Our Reading Lives

Two Hours in a Suburban Bookstore Cafe

Our Reading Lives features stories about how books and reading have shaped who we are and how we live.

So I’m at the Barnes & Noble in Pikesville, Maryland, in the NW suburbs of Baltimore. Lurking. Taking the pulse of the suburban big box bookstore community.

The Information kiosk was unmanned. I waited around for awhile, the pressing thing I had to know about Christiane Northrup’s The Wisdom of Menopause becoming less pressing the longer I had to wait, and then I gave up, to go get my lack-of-coffee headache fixed. Possibly, the inability to wait in a bookstore in the middle of the day in the suburbs is itself a menopausal symptom.

At the cafe there was a line. I asked the baristas what they were reading. Wait. Wait. I said, Let me guess. I said, Not Faulker’s The Sound and The Fury? Then I told them I tried to read As I Lay Dying in high school. Epic #readingfail.

Other people are here on their devices, tapping away, like me. Someone has C++ for Dummies, another is having a hard time getting a forkful of crumbly crumb cake into her mouth while simultaneously reading a fat paperback bodice-ripper and appearing to not be desperate, and I want to say to her, Been there, sister. Put the fork down and use your hands.

In February I get a little Southern Gothic, storm-tossed. I’m looking for lighthouses, So how’re you doing? I say to my table neighbor, a gentleman in his late 80s, in sweats. He is reading a biography of Julius Caesar and eating a chocolate cupcake. I’m admiring the juxtaposition, and we talk about how when you like something you have to just go for it, and how short life is, really, and do I like Jane Austen? And this, whether in Yoknapatawpha County or Baltimore County, is what bookstores are for. Places to practice the art of conversation, which is as much as literature, food for the soul.