I walked across Broadway on a bright January day. I was in NYC for two publishing events and had decided to kill a couple hours at the Strand Bookstore. This seemed like a relaxing and lovely way to spend the afternoon, until I saw the rolling carts of used books lining the sidewalk. My throat tightened and I remembered that I hate bookstores.
Books are my favorite thing in the world, but for the last twenty years I have not stepped foot in a bookstore without feeling awful, without thinking that I should never write, because the world already has so many books. Too many books. The book quota has clearly been reached.
I almost turned around, but stopped myself on the sidewalk. I gazed up at the red awning and down at my watch. I had three hours, three hours to spend, uninterrupted, perusing one of the most love-infused bookstores on the planet. Eighteen miles of books to remind me of something long forgotten, to try to convince myself that people may want to hear my story.
It took me two hours to explore all four floors. With each minute and each shelf I was further convinced that the world was already bursting with books. I had never felt worse about the prospect of finishing my rewrites and sending my manuscript to agents.
I climbed the stairs to stand on the landing between the first and second floors. I planted my feet firmly beneath my hips. I looked down at the tables and shelves. Like always, the books looked anxious and jumpy, like they may spring out of their dust jackets and run for the door at any moment, unable to handle the pressure of knowing whether or not they would sell.
Library books never looked like this to me. They always looked sleepy and content. Dormant, really, ready only to awaken on that odd occasion that they were borrowed. The books on the shelf around them would stretch out, happy to have more space to themselves.
Library books are resting. Bookstore books are expectant.
I was sick of absorbing the imaginary anxiety of inanimate objects. I vowed to stand there until I could shift the feeling of dread within me. I would not walk off that landing until I found a way to prove this thought false: the world does not need more books.
There must be a way. Show me. Show me what I am missing. I am open. I am open.
I stood there, sweaty and tired. My backpack dug into my shoulders. I held my parka over one arm as I shook out my sweater, trying to get air against my skin as a cold stream of sweat ran down my spine. I stood there, intent on leaving that landing with a new perspective and worried that I would descend those stairs more forlorn than I had been when I climbed them.
And then it happened.
Like the way a picture shifts when you relax your eyes and suddenly you can see the image hidden within the image. For the first time in two decades I looked at a bookstore and I saw no books. For the first time, I saw people.
I took the stairs slowly, intent to keep my attention on the customers that I had not noticed in my wandering.
It took me seven tries to walk one lap of the main floor of the Strand bookstore that day. It took me seven tries to keep my focus on the people and away from the books. The books called to me. The covers. The placement. Some, for no reason other that I assume they had a tiny magnet buried in their binding that pulled at my heart.
And when I finally finished that seventh lap, I had seen more than just people. I saw people hungry for books. They were not there to buy their first book. They were not void of stories at home, online, in the news. In a world flooded with stories, all these people were longing to connect with a story in a book.