The first time, I didn’t think much of it. I’d walked into an enormous bookstore last summer, and it was bright and spacious and hushed. Customers milled around the upfront tables, fingering novels and memoirs. They snaked through the aisles, curling around shelves bulging with biographies, self-help books, essay collections, political analyses, more novels. The books, standing side-by-side like sentries, formed a quiet explosion of color. And there were so many of them.
It felt like home. But why?
It wasn’t because I didn’t enjoy buying books online. In fact, over the years, I’d come to appreciate the delicious efficiency of the experience. On occasion, after clicking through my favorite categories (sports, media, politics, spirituality), I even found myself stumbling onto some unheralded gem.
On those occasions, I was thrilled by the serendipity, the surprise. It reminded me of so many instances when I’d wound my way through legendary bookstores like the Strand in New York or Malaprop’s in Asheville, N.C., or the now-shuttered Haslam’s, places where you always left with some delightful, unexpected treasure. A used copy of Anne Tyler’s “Breathing Lessons.” A worn but well-kept copy of “The Kingdom and The Power,” Gay Talese’s history of The New York Times. A still-sturdy rendering of “The Making of the President 1960,” Theodore H. White’s legendary account of the Kennedy-Nixon presidential campaign.
Like book lovers everywhere, I had long believed that an online experience could never match real life. But those moments of online discovery upended my thinking. Maybe buying books online really could hold up against walking into an actual bookstore.
A year ago, after living overseas for several years, my wife and I moved to Durham, North Carolina. And, as fate would have it, our new home is a six-minute drive from a major bookstore. The first time I walked in, I sighed. It was a sigh of contentment, but I wasn’t sure where it came from. Why did this place make me so happy?
It’s not that it has much character. It is sprawling. Thousands of magazines fan out against a far wall. There are greeting cards and gift bags and Moleskines. There is a coffee shop. The staff is friendly and competent, but no one knows my name. The only chairs to be found live in said coffee shop, so it isn’t even a particularly inviting place to read (unless you want to buy a latte).
There’s a cross-section of my community there: middle-aged professionals (like me) spidering out all over the store; Black women perusing a table of books about the African American experience; relaxed retirees shuffling through the aisles, riffling through cookbooks and new releases.
No one is screeching about the latest political outrage. No one is watching CNN or Fox News. No one wants to know what I think about abortion or gun violence or Jan. 6.
These people don’t know me, and I don’t know them, but there’s a connection, a gentle magic. It’s the same feeling you get when you’re in an arena full of people stomping and clapping and shouting with your favorite singer, or at the stadium on a sparkling early-autumn afternoon, watching a meaningless major-league baseball game, where, as John Updike once wrote in a different context, “the only thing at stake is the tissue-thin difference between a thing done well and a thing done ill.”
But, as we know, not even sports shield us from politics these days. Military jets roar overhead. Players kneel, and wear T-shirts blaring their politics. Fans chant, “F--k you, Biden.” Not at the bookstore though. I don’t know what these people do for a living, or where they live, or for whom they voted in November 2020. I just know they’re book people. And that makes them my people.
Years ago, I’d have taken this for granted. Years ago, I did take this for granted. That was before America splintered into two poles and what feels like 330 million factions. That was before Donald Trump and the coronavirus and George Floyd and QAnon and Uvalde and so much more.
The bookstore offers the grace of being left alone. Even in the run-up to local and statewide elections a few months ago, I saw few people wearing their politics on their sleeve. In a year-plus of going there, I don’t recall hearing any conversations about politics. (Maybe that’s what people in the coffee shop talk about.)
Notice that I haven’t yet use the C-word: community. This is not that. There are no unifying rituals or commitments, no mutual accountability. We are more like friendly acquaintances, seeking solace in the same space. It’s just a place that is quiet and serene, in more ways than one.
And in this case, that’s more than enough.
Stephen Buckley is the Eugene C. Patterson Professor of Journalism and Public Policy at Duke University.