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Wishing For a Book Palace

Jessi Lewis

Staff Writer

Jessi Lewis has her MFA in fiction and an MA in Writing and Rhetoric. She was one of the founding editors of Cheat River Review and now works to bring her own fiction, poetry and essays to eyes each month.     Twitter: @jessiwrit

I am not a city lover. I’m only a city tourist. I grew up in great tracts of space, rarely dealt with crowds, and spent time in my preteens analyzing the best windowsills to read in. Online reading reviews and electronic book options solidify this sense of separation from others. I never even needed a book club.

IMG_0850Then I took a weekend as a tourist. It seems you don’t need anything until you do.

I visited the New York Public Library and then the Strand bookstore on a weekend that passed too quickly. The New York Public Library’s hulk of a form by Bryant Park was lovely in its power, its lions watching me pass. The institution is clearly loved and respected, while the local libraries in my past have struggled to find an audience and funding.

The Strand bookstore was a mass of people, a collection of crowded book pathways. These places weren’t just options for readers, but cultural monuments to book access. In the Strand, it was hard to slow down, hard to take it in, hard to avoid buying too many books.

And now I’m back. On the morning of writing this, I was in Manhattan, and now I’m states away. With the trip came a dangerous kind of self-awareness: A life of reading seclusion and chain bookstores suddenly seems less fulfilling. It’s not that I didn’t have librarians before. And it’s not that I haven’t been to readings—graduate school delivered these both as a gift and burden. And while I enjoy the great complex world of book culture online, this environment still seems to lack the touch, smell and emotion active bookstores deliver.

Instead, it’s clear that I haven’t had the chance to enjoy the crowd. There is a fantastic feeling when, in a busy bookstore, I set a book down just before somebody else picks it up. Before, I’ve never had the chance to overhear conversations about store staff picks, to see someone legitimately excited when the Best American comes out. In my Barnes and Noble, I rarely have to excuse myself to step around people, rarely have to hold myself back from leaping into conversation. When I set a book down, it will be there the following week.

It’s lovely to think about my reading life as escapism, though sometimes it seems that this escapism ruined my ability to connect with the crowd. There is something important in feeling connected, finding love within strangers for the same books in the same room, under the same lighting.

But, please know: I don’t want to move to a place like Manhattan. I’ve considered taking that leap, but I’ve never wanted such city permanence. Because I am a writer, many people have recommended the move so that I could connect with the crowd of readers and writers on many levels. It is tempting to think about living in Brooklyn, writing in a park, finding the best noodle place, but then again, I know that I don’t want the crowds or lines. It simply isn’t my life or my style. I enjoy open fields too much. When visiting a crowded bookstore, in my excitement, I still found myself wishing for an open aisle where I could come up for air.

Today, I am wishing for a book palace. One that is not empty and cavernous, but active and vivid. I want an independent bookstore or a library that is deeply connected to the community, where workshops, book clubs and book readings congregate. I want there to be active traffic, and employees to talk to for recommendations. I would like to take the intimate space of Malaprop’s in Asheville, NC, and combine it with the many floors of the Strand. I’d like to join a book club at Malaprop’s, and then go to a reading like those at Politics and Prose in DC.

I am daydreaming now. What pieces would you put together for your book palace?