits, you can get LOTR in pseudo-literary leather hardcover. Then there's the travel edition, miniscule print, compact and ready-togo. Galaxy is the kind of the bookstore that will play the LOTR movie trailer; continuously; and all three versions so that you don't miss out on every - crucial - detail.

Galaxy is run by a enthusiastic bunch of people, ready to debate whether the inner stitching of Luke Skywalker's costume uses Wookie fur, and whether contract workers on the unfinished Death Star were covered by governemtn insurance. If you want to know what the scale distribution of latter day fire-breathing dragons, as opposed to flying furry dragons, this is the place to get. And if you truly have money burning a hole through your pocket, you can head over to the special display case, where you can probably buy that Star Wars figurine of that bounty hunter that appears on-screen for 2 seconds in Empire Strikes Back. Very rare. Very expensive.

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