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Lewis Buzbee
by Matt Sturrock

Michel de Montaigne had already identified the phenomenon over four hundred years ago, complaining that "there are more books about books than about any other subject: we do nothing but write glosses about one another." Indeed, now as then, books about books are legion: there are books that seek to invert the hierarchies of the canon, and books that seek to maintain them; books about books never written or books lost for all time; books about book collecting; books about book collectors; and books about the book publishing industry. For the essayist tasked with writing "glosses", one can see how this superabundance of books about books could be exasperating; for the rest of us¨ the dreamy browsers and harmless fetishists known as bibliophiles¨it's hard to view it as anything but a welcome surplus.
Lewis Buzbee's recent contribution to this bounty is The Yellow-Lighted Bookshop. Both a memoir of his decades-long career as a bookseller, and a millennia-spanning history of the business as a whole, his little volume contains an appealingly unruly profusion of facts, dates, arguments, reflections, and lamentations. That such useful and engaging contents are housed within a book that is itself an attractive object (the cover has an understated beauty, the unevenly trimmed pages are a tactile delight) will only increases its appeal to readers.
Buzbee's bookseller chronology begins in an earlier time than I'd have anticipated; he traces the origins of his profession back to the era of the Egyptian pharaohs. A hieroglyphic inscription from that period tells of an enterprising undertaker who began marketing his own edition of The Book of the Dead as a funerary item. The author then jumps forward several centuries to the thronging markets of Alexandria. Certain merchants there would congregate around the city's famed library, secretly bribing the scholars within to loan them sought-after volumes that they'd copy, the duplicates of which were then sold to members of the Greek and Roman nobility. (While this connivance might have illicitly profited these early booksellers, it would ultimately benefit the entire Western world. When, in 642 ce, the caliph Omar¨certain of the omnicompetence of The Koran¨ordered his invading army to burn every last Alexandrine scroll, it is the existence of those pirated copies elsewhere that helped prevent the utter ruin of an intellectual tradition.)
From these beginnings, Buzbee examines the many technological and cultural revolutions that have altered the face of books: the abandoning of scrolls in favour of spined codexes with individual pages; the invention of paper; the waning of the ecclesiastical monopoly on learning through the Renaissance; and, of course, the massive promotion of literacy engendered by Gutenberg's printing press. Moving into the 20th century and beyond, he scrutinises the advent of the mass market paperback and the rise of national bookstore chains; he warns against the threat of censorship that looms here and abroad (particularly the virulent type practised by actively intolerant factions within Islam); and he condemns recent legislation, such as section 215 of the idiotically named Patriot Act, which empowers the U.S. government to investigate the reading habits of its citizenry in secret. He allows himself some edifying and amusing digressions into etymology (try telling your average high schooler that "grammar" and "glamour" are both derived "from an early word that means magic"), and provides a very welcome rebuttal, in piqued tones, to the commonly voiced complaint that book prices are unreasonably inflated.
Less successful are the sections dealing with Buzbee's own experience in the trade. As a bookseller myself, I was eager to read about the author's tenure at some of San Francisco's eminent or now-defunct stores. But key personal details are often missing. In his opening chapter, he alludes to "my first marriage, my first madness, the subsequent madnesses, my second marriage," with no further elaboration. He's vague in accounting for the particular moves he made from one job to the next, and neglects to mention what he's doing now in his apparent retirement. Moreover, Buzbee sometimes indulges in wishful thinking where his profession is concerned. At one point, he makes the analogy that a bookstore is a "city" populated by "like-minded souls." From where I'm sitting, I can recognise a few. But look at the other denizens: a grown man enquiring after the tell-all biography of some pro wrestling superstar; a book-club matron giving a shrill disquisition to her friends on the literary talents of Mitch Albom; a junkie surreptitiously tucking multiple hardcovers under his pee-stained trenchcoat for immediate resale elsewhere. These days, I'm forced to wonder whether the odds of encountering "a like-minded soul" in a bookstore aren