The Dying Art of Bookstore Browsing
Instructions on how to spend three hours standing in a bookstore
When I was a kid I remember camping on the floor at Barnes & Noble and looking at books for what felt like hours. I don’t really recall why I kept finding myself there — what was my dad doing during all that time I was wandering the floor? — but the memories are distinctly burned into my mind. I remember the dominating smell of fresh paper, the physicality and weight of each book I held, and the quiet calm, occasionally punctured by light jazz from the (now defunct) music CD section in the back. The cavern of tomes, filled with endless shelves of brand new books, impeccably sorted by category. It remains the last of the big box stores I love to visit.1
In the age of the Kindle, visiting bookstores and buying physical books today seems quaint. I love my Kindle, but in retrospect it is at least a little disturbing that the name also conjures up the image of tossing your books into a fire. Amazon has everything you could possibly want, and actual books are so damn heavy. Marie Kondo famously advocates for decluttering your books to fewer than thirty, sparking the ire of bibliophiles everywhere.
But for me, a bookstore filled with honest to God physical books printed on dead trees still holds a certain charm: an invitation to browse. Still currently on our road trip through the Pacific Northwest, I’ve made a sort of ritual of seeking out great local bookstores to drop into along the way.2 A typical visit for me and my wife will inevitably end with her making a complete circuit of the store, circling back to the front tables or shelves to find me basically where I started, moving at a glacial pace through the books.
A few of my friends have asked me how exactly I accomplish this feat. What am I doing exactly during all that time in the bookstore? As a response I offer the following suggestions on how to spend several hours getting lost in a bookstore:
Wear comfy shoes. Most bookstores do not have places to sit, and you will be standing around leafing through books hopefully for hours.
I never browse for fiction. While I enjoy reading fiction (almost entirely sci-fi and fantasy), I spend almost zero time in the fiction sections of a store. This is because it’s far too difficult to tell anything about a work of fiction short of reading it. From the back cover I might be intrigued by a particular setup for a story, but there’s nothing else to go on. In comparison, for non-fiction work you can gain a much clearer sense of what the book is about, and whether you might like it by reading the back cover, inside jacket blurb, table of contents, preface, introduction, and even conclusion (there’s no spoilers at risk!). For fiction, unless you know the author or book based on a recommendation, you are rolling the dice, and there’s simply too much fiction in the world to waste time not reading the good stuff.
The exception to the above rule for ignoring fiction is if you know you already like a particular author and are happy to read anything you haven’t already read from them. If you have read fifteen Steven King books, chances are you will enjoy the sixteenth. But even with this exception, there is cause for caution! I read a lot of sci-fi and fantasy, which are often written as series, and I have made the error one too many times of starting a series only to discover it is incomplete and may never be complete — George R. R. Martin’s Game of Thrones being the obvious culprit, but also Robert Jordan’s The Wheel of Time, and Patrick Rothfuss’ Name of the Wind also deserving some scorn.3
Pick up books. Inspect them, scan the blurbs and inside flaps, flip to a random page in the middle and start reading, peruse the index. You are trying to form a hazy idea of whether you will enjoy spending some of the precious hours of your life reading this book, so vet your books.
When you find yourself suddenly staring at a shelf of books on a subject you are interested in (World War II, modern finance, philosophy), slow down and actually look at the spine of every single book, pulling out the ones that speak to you. This sounds tedious, and it sometimes is, but you will discover many more interesting books this way. Sometimes I will pick up a book and if I’m not sure from inspecting it, I’ll look up the reviews on Goodreads or Amazon to help tip me one way or another. I recently picked up Edward Abbey’s Desert Solitaire doing this, a book I had never heard of by an author I did not know.
Take a walk. It’s tiring to stand in one place the entire time so I will sometimes alternate between intensely browsing and walking around scanning for things that catch my eye. Often I will make several loops of a store (depending on the size), returning back to sections I previously visited to browse through them again.
My favorite bookstores to browse are not too big (sorry Powell’s or The Strand), but not too small either. Too big and you are overwhelmed with the sheer volume of text crashing down upon you with no possible hope of intently browsing through a section; too small and it is over all too quickly.
It helps if you have already curated a list of books you might want to read somewhere in advance. In my case this is via endless Amazon wishlists where books get added at a faster rate than they are read, but whatever works for you. I find this valuable because many of the books I’ve added to my wishlist I have never seen in the flesh, so handling them in the store allows you to get a better sense of whether you really want to read it. Also if you happen to be at a store that sells used books, if you have recently looked at your wishlist, you can often find books you already want to read at a fraction of even the Amazon price.
On the topic of Amazon: Needless to say if you enjoy browsing at bookstores, support your bookstore. As in: buy something. I still don’t understand how Amazon regularly sells every book at a massive discounts — take for example Rick Rubin’s The Creative Act, which is listed for $32 (which I saw for that price at many bookstores on my trip), but sold by Amazon at a 39% discount for $19.49 — and I understand why people would buy from Amazon (I buy plenty of books from them myself), but it does not take a leap of logic to imagine what ultimately happens to bookstores if everyone only buys their books from Amazon. As I’ve written about before, life does not simplify down to only convenience and price. The inefficient, meandering, and yes, sometimes more expensive path browsing a bookstore is the point. It is yet another reminder of the journey vs the destination; a bastion for serendipity in a world increasingly dominated by algorithms.
And so, go forth and browse.
It is ironic that Barnes & Noble, a company with $3.5B in revenue in 2019 and now owned by a hedge fund, is an underdog now worth rooting for before Amazon wipes all physical bookstores off the face of the planet, but here we are. It feels appropriate given it is also the age of rooting for Zuck and Threads against Musk and Twitter. Pick your megacorp/billionaire.
I’ve even resisted continuing with Brandon Sanderson’s Stormlight Archive series, despite the fact that Sanderson is a writing machine and will undoubtedly finish it. The Stormlight Archive is planned to be ten books long. I read the first one, The Way of Kings, in 2010 by accident, not realizing it was the start to a new series. Over a decade later we are four books in.