Politicians assemble in a congress, athletes join teams, coin collectors meet in clubs, gangsters form syndicates, longshoremen have a union, witches gather in covens, and lawyers unite in partnership. When booksellers get together, they form an “association.” From the Pacific Northwest to New England to the overarching national group, the sellers of books consistently forego consortiums, guilds or free collectives in favor of professional associations. Perhaps this choice of terminology is happenstance, but to me it fits the bill perfectly. For what could better describe the extraordinary gathering-together of words, ideas, passions, language and people that happens inside a bookstore?
Don’t let its workaday appearance fool you; the word ‘association’ has a long and storied past. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, its root came into common usage in the 14th century, as a way of describing angels gathered in the “joyefull companye of God.” Over time, to ‘associate’ has meant to join in league or confederacy, but it can also convey the connection of ideas, the union of something (or someone) to something else in one’s mind. This can happen in an ordered, logical fashion, or through the randomness that psychoanalysts call “free association.” Both of these things have happened to me in bookstores.
Elliott Bay Book Company, for example, shelves the biography of Beatrix Potter directly between those of Colin Powell and Pol Pot, an association that achieves both order and randomness at the same time. In Griffin Bay Bookstore, it’s possible to turn from a shelf contemplating felt, embroidery and the making of natural dyes, and come face-to-face with large, colorful cookbooks devoted to the preparation of stone fruits, curry or roasted meat. Turn the other direction and you will be immersed in the science of sibling relationships, and crow behavior, or the art of cloud spotting. Of course, there is always the comforting, alphabetical predictability of fiction and poetry sections, the shifting ranks of the bestsellers, or, one of my favorites, the eclectic potpourri of the staff picks.
Bookstore associations fire the neurons in ways both expected and unexpected. They are unique to the physical presence of books, to the parade of hardbacks and soft covers rubbing together in rows and piles, face up, spine out, or leaning. They vary with the interior geography of each bookstore, as well as the tastes and habits of whomever is ordering and arranging the titles. No two bookstores have the same assemblage laid out in the same way, and every store’s arrangement changes constantly with each new arrival, or whenever a volume leaves tucked happily under someone’s arm.
At Sunriver Books & Music, the storefront window display is different every week, reflecting a busy schedule of author readings, programs and book club events. This reminds us that bookstore associations are not limited to the books themselves—they involve people. In bookstores, I have associated with old friends and made new ones. I’ve bumped into fishermen, farmers, geneticists, and poets —sometimes on the same visit. The resulting conversations have, of course, led to innumerable book recommendations (in one case so adamant that the person purchased the book for me on the spot). Bookstore people share a fundamental affinity, the love of words, and bookstores bring them together in brief communities of serendipity, transformed every time that little bell tinkles above the front door.
Some of the earliest recorded professional associations involved grocers, in 1584, and clergymen, in 1879. This only strengthens the case for bookseller associations, considering the way that bookstores feed our souls. Because for every chance or planned encounter of ideas and people that happens while we browse, there is a bookseller standing by—selecting the titles, planning the events, making recommendations, welcoming us inside, and keeping the lights on. I, for one, am sure glad they’re there.
Thor Hanson will celebrate his PNBA award for Feathers on February 25 at his hometown store, Griffin Bay Bookstore on San Juan Island. Feathers has also picked up the AAAS/Subaru SB&F Prize for Excellence in Science Books. Hanson is a conservation biologist, Switzer Environmental Fellow and member of the Human Ecosystems Study Group. His first book, The Impenetrable Forest: My Gorilla Years in Uganda, won the 2008 USA Book News Award for nature writing. Hanson will teach an environmental writing workshop at the University of Washington’s Burke Museum April 21 with poet Judith Roche and journalist/novelist Bill Dietrich. Check here for more details.