Mar 6, 2009

The Yellow-Lighted Bookshop by Lewis Buzbee

The Yellow-Lighted Bookshop: a memoir, a history is, like the subtitle indicates, both a memoir of Lewis Buzbee’s years as a bookseller and a sales representative for a publisher, and a history of bookselling and publishing; of how the two go hand in hand. I posted briefly about this book before: Susan and I were supposed to read it together one chapter a week. But I realized that this rhythm wasn’t going to work for me, and Susan was kind enough to forgive me.

The Yellow-Lighted Bookshop is actually about many things. One of my favourite things about it—besides Buzbee’s obvious love of bookstores and books—was the insight into what goes on behind the scenes in the publishing world. “On the Road”, his essay about his experience as a sales rep, made me want to buy more books and buy them faster. Now, you could argue that this is the last thing I need. But Lewis Buzbee explains how, with more and more books being published every year, sales in the first couple of weeks can make or break an author. Sometimes publishers declare a title out of print after only 2-3 months, and brand new copies end up in bargain bins. This is good for us book buyers, but not so good for the author, who not only doesn’t get any royalties from these sales, but is also unlikely to be offered a contract for a second book. So yeah, maybe it’s not such a bad thing that we have hundreds of books on our tbr piles.

(And on a related note, yesterday I came across this very interesting article by Cory Doctorow about the role of sales reps and publishing in general.)

Lewis Buzbee's love for bookselling permeates the whole book, and it actually made me consider it as a solution to my apparently everlasting what-the-hell-am-I-going-to-do-with-my-life crisis. Look at this:
A bookseller is, first and last, the custodian of a wonderful space, a groundskeeper concerned with the order and care and stock of that space. The bookseller both maintains and presents the space to the public, while at the same time protecting that space and its contents from the same public. Day to day bookselling is more about the physical world than the loftier realms.
And this:
Why do people go into bookselling? It’s not for the money, or the glamour, or the secure future. The answer is simple: love. You love books so much that you believe a book, any book, is an important object, nearly sacred. You also believe that the free trade of those books is key to a society’s democratic nature.
Sounds like something I should be doing. Most of all, I like how he describes bookstores as safe havens, as slow place, as places full of possibilities. I feel that whenever I enter one. The essay “Bibliopolis, the City of Books” was a particularly good one for this reason. There’s also the traditional association between books and coffee. To open my own bookstore/café will always be a dream .

Other favourites include “Not My Doolittle You Don’t” , an essay where he retells the story of Shakespeare & Co. and the publication of Ulysses. No matter how one happens to feel about Joyce, it’s a great story. I particularly love all the ideas Sylvia Beach came up with to get copies of the book to buyers in countries where it had been banned. Now that’s a passionate and dedicated bookseller if there ever was one.

“Not My Doolittle You Don’t” is also about Banned Books Week, an event that is always widely celebrated in the book blogging world, and about the notion of “updating” older children’s books that happen to have questionable content. I agree with Buzbee that this is unsettling. I fear that, for example, refusing to expose children to the blatant racism of the past will hinder their ability to identify it in the present. And this is only one of the many problems this raises. As he puts it, “We could not change the past, nor, it turned out, did we want to. To erase one past of the past, we felt, was to threaten losing all of it.”

As you can no doubt tell by now, I loved this book. But Lewis Buzbee almost lost me here:
Novels for younger readers have the same range of setting and intent as “real novels”, however. These writers who don’t traffic in the overt fantasy that seems to sway adults to this section—Robert Cormier, Virginia Hamilton, Jerry Spinelli, Francesca Lia Block, Brock Cole, Louisie Fitzhigh, et al—ought to be as read, discussed, and lauded as the most seriously considered adult novels.
I’m all for praising children’s literature, but my heart skipped a beat because for a moment I thought he was suggesting that these authors should be taken seriously as opposed to the ones who do traffic in “overt fantasy”. But I refuse to believe that he meant it like that. It’s funny: the people who see my reading fantasy as a serious character flaw (and believe me, I’ve met my share of them) are always most offended not by the fact that I read it, but by the fact that I refuse to be embarrassed or apologetic about it, to treat it as (ugh) a “guilty pleasure”. I take my fantasy books (and my children’s books, and my comics, etc.) as seriously as Pulitzer or Booker winners, or as classics. Why wouldn't I? Of course that some books are richer than others, but I don’t think this has anything to do with genre. And I don’t know how to read in any other way.

