Something has happened to me over the course of the last 3 or so years that, if I were being fair and honest, has been happening in fits and spurts for about 10 years now: I haven’t felt that spark of browsing bookstore shelves.
When you work in the book world, serendipity in the bookstore is tricky. You know what the new books are because you write about the new books, and if you’re not personally writing about a specific genre or topic, you likely know about those titles anyway from your coworkers or from generally being engaged in news about books.
What’s been an added layer of challenge for me personally has been knowing too much about banned books. A banned books display too often gets an eye roll from me–fairly, if it’s clear the display hasn’t paid any attention at all to the kinds of books actually being banned right now and unfairly, if I am just tired of seeing books screamed about with no action put behind it.* But worse than that is seeing any new-to-me title on a bookstore shelf and thinking “the banners will have a field day with this one.” That thought alone bothers me to no end, and yet, I cannot let it go.
I’ve talked about the trauma that book censorship has created for educators and librarians, as well as any human whose identity is being deemed inappropriate, explicit, or pornographic. It’s also directly impacted anyone doing the work to help those in these positions. I thought being as removed from the ground as possible would help shield me from trauma. If I’m not the one at the school being called a groomer or worse, it can’t hurt me that much.
Except that I am called these things, and the tactics that I’ve been at the receiving end of–secret recordings of talks I’ve done, one of my books being banned in retaliation for doing this work, the non stop harassment on social media more days than I prefer to think about–have left their mark. I love my local indie and my local libraries immensely, but it’s become increasingly difficult to go in and peruse.
I don’t believe in waxing poetically about the romance of a bookstore or library. I’ve worked in too many libraries with leather rot to think there is anything sexy about the smell of books and I’ve spent too many hours behind the reference desk to think that I want to rub my face on books (the book might be new, but how many folks have not washed their hands before touching it on the shelf?).
If anything, I find myself envious of the people who can escape into an imagined fantasy of either. I miss being able to even browse without feeling some kind of dread or worry or exhaustion over the non-stop bookness of my life, even if I love my job, find meaning in doing what I do, and know how much books change people and the world around us.
All of these things weighed on me when I found myself at an indie bookstore. It was a brisk day, and I had driven to a library about an hour away to be part of a panel lecture about the current state of book bans. I’d gotten to the location early and figured I would run into the bookstore and grab a few holiday presents. My indie has been a boon for my interest in doing puzzles, so I suspect this particular store would have some options I could peruse and I knew I could pick up a 2024 calendar, too.
I started to browse new releases and began to feel the heavy feelings again. A new YA book I hadn’t spent much time on grabbed my attention, I turned it over to read the jacket copy, and there again the creeping dread: this is the kind of book the bigots would salivate over performing at the next school board meeting.
Puzzle, calendar, and new notebook in hand, I started to make my way to the register, feeling defeated again in my attempts to find wonder and excitement and curiosity in the bookstore.
But before I got there, I took a right back to the children’s section. I’d already acquired a couple of book presents for my toddler daughter–a Little Golden Book compilation of several Richard Scarry stories (her favorite!) and two National Geographic paperbacks on dinosaurs and ducks. I didn’t need or even want to get her anything else, since holiday shopping for her had been wrapped up.
I spent the next 30, 35, 40, 45 minutes in that small area in the back of the store poring over picture books. First one about shapes, then one about colors, several books featuring Bluey, dinosaurs, cats, and rabbits. The puzzle, notebook, and calendar found a temporary home stacked on the floor and I crossed my legs on the floor paging through each of the picture books, drawn in by gorgeous illustrations, simple but engaging text, and wondered just how many of these titles I could justify buying my kid in addition to the ones she was already going to get.
Then I found The One.
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