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The Forgotten Pleasure of Bookstore Browsing

I was in Berkeley this weekend with friends, just to take a look around. I’ve been living in San Francisco for over a year now, but never found the time to hop over to the East Bay much or to poke around in this pretty little town with its excellent University.

We happened to pass by Moe’s Bookstore, which was founded in 1959 by Moe Moskowitz and his wife, Barbara. The original site of the store was actually a small shop on Shattuck just north of University Avenue. He moved the store up to Telegraph Avenue in the 1960s, right in the middle of the Free Speech Movement and the famous anti-war demonstrations that put Berkeley on the political map. As such, the store is somewhat a landmark in Berkeley and so my friends and I couldn’t resist going in.

Browsing, chatting away and recommending each other different books that we’ve read or want to read and just looking at books randomly, I was having a wonderful time and so were my friends. I realized that I had forgotten about the serendipitous discoveries that can be made in a bookstore, the fun of glimpsing the strange, unexpected, and obscure. I also valued the quality time I was spending with my friends, learning from them and getting to know them better. Why don’t I do this more often I asked myself? I do visit book sales, the Friends of San Francisco Public Library book sales being a favorite, since I love a good bargain, but I don’t seem to want to spend the time browsing local bookstores generally. Like a lot of other people, I simply zero in on exactly what I want, check out the Amazon reviews and make my decision based on how people rate a book. It is no longer necessary – nor do people seem to have the patience and the time to while away an hour or two (or more) looking at books that we would never think to read.  I usually buy books second hand from independent retailers on Amazon, but still the experience just doesn’t compare. Has browsing the local bookstore become a lost art?

As I listed on my Item of the Day, I found and ended up purchasing a book called This Will Make You Smarter in the Psychology section – which I rarely venture into. Another thing I hope to change. Throwing away my ‘to read’ list and browsing for books at my local store will, I hope, lead to me reading a more varied set of books. I’m now looking forward to picking up a book that sparks my interest, giving it the benefit of the doubt and generally the spontaneity of it all.

If I were a bookstore owner, I would do whatever I could to make the browsing experience fun, insightful and memorable. Remind us of the fact that the joy we get from reading is not from the act of reading itself, but from immersing ourselves into a story, befriending a character, feeling that thrill when we’re enjoying a book so much that we can’t put it down. And always keeping in mind, that with so much choice, so many recommendations and so little time, people easily put themselves on a schedule – the reading list, and we forget why we loved reading in the first place. That kind of experience is something the likes of Amazon in my opinion, would find difficult to offer.

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