One last thing: my edition of the book has an afterword from June 2008, in which he talks about bookselling nowadays and (hooray) says nice thing about book bloggers:
One reader would see the book in a bookstore, pick it up, and write something nice about it in her blog, and that blog posting would circulate elsewhere on the web. Readers of those reviews would then buy it and pass it on to others, almost always in some electronic form, and they, in turn, would go to their bookstores to buy it. The web was—somewhat to my Luddite chagrin—connecting readers, and it did not keep them out of the bookstore. I saw this most when readers from far-flung places ended up with the book—Malaysia, India, Australia, Norway, and so on. I had proof that the brave new world didn’t have to be an either-or proposition.
Now is the time to say that I bought this book because of Eva’s review. And who knows, maybe this post will inspire someone else to pick it up. The internet is indeed connecting readers. Like Buzbee, I am a lover of brick-and-mortar bookstores. But I love how the internet allows that sort of connection, and how it gives more obscure books and authors a second chance.

A few more memorable passages:
It’s important to remember that the death of literature, of a literate culture, is not an idea we twenty-first centurions invented. In the nineteenth century, the invention of the bicycle was believed to mark the end of civilization; we would become leisure addicts and reading would surely cease. The same was said of the radio in the 1920s, and of television in the 1950s. And at later dates, rock-and-roll, premarital sex, and the jet ski would be cited as literacy destroyers. Let’s not forget that critics also wailed and gnashed their teeth when parchment replaced papyrus, and when Gutenberg printed the first Bible.

The books of our childhood offer a vivid door to our own past, and not necessarily for the stories we read there, but for the memories of where we were and who we were when we were reading them; to remember a book is to remember the child who read that book.

How curious to come upon a previous owner’s name on the inside cover of used books, even more so if that reader has added marginalia—“too depressing!” “love this,” “what?” Who was this other person who inadvertently shared with me the pleasures of this imagined world? Or the story that’s found in the romantic dedication on the flyleaf—“Dear Bobolink, may you always cherish this book and have me next to you when you open it, love, Cliff.” Whatever happened to Bobolink and Cliff anyway, what went wrong?”
Other Blog Reviews:
A Striped Armchair
somewhere i have never travelled
A Garden Carried in the Pocket
Blogging ‘bout Books
You Can Never Have Too Many Books (first essay)
My Cosy Book Nook
where troubles melt like lemon drops
Puss Reboots

(Let me know if I missed yours.)


  1. A related aside: Have you ever read Gaiman's Adventures in the Dream Trade? I'd be interesed in his take on the publishing industry.

  2. For years and years I didn't let on in company that I read fantasy. I just didn't want to have to defend. And yes, I was probably a little embarrassed, but not enough to stop reading. I think I've mentioned before how serious I was about it, too serious enjoy an author like Terry Pratchett who I thought was making fun of fantasy.

    I decided after a while that I read what I read. I feel that way about romance novels and manga, too, now -- I read them, some of them are great, some of them are not. I don't have a lot of patience for people who dismiss genre fiction; but mostly I feel sorry for them because they're missing out.

    I'm branching out a lot more too, than I used to -- because it's no use feeling sorry for someone who won't try something new, if I won't do it myself. So, though this book doesn't look like the sort of thing I'd normally pick up on my own... I think I'll give it a shot!

  3. That book sounds absolutely wonderful.

  4. Hello, dear Nymeth! Fabulous book review! since I haven't picked it up yet in the past week - I've been diving into Watchmen every chance I get - I'm glad you went ahead and read it. I love how you want to be a bookseller too, because I loved it when I was. If I could, I would still be working there, but I couldn't get a permanent job and it doesn't pay much money, sadly, unless you own the store. I would LOVE to own my own bookstore and actually in my daydreams if I win the lottery, that's what I end up doing ;-D

    My brother used to say he'd run the coffee shop part (he loves to bake) and i'd run the bookstore part! So your daydream is understood over here!

    and now you've made me want to finish this book and do it justice too :-D

  5. This book sounds more like what I hoped Larry McMurtry's Books would be like. While that book is very interesting in terms of how he came to trade books and how he founded his stores, he tends to ramble a bit, sort of like someone at a dinner party who's interesting but isn't sure when to stop talking.

    I've always wanted to own a bookstore. Right there with you!

