I’ve never lived in an area with an abundance of independent bookstores. We did have a few used bookstores when I was younger, but they’ve all since gone extinct from suburbia. For the majority of my life, Indigo — Canada’s largest chain bookstore — has been the only real bookstore I’ve had to call “my own.” I feel guilty about it every time I watch You’ve Got Mail and see Meg Ryan’s incredibly charming children’s bookstore be eaten alive by Tom Hanks’s big bad book conglomerate, because deep down we know that despite the larger selections and perhaps more affordable prices, chain stores tend to offer less personalized service and selection than an indie store might.
It’s also been especially challenging in the last year as pressure has mounted to support and buy from local businesses rather than large chain stores, since the latter will most likely have no problem coming out clean on the other side of the pandemic. As multiple lockdowns and limited access to the library have forced me to completely reevaluate the way I consume literature, a shining beacon of hope arrived practically on my doorstep: a previously smaller independent bookstore in the mall near my house (the mall where I work, no less) moved to a much bigger space where they’ve been able to expand not only their selection but the literary atmosphere that every bookstore should provide: bursting with words and possibilities.
Would I have been as personally affected by this new and improved local bookstore if it hadn’t have been for the countless traumas we’ve had to endure in the last year? I’m doubtful, because for the first time since February 2020, I allowed myself to freely browse a bookstore without excessive fear or anxiety that I might be contributing to the spread of a deadly virus and that I’d just be better off at home with my doors locked tight, furiously ordering more and more new books online every week. For the first time in what feels like a decade (because I’m convinced that’s pretty much equivalent to the amount of trauma we had to carry in just a single year), I felt free to shop around leisurely, for something not “essential” but just for my own personal enjoyment and fulfillment. Free to browse for books the way I did as a kid, before reading became a way to fill every empty space to distract from the mounting anxieties of adult life.
It’s a feeling I had convinced myself to forget about, since without the possibility of a concrete end date for our pandemic reality, I figured there was no sense holding my breath. That there was no sense to yearn for a list of things I’d love to do “when this is all over” because no matter what happens, that always manages to still feel very far away. So instead I boxed up those desires in a mental attic, prepared to only cut them open when the time was right, when the excessive anxiety and intrusive thoughts had subsided.
But instead I ended up learning again that, like most things in life, the time is never going to be just right. Instead of waiting until the world seems to have itself together again (which it never did to begin with), I learned that there’s no sense in denying myself the small, simple pleasures that always gave my life meaning. So if I had the opportunity to freely browse a lovely bookstore with clean hands, my mask on, and minimal other people around, I figured this must be the universe trying to tell me something: to not miss out on the rare moments when life is offering you a moment of relief, even if it’s just a crumb.
It was a cliché before the pandemic and it will surely be a cliché after the pandemic: we tend to appreciate things much more once we no longer have them. I realized that the feeling of relief, however small, that I experienced while browsing my new favorite local indie bookstore only felt that way because I had ceased waiting around for that feeling to arrive. Without intending to, I spent the better part of 2020 figuratively holding my breath for the moment that I would wake up and this hellscape would no longer be our reality, even though I knew, through all my moments of denial, that would never be the case. It was only over the course of the first few months of this year did I start feeling strong enough to stop living that way, to embrace the impromptu changes both big and small that this crisis has forced me to implement on my life. And it was then that my new favorite bookstore arrived, like some sort of pot of gold at the end of a rainbow, signaling that although life may be irrevocably changed, there are some things in life that will always be there: books!
A shameless $184 later, I just felt satisfied knowing that I could know what it felt like to both enter and have a store like Meg Ryan’s in You’ve Got Mail. One that feels cozy and personal, offering pretty much the same selection of books any big retailer would carry, and one that I can walk to if I ever feel the need to casually bankrupt myself. The moral of the story being that when life offers you the chance to browse a bookstore after a universally crappy year, you TAKE IT, and ignore the overdraft notifications from your bank until you get home.