On bibliophilia, bibliomania, and what makes a good book store

Alright, I’ve admitted it before, but I’ll admit it again. I have a “thing” with books. By “thing” I probably mean addiction. OK. Definitely addiction. I’m a bibliophile, but it goes further than that. I’m probably a bibliomaniac….a condition described in wikipedia (in its more extreme form) as “identifiable by the fact that the number of unread books in their possession is continually increasing relative to the total number of books they possess and read.”

That pretty much fits. In this short Bay Area trip, I’ve bought books at Borders on Union Square (surprisingly amazing as chain stores go, giving many independent stores a run for their money), City Lights in North Beach, and Black Oak Books (well, two trips to BO. their new section on the history of ideas just can’t be missed). UPS now has two boxes of the proceeds, hopefully trucking their way expeditiously north so I can peruse and examine, if not quite immediately read, the fruits of my expeditions.

In the full flower of my bibliomania, however — a condition which often seems to strike me in the Bay Area — I want to reflect a bit about what makes a truly good bookstore. Because I think they’re a dying species. I think we may only have one in Seattle. Or one that fully qualifies, and a couple that try hard. And, as previously mentioned, Cody’s on Telegraph Avenue in Berkeley, long an icon in my bookish universe, is closing. So the entire subject deserves pause, and reflection.

When I walk into a truly good bookstore, I can tell immediately, through long association and almost a kind of “steeping” in the spoor of other bibliomaniacs. We’d run in packs, except that trawling the stacks at a good bookstore is a solitary kind of hunt, if only because the shelves are too narrow to admit the herd. Or perhaps it’s simply that we don’t want to share the spoils.

A truly good bookstore is staffed by other bibliophiles, and hopefully a bibliomaniac or two.

For example, let’s take City Lights on Columbus, in San Francisco. Perhaps an unfair example, because you’d probably expect any bookstore which was the spiritual home of Ginsberg, Ferlinghetti, and the Beats to be a serious bookstore. But let’s be honest, that was half a century ago, and the staff ain’t nearly that old. So whatever is going on at City Lights isn’t “primary,” it’s culturally passed down and kept alive by a committed staff.

And committed they are. Three years ago, I found all three volumes of Morris Kline’s History of Mathematics on the shelves at City Lights, and immediately bought them, and enjoyed much of the first volume sitting outside Caffe Trieste and the Tully’s at Pacific and Fillmore. Today, all three volumes of Kline’s masterful history of mathematics are still in stock at City Lights, waiting for someone else like me to stop in and want something besides Beat poetry. That’s bibliophilia.

Or take the example of Pierre Bourdieu, the social theorist who is often shelved with sociology, but occasionally with philosophy. Honestly, there’s an argument for either, and when I walk in to a book store wanting to find The Logic of Practice I know to look in either section. At City Lights, Bourdieu’s more theoretical works are found under philosophy, while his more empirical works, such as Distinction, are found under sociology. That’s not random…that’s someone who thought carefully about where Bourdieu might fit in the human sciences, and where people might look for various of his books. I want to meet that person, because I have a feeling we have things to talk about…if only how we can possibly fit more bookshelves into our respective homes.

Obviously I have no idea whether City Lights really thinks about this stuff as deeply as I’m imagining, but if they’re faking bibliophilia, they’re doing it convincingly. Regardless, I find it heartwarming and reassuring that places like Black Oak Books and City Lights (and Elliott Bay Books in Seattle) still exist, whether or not I still order from Amazon. Amazon’s algorithms may be good at suggesting things I haven’t purchased yet, but they can’t capture the kind of thinking I saw on the shelves today at City Lights.


2 Comments so far. Comments are closed.
  1. Mark,

    Indeed I must! I’ve never been to the SFO Cody’s…quite the omission, huh? In the old days I’d have exhausted financial resources before getting past all the Berkeley stores, but now with Cody’s on Telegraph closing, I just have to make sure I’m not broke before leaving Black Oak.

    Thanks for the recommendation!

  2. Gack! You visited Union Square and missed Cody’s! You must return!