I often think about the similarities between an independent bookstore and a good neighborhood restaurant. Hunger can be physical or intellectual. Sometimes a customer strides in with a specific request. The book title, author, and other information is written down and the transaction is quickly completed. It’s like sitting at a table and ordering without even looking at the menu.
But the advantage a bookstore has over a restaurant is that we can accommodate visitors who come in without any particular desire in mind. Think about it: You’d never say, “Let’s go see what the café is serving today. We’ll look around the kitchen, maybe taste some samples that other diners are having, and then we’ll decide if we really want to have a meal.” But that’s exactly the kind of mood a lot of people are in when they enter Annie Bloom’s.
Full disclosure here: I have the most fun with visitors who are “just browsing.” My feeling is that spontaneous, impulsive decisions can lead to some of the most enjoyable experiences in life. Planning is fine, but sometimes you have to just go with the moment, and a lot of great moments occur in a venue filled with books. Simply walking in the door may stimulate a person’s literary appetite. A phrase that all booksellers have heard numerous times at the sales counter is, “Well, I wasn’t planning to buy anything but this looked really interesting.”
I know there’s a line of thinking in the business world that believes efficiency should be the top priority in all aspects of daily existence. Advocates of this philosophy scoff at people who go grocery shopping every day for being disorganized and wasting time. But if shopping every day is part of a lifestyle that works for you then I say, “Go for it!” I realize there are people who could benefit from running their lives more like a business. But I also think a lot of businesses succeed when they run more like a life. Independent bookstores are a great example.
Whether you are ingesting food for the body or the mind, I recommend a leisurely pace. Slow down, unplug your devices, and don’t let the outside world interrupt your enjoyment of the experience. Coming in with a list of titles is fine but it’s also possible to make great discoveries of books you didn’t know about by strolling the aisles and looking at what’s on the shelves.
The great thing about having a robust literary appetite is that you never have to go on a diet. No need to set a limit of three meals a day, or even six. Seek nourishment at your own pace, in large or small portions. I have never met a customer who said, “I’m reading too much. I need to cut back. My brain is getting fat.”
When it comes to hungering for books, it’s okay to be a glutton.
Jeffrey Shaffer is a bookseller at Annie Bloom’s Books in the historic Multnomah Village district of southwest Portland. His relationship with Annie Bloom’s began in the 1990′s when the store’s booksellers enthusiastically sold his two humor collections I’m Right Here, Fish-Cake and It Came With the House. He continues to blog about politics and popular culture for Huffington Post and also contributes to the “Modern Parent” blog at the Christian Science Monitor.