Short Stories, Irish literature, Classics, Modern Fiction, Contemporary Literary Fiction, The Japanese Novel, Post Colonial Asian Fiction, The Legacy of the Austro-Hungarian Empire and quality Historical Novels are Among my Interests

Sunday, January 3, 2010

"The Yellow-Lighted Bookshop" by Lewis Buzbee

The Yellow-Lighted Bookshop: A Memoir, a History by Lewis Buzbee (216 pages, 2006-non-Fiction) was one of the books I acquired a few months ago in a book swap. (If anyone in the Philippines wants to work out book swaps please contact me to see if we can work out a mutually advantageous swap). The book looked interesting as it is in part a story of a man obsessed with reading and books. When I did my daily Google Reader browse of the book blogs I subscribe to (now at about 325 and growing) a few weeks ago I found a post by Lesley of A Life in Books announcing the Bibliophilic Books Challenge 2010. The idea behind this challenge is to read books about books and reading. The books can be fiction like The Elegance of the Hedgehog or The Thirteenth Tale or it can be history or a memoir. This challenge was my spark to read this book.

Lewis Buzbee spent much of his life working in book stores in the San Francisco California area. He did this out of a love for books, not out of any wish to make a large or even a decent amount of money. He loved seeing the new boxes of books come in, stocking them on the shelves, talking about books with other store employees and the chance to buy books at a discount and sometimes get free books. He bonded with other employees in the shops he worked for and obtained a feeling of family from them. This was in the pre-Chain book selling days when book stores were owned by people who loved books not by huge stock traded companies with shareholders demanding an ever rising profit. A lot of his favorite times in the book stores were in talking to customers about what books they should read. Those were the days, but I cannot imagine now asking an employee in a local book store (all chains) for a recommendation as to what to read.   At most I might ask them when the next book in the Twilight Series will be in the stores (very big for my teen age daughters). Not to be too rude but I really think if you asked the typical book store employee what Ford he recommends he would say "The Mustang".  If you asked him if they had any Joyce he would say "Yes we have Juice in the coffee shop".  If you asked the shop manager about Dickens, she would say "Oh you mean that movie with Jim Carey?-check back in the video section next month".  Ask about Jane Austin and you will be given a choice of a book about Sea Serpents or Zombies.

Lewis went from working in a book store to being a representative for a publishing house. This was a big step up as the pay was a lot better and most of the time you are on the road living on an expense account.  The best thing about this job for him was the ability to give out free books to the store employees.  Lewis also talks a lot about why people like to go into book stores.  In a book store I just like to wander the isles stocking up on future reads.  Right now there is a copy of Naomi by one of my favorite authors, Junichiro Tanizaki, in The Fully Booked Store in SM North Mall. It has been there for a few months. I hope it is still there when the spirit moves me to buy it.  If it is not I will know there is somebody else who loves his work and will feel a bit  less alone.

Lewis also tells us a bit about the history of book selling through the century. Prior to the mid 19th century or so the book seller was basically a traveling peddler.  Some set up stands in towns as they passed through, some had regular clients whose needs they knew.  He relays interesting information about book selling in ancient Rome and Greece.  He talks about the transformations wrought by changes in publishing technologies over the centuries.    In one interesting section he does brief descriptions of a number of independent book stores such as the very famous City Lights Book Store in San Francisco.   Book stores were once the direct publishers of books. If a book sat in the store unsold for years that was ok.    Now days if a book is not sold in three months or so it gets sent back to the publisher.   This is how my copy of The Good Soldier ended up in Power Books in Manila at 80 percent discount from the cover price.  From some of the information Lewis gives us about the economics of the book business, I think Barnes and Noble must have sold this book to a middleman for about a 95 percent discount along with 1000s more.   As a last effort to sell the book, they sent it to the Philippines.    If the books are unsold here, they are then sold as scrap paper.   Lewis gives a break down of how the purchase price of a $25.00 book is distributed between the author, the publisher, various middlemen and the book store that is very interesting.    Book selling is a low margin business and a lot of the profit now is made from other things like the coffee shop, the candy bars at the check out, etc.

Lewis makes an interesting remark about a category of book he calls a "starter book". When he was in high school he spent all the money he made from his part time job at a book store buying the books of John Steinbeck.  Now he sees Steinbeck as what he calls a starter author by which he means a first classic.  He says you start with Steinbeck in high school then as your reading matures you move on to Proust or Melville or the Brontes. He counts To Kill a Mocking Bird as a starter classic and I agree.

The Yellow-Lighted Bookshop is an easy to read book with a lot of good information about book selling and the reading life. It is not a serious heavy history of bookstores or publishing. Book lovers will relate to his life story. You can buy it used on for $1.96.   

The thought does pass through your mind as your read Buzbee's life story that he spent a lot of years working in book stores for little more than minimum wage.   This work did not really free him up to read all the time it just allowed him to be around books in a non-demanding atmosphere.   We wonder if he was hiding from the world.   He does make references to mental breakdowns he had over the years.

I am reading this book as part of these challenges

52 books in 52 weeks

New Authors (new to the reader)

Memorable Memoirs Reading Challenge

Bibliophilac Books

Mel u


Suko said...

This is a perfect book for The Reading Life to review, and a perfect review, too. As usual, I enjoyed your insights into the world of books and reading, in books!

ds said...

Real bookselling is an art, and not an easy one. I empathize with your situation--there are only chain stores left in my area, too. Sad. I think I will have to read this book. Thank you, as always, for your excellent review.

fantaghiro23 said...

This sounds like a great book. Ever since I took a class on The History of the Book, I've been interested in the life cycle of the book. You might also want to check out The King's English: Adventures of an Independent Bookseller. It's a memoir of Betsy Burton, owner of the indie bookstore, The King's English.

I've read Naomi and I really liked it. I hope you finally get your copy.:)

Jenny said...

Good review! That does look like an interesting book, especially some of the more historical parts of it.

It's so sad that you only have chain bookshops, though! Back where I come from there was a lovely local bookshop where they'd just to help you and spend time discussing with you what you were going to read next. Even living in a city now, there's a really nice local bookshop just up the road. It's not my only criteria for living in a place, but it does help.

Hopefully you'll get one in the end! Real book lovers are sure to take over the world soon.

JoAnn said...

I loved this book. It was even on my list of favorites in 2006 (I had to look). It was borrowed from the library, but now I'd like to get a copy of my own and reread!

Mel u said...

Suko-thanks as always-it was good for me to get back to the theoretical basis of my blog for a bit

Ds-I feel a bit bad for those readers who will never experience an old fashioned book store owned by a book lover-but then again now we have Kindles and such!

Jenny-sadly I see no none chain book stores coming to Manila unless opened by a wealthy book lover as a pure hobby-about half or more of the business of the biggest book stores here seems to be in school supplies and 1000s of copies of Twilight books and copy of the Hungar Games!

fantaghiro23-thanks for visting my blog-I did buy that copy of Naomi-I am kind of waiting to read it as I know I will love it and want to read it when the time is right-by the way I tried to go to the AHS web page (my daughter goes to Mariam College Elementary and will proceed on to the Mariam H S in a couple of years) but some how the comment function did not work right for me-I really am glad to see AHS has a book web page now and will try to comment again

Jenny -thanks very much for coming to my blog

JoAnn-the author gave up a lot for his love for books-I respect him a lot for that

fantaghiro23 said...

Thanks for visiting the AHS book blog, though it badly needs updating. Hopefully, the incoming blog admin will reinvigorate it this year.:)

Gilion at Rose City Reader said...

Great review. I signed up for this challenge too and think it is a lot of fun.