"There is a pleasure in the pathless woods"

Photo by Bryan Larson

I've always thought that one of the questions our HR manager should ask potential employees during their interview is, "How good are you at giving directions?" This, because without a doubt the question we're most frequently asked is, "Where are your ____ books?" (Health, business, science fiction, philosophy, &c.) I answer this request often enough that it seems like just about everyone who comes into the store is here for the first time, newly arrived and wide-eyed.

We more than welcome new customers, of course, and it's natural that those who frequent the store are more aware--even if only vaguely--of Green Apple's layout, as shifting and possibly inscrutable as that may be (sometimes even for those of us who work here). Which is to say that the frequency of this question seems to be a good sign for us; the day no one asks where, for instance, poetry is will surely be a sign of impending doom.

And while we've stenciled apples onto floors, given names to parts of the store, printed maps, and slapped signs (atop of older signs, next to newer signs) to the walls, the fact of the matter is that even with all of these helpful pointers, bookstores are, to my mind, the most difficult retail environment to navigate. By difficult I don't mean troublesome, but tricky, like following an overgrown path through a forest. The person who asked at the front counter where writings on nature are will, by the time he or she gets upstairs, have been so sidetracked as to have already forgotten where we were sending them.

This is why so many people speak fondly of getting lost in a bookstore or why we browse for books: I've never heard someone say they're browsing for a pair of jeans.

But we do technically browse for jeans. And we do technically search for books. The difference that exists between the two, I think, is the receptivity the bookstore fosters, the sense of wandering and happy discovery that exists in a space that, Borgesianly, opens up to infinity. Think about the contents of a bookstore: pages upon pages full of dreams, plots, characters, facts, photographs, indexes, footnotes, reaching back into history, forward into the future, stretching out across the present, or into other impossibilities. It's dizzying, yet we invite it. We seek it out.

Rather than coming to any conclusions here--I may not have had even one to draw--I'm going to let this meandering post mirror the way we experience bookstores, and conclude an excerpt from Lo Chih Cheng's "Bookstore in a Dream":
The forest that awes and fascinates us the most
is this bookstore...

Nobody, not even the 89-year old third-generation
shopkeeper, Mr. L.,
Nobody knows the bookstore's true dimensions--
not even the literature Professor T., who last
year in pursuit of some
remaindered book,
was submerged forever in the quicksand of letters,
or the critic who, after many years, came dashing out of a
or the new breed of bats biting his neck...
Really, even in the closely guarded stacks east of Section
in the shrubbery, mainly of biographies and fables--
we will occasionally run into the
skeletons of the lost...