    On the fantasy thing: I think it's less about what a person reads than what sort of reader a person is. Anyone who reads your blog knows that you're not just a person who gobbles up series or genre fiction like a madwoman at a hot dog eating contest (and some readers do), but a person who reads and thinks about things across genres. I believe that openness adds depth, and I say that as someone who's been a real snob in the past. I'm being introduced to some terrific stuff thanks to bloggers like you!

  6. sounds like a great read, I like books that have to do with books :)
    great review!
    I like that second book quote.
    And the quote abotu childhood books, both very true!

    i'm going to check out that article.

  7. This is a book I've had my eye on for a long time. Now that I know you loved it, I'm sure I must read it!
    Thanks for such a nice review. I loved all the quotes.

  8. This really sounds like a lovely book, and I really enjoyed your review!

    Well crap, I guess I'll just leave it at that. I had written a novella here, but just deleted it all because I just couldn't get my thoughts out clearly.

  9. Once again I like that you've featured a book that I have never heard of but after reading your review I know that I would really love to read it. The last quote that you posted is wonderful!!

  10. I have a copy of this one on my stacks. I used to work in a bookstore and it was absolutely the ultimate. I made no money -- in fact, my husband and I joked that we had a negative cash flow from my job because I got a discount. And, I bought a lot of books. But, it was such fun. And, my boss let me read books off the shelves during quiet times, provided they went back onto the shelves looking untouched.

  11. This sounds really good. I met two friends in the bookstore cool is that? I talked to both of these new friends for quite awhile about books.

    There's just something so special and beautiful about a bookstore. :)

  12. I saw this book on Chris's wish list awhile ago, and it's been vaguely on my mind ever since. Now I'm convinced I have to find a copy and read it!

  13. I love that he appreciates us book bloggers :) It always makes me happy when someone acknowledges our presence :p And I'm right with you on taking my comics/young adult/and fantasy books just as seriously as anything else! In fact, I find many of them much more rewarding than many of the biggest award winners.

    You know, after I got laid off a couple of years ago, I seriously SERIOUSLY considered opening a bookstore. I just know that I'd love it and it's still really my dream job that I hope to be able to achieve one day. We should open brother/sister stores in Portugal and New Orleans ;)

  14. I read this book back when it first came out and I really liked it! I was going through a period where I was reading books about, well, books. lol I didn't have the afterword in mine... I might have to grab a copy off the shelf at the bookstore and read just that part!

  15. What a wonderful book! Thanks, Nymeth! This is definitely going on my TBR list. Re: fantasy and YA, I often refer to them as my guilty pleasure, but you're right. Although the themes are not as heavy as more serious books, I do take them seriously, too, in that I treasure spending time with them! It doesn't mean that a book has to be heavyily-themed to be taken seriously. It only has to affect us in certain ways: be it life-changing, or enlightening, or just plain sweeping us off to an adventure. I'm not as well-read in fantasy as you, but I love most of what I've read. I can't imagine my shelves without Stephen King's The Eyes of the Dragon or Goldman's The Princess Bride!

  16. Loren Eaton: I haven't, and I had almost forgotten it existed. Thanks for the reminder!

    Kiirstin: I know what you mean about keeping quiet because you don't want to have to defend your taste. Also, I feel like I'm having the same old arguments all over again, and it gets tiresome. But I always carry a book with me, and sometimes people make sneering remarks when the cover is obviously fantasy-ish. And then it's hard to stay quiet. And yes, I feel sorry for them too.

    Bermudaonion: it is!

    Susan: hello m'dear :D Yeah, the no money in bookselling is a problem. I have no ambition to be rich or anything, but I do need to, you know, survive :P If I win the lottery, I want to start a bookstore/café/small press. All in one!

    Priscilla: lol, interesting but not sure when to stop talking... I know just what you mean. Fortunately that wasn't a problem with this book. And about fantasy, you make a very good point. I think that with all kinds of books the reader is as responsible for making the reading experience a rich and rewarding one as the book itself. The fact that I take fantasy books seriously is no doubt part of the reason why they are so rewarding for me. But again, that also goes for non-genre fiction. And it makes me really happy to know I've been introducing you to new stuff!

    Naida: Yes, they are very true indeed!

    Robin, I'm sure you'll love it too :)

    Debi: nooooooooo! That makes me sad. You know I like long comments - and I love YOUR long comments. Now I won't get to read your novella :(

    Staci: Staci, thank you! Like I was telling Priscilla, that makes me VERY happy!

