A familiar scenario from my childhood: My father and I are driving in his truck. I’m six years old, it’s summer break in Southern California, a sunny Saturday morning, and we’re heading to the beach. I’ve eaten two bowls of sugar cereal and I’m spun out, frantic to get in the water. The ocean comes into view, and as we pass through the sleepy beach town I can hear the waves breaking on the shore. But then, a mere two blocks from the sand, my father lifts his foot from the accelerator and flips on the blinker.
“Dad, what are you doing?”
“Just a minute.”
He turns the wheel, cruising the main street and peering up at the storefronts.
“What are you doing, Dad?”
“Hold on, hold on.”
I know what he’s doing. The episode has played out dozens of times before. He swings the truck into a parking space and I see that my fears have been realized. My father has found a bookstore. He lays his palm on the crown of my skull.
“I’m sorry,” he says.
I loathed bookstores as a young boy. Particularly the dark, dusty, incense-choked, free-jazz bleating used bookstores my father had a knack for zeroing in on. This was not a child-friendly environment. You couldn’t talk, you couldn’t run, and you couldn’t touch anything, not even the comics, which were typically of the underground variety. (“Don’t look at those.” “Why not?” “Just don’t.”) All you could do was stand, and endure. A bookstore was hell on earth, as far as I was concerned.
At a certain point, my feelings changed. My father had been pushing books on me from the start, but it was years before I knew a true affection for them. This wasn’t due to any one author or story; it naturally accumulated over time. More and more, books were something I referred to every day, and when I’d finished a book, and had nothing new to move on to, there was a void in my life that could only be filled with: A trip to the bookstore. I still preferred the beach, but if we passed a bookstore en route, it was just common sense that we should stop there and see what we could turn up.
A familiar scenario from my seven-year-old son’s life: We’re on our way to the movies when a bookstore looms before us. I park the car and all at once he understands that this was the errand I’d casually mentioned as we left the house. He holds his head in his hands.
“Five minutes,” I say.
“You just said five minutes!”
He accepts his fate and enters the store, following dejectedly at my side as I scan the titles. When I lift a book from the shelves, he holds his breath; when I put it back, he grows despondent. Thinking to hurry me along, he asks, “What’s the name of the book you’re looking for?”
“I’m not looking for one book. I’m looking for a book. I’ll know it when I see it.”
He leers at the towering stacks. “You have to look through all these just to find one book?”
The inefficiency of the browsing method is maddening to him. I encourage him to pick out books for himself, and sometimes he does this, but I think he’s merely hoping to punish me financially, rather than having any real interest in the texts themselves. The books sit in his room, untouched. Recently, though, I’ve noticed him handling and flipping through them. Last week I woke up to find him reading a Wimpy Kid novel in his bed.
“What are you doing?”
I can remember, after I’d been cured of my aversion, my father and I entering a bookstore and splitting up, in search of our particular book, or books. I like the idea of my son and I browsing under the same roof together, and of him coming to understand the happiness and contentedness that stems from spending time in a well-curated bookstore. We’ll meet at the checkout and share and consider and discuss what we’ve found. I’m very much looking forward to this.
Patrick deWitt was born in British Columbia in 1975. He is the author of two novels, Ablutions: Notes for a Novel and The Sisters Brothers, which was shortlisted for the 2011 Man Booker Prize and won a 2012 Award from the Pacific Northwest Booksellers Association. DeWitt wrote the screenplay for the 2011 Sundance hit Terri. He lives with his wife and son in Portland. He will read from The Sisters Brothers and accept his award from the Pacific Northwest Booksellers Association at Powell’s City of Books this Sunday, February 19 at 7:30 pm.