Bookstores, cities, and shared streets

For me, a new house or apartment doesn’t truly feel like home until I begin to fill it with books. Books serve as familiars and friends: re-reading an old favourite can bring me back to places, people, and feelings that I had filed away in my memory, while encountering a new book is like befriending an interesting stranger.

Books are also heavy, especially after you’ve filled a few shelves. So they are not suited for a transient lifestyle: they require a stable home (or a strong back).

Just as I associate books with home, I also associate bookstores with cities. I grew up in the low-density suburbs east of San Francisco, around the time when Amazon was undermining the retail model of big bookselling chains. To get to a really excellent bookshop, you had to go to a urban place.

Bookstores play a key role in my first memories of urban places. My dad and I would take periodic trips into Berkeley to get dinner and do a bit of shopping. We’d spend an evening browsing the big bookstores on Telegraph Avenue – the late, lamented Cody’s Books, and the four-storey Moe’s Books, which (for me at least) sets the standard for a great second-hand bookshop.

moes-books-2010-courtesy-moes-books

This was a window into a different world: strangely-drawn comic books filled with odd concepts (not superheroes!); translated versions of obscure Latin American novellists; the cast-offs from hundreds of postgraduate philosophy papers. And the place was different too: shops were open later (and catered to a more diverse range of glass vase enthusiasts); the streets were laid out on a grid; the buildings were set closer to each other. People were around in the evening.

This, too, felt like home, in a different way than the footpathless suburbs did.

Later on, after moving to a city, I discovered that books were a good fit with the two quintessential urban transport modes: walking and public transport. (Especially in the pre-smartphone age.) Having a book takes some of the pain out of an unexpected wait for a bus, and occasionally starts conversations once you’re on the bus. Reading while walking is a bit more challenging but can be done with practice – provided you stop at intersections.

walking-while-reading

Me, basically.

One of the small joys of my current job is that I work on O’Connell St, with two of Auckland’s best bookshops within thirty seconds of my office. Used bookseller Jason Books is next door on O’Connell St, while Unity Books is just down the way on High Street. I visit both on a regular basis. Sometimes I go in to look for a specific book, and find it; other times I leave with an unexpected purchase (or nothing at all).

It wouldn’t be that hard buy books online instead, and it would probably save me money. But I keep coming back because I value bookstores as places. It’s a much richer experience to browse for books laid out on shelves and tables than to search through an online catalogue. A good bookshop will draw your eye towards books that you otherwise wouldn’t have found – “hey, look over here!” They’re also places where you can run into people.

Unfortunately, the streets outside my office also present a major contrast in terms of place quality. The shared space on O’Connell St is a pleasure to walk on: even with a bit of car traffic and delivery vans parked up, it’s spacious and safe for people on foot. And, especially with summer coming on, it’s busy with people walking, talking, or sitting down for a coffee.

High Street, on the other hand, is an abysmal, congested mess. Most of the space on the street is given over to a small number of low-turnover parking spaces, while people on foot must clump together on narrow footpaths and jostle slowly past each other. As the vast majority of the people using the street are walking, this represents a major impediment to efficient transport: we are seemingly sacrificing the needs of the many on foot for a small number of people in cars. (And it makes it hard to read while walking on High Street, as I have to pay too much attention to people in close proximity!)

Due to the pedestrian congestion, I spend less time and money on High Street than I’d like to. Oddly, a lot of the businesses on High Street have apparently campaigned against a shared street, which seems like self-sabotage given the great numbers of people walking up and down the street and the tiny number of people driving or parking.

I would never, ever drive to buy books (or anything else) on High St, but I would walk out the front door and window-shop a lot more often if the environment was better for walking. A great bookshop deserves a great urban street, and vice versa. Get behind it.