    Bookfool: sigh, that's the problem. I can see that happening to me. And I need books, but I also need to eat and live somewhere :P I worked at a bookstore for one summer and I went nuts with my 25% employee discount.

    Amy: Sounds like a fun evening! They really are beautiful places :)

    softdrink: I hope you enjoy it as much as I did!

    Chris: I love it too! It's a nice change from being seen as one of the sure signs of the approaching death of literacy :P Twin bookstores! That would be fun. Of course, I'll be 50 before I have the money to invest, but hey, I can wait :P

    Kailana: I love me some books about books. I need to get my hands on Ex-Libris next. And yes, the afterword is very much worth reading!

    Claire: I actually think YA and fantasy often deal with themes just as serious as the ones dealt with in other types of fiction: we have Briar Rose by Jane Yolen (the Holocaust), Tender Morsels, which I read recently, Nation by Terry Pratchett (which is about...well, life and everything in it), The Graveyard Book by Neil Gaiman (parenthood and growing up), Ursula Le Guin's Annals of the Western Shore (gender, power, censorship and fundamentalism, slavery and war, etc.)...and these are just a few examples. It would actually be interesting to do a study about themes in genre vs. mainstream fiction :P But I also completely agree with you that a book doesn't need to be about those heavy, very serious themes to deserve to be taken seriously.

  17. Oooh, this book sounds wonderful! I love the fact that he appreciates book bloggers. I have a feeling that when I read this book, it will add heaps to my TBR (all those children's authors he mentioned in the quote? They're all new to me!)

  18. I almost, almost pick this up at the bookstore today when I was at Times. Now I regretted not doing so. It's all your fault. Haha!

    I'll put this into my wish list for now. Thanks, Nymeth!

  19. Great review. The book sounds fascinating. I'm so interested to see what will happen with this great industry.

  20. I immediately picked up this book at the library when I read your first review (and Susan's subsequent follow-up). I wrote down 20 notable quotes in the first 2 chapters alone! I must confess that I skimmed over some of the history portions, but I lingered over his wonderful descriptions of bookstores and bibliophiles of today.

    Owning a bookstore is indeed a personal dream. My husband has been unemployed for 3 months and I have often thought "if we just had some money in the bank, this would be a great time to find a quaint location and follow that dream." Alas, it will probably remain a reality only in the recesses of my mind. But I sure like to visit that imaginary spot.

  21. Oh heavens! You make me want to run out and buy lots more books to protect all these authors. My husband will be overjoyed by this!
    In regard to you point at the end about writing names in books, I have been thinking about putting a sheet in the front of my books, requesting the people who read them to write their names and what they thought of them. I lend out my books to so many people, I thought it would be nice to look back on who read what.

    I would love to own a bookstore too. I always imagined being like the Meg Ryan character in 'You've Got Mail. I can dream can't I!

  22. I need to finish reading this book so I can read your review in its entirety! I did scan your review though (couldn't help myself) and noticed the comments about the discount bins. I've always wondered how that works. I'm sorry to hear that the author gets no money when the books go to the remains pile, and I'm also sorry to hear how fast some of those titles go there. I look forward to reading the rest of the book!

    I must mention that I love the title ... it gives me a nice warm feeling to imgagine a yellow-ligted book shop. Warm and cozy retreat, with books, from the cold, dark, harsh realities of the "outside." :o)

  23. Nymeth, you're right about YA dealing with serious themes. I was only referring to what I've read, which are only mostly fantasy, nothing much of the serious type. The last serious YA novel I've read, I think were SE Hinton's The Outsiders and That was Then, This is Now, and that was way back when I was an adolescent. I don't read so much YA other than fantasy these days, and fantasy that isn't too serious at that! Lol! I just feel that they give me a nice break from a lot of the other, heavier stuff I read. But you made me think twice about saying they're guilty pleasures, because really, thinking about it, I do love them seriously, too. :)

  24. Great review Nymeth! I've not heard of this book before so thanks for bringing it to my attention. I also really love the cover-it's beautiful.

    As for fantasy reading. That's one of the things I love about bloggers--the differences in tastes. I love reading your reviews and being introduced to things I may not have normally read although I have read some fantasy. Nobody should ever apologize for what they enjoy. Really it's nobody's business but your own.

    Hope you're having a great weekend.

  25. Thanks for the wonderful review. This book is on my TBR.

  26. I absolutely love books about books. I agree with one of your other commenters about Larry McMurtry's book, which really disappointed me. I've looked at this one several times -- maybe I should give it a try.

  27. I adored this book, too! Great review.

  28. Sounds like an excellent book! My local bookshop owner has also written a memoir about bookselling that I would love to pick up.

  29. I love books about/by booksellers and sales reps, and this is one of my favourites! There were a lot of lines that had me nodding along and go "yes! exactly!" when he talks about bookselling. When people ask me why I love my job so much, I'll quote paragraphs from this book. :)

  30. I have this tucked away somewhere and after such a great review will have to go and find it right now.

  31. Jeane: That was actually one of the rare occasions in which he mentions specific authors or books. The book's great, but not dangerous in that sense like Nick Hornby's books are :P

    Alice: I think you'd enjoy it. Pick it up next time!

    Marie: I wonder about that too. I'm not as pessimistic as some - I don't think reading for pleasure is going to disappear. But things are going to change, that's for sure.

    Molly: I'm glad you're enjoying the book so far! Owning a bookstore is only a dream for me too - I don't see myself ever having the money to invest - but ah well, it's fun to dream!

    Scrap Girl: lol :P It's a dangerous philosophy to have, but at least we're helping writers and publishers. I really like your idea about a sheet in the front of your books. Sort of like the system libraries used to have before computers. The other day I got an ex-library book from Bookmooch and it still had those old borrowing was fun to be able to see some of the book's history.

    Terri B: It's really too bad that they go there so fast. I hope you enjoy the rest of the book as much as I did. And I'm with you on the has such a nice, warm, safe, cottage-in-the-forest ring to it.

    Claire: Yes, down with guilt! And reading a lighter book for nothing but entertainment has always seemed to me as legitimate a reason as any other :)

    Dar: I think you'd really enjoy the book! And yes, that's part of the fun of blogging :) Hope you're having a great weekend too!

    Teddy Rose: I hope you enjoy it!

    Lisa: That's too bad about McMurtry...I actually had one of his books on my wishlist.

    Carrie K: Thanks!

    Natasha: It must be even more fun to read a book like this if you actually know the bookshop!

    Marineko: I can totally see why you love your job :)

    Brideofthebookgod: I hope you enjoy it!

  32. Thanks for the great review, Nymeth! I'll read this based on the title alone! :D

    Onto the wishlist it goes...

  33. I could definitely picture you as a book seller, you do enough of it just through writing your blog and giving out so many great recommendations. I know what you mean about people looking down on you for reading, enjoying and valueing fantasy, comics and YA books. They are great mediums for expressing ideas and are just as worthy of thought and critique as any other genre of writing.

  34. I think a lot of us have dreamed of owning a book store someday. :)
    I love the quotes you included in your review. Sounds like a great read.

  35. I had seen this cover before and had one of those, "damn...great cover!" moments. Now that I know what the book is about and that the author lets his love of books permeate the book, I definitely want to pick this up.

    I'd love to see you get into the book business...for selfish reasons. I could live vicariously through you! :)

    Would you recommend this to a teenager, 17 years old? My niece really wants to be an editor or a publisher and I am regularly on the lookout for books she might enjoy.

  36. Melody: hehehe...the title's great, yes!

    Rhinoa: thank you for saying so :D I seriously think I should become either a book seller or a librarian. It sounds a lot more fun than the academic world, of which I'm currently sick. Of my corner of it, at least. And the snobbery about fantasy/comics/kid lit I have to deal with constantly is one of the main reasons why.

    tanabata: Yep, it seems to be a common dream among book lovers...and no wonder! We should all go into business together and open a chain of Book Bloggers Bookshops :P

    Carl: Yes, I'd definitely recommend it! If she's interested in editing and publishing then she's bond to love this. And I bet you'd love it too.

  37. I just finished this and loved it! I'll get a review up over the weekend. I really miss being a bookseller, but I've always been torn between my two passions, books and science, and this way I get to work in science and read for pleasure. I do miss opening those boxes out back though and seeing all the new stock. And my favourite part of the job was successfully recommending books to customers, especially kids. Sigh, I miss it!


Thank you so much for taking the time to comment - interaction is one of my favourite things about blogging and a huge part of what keeps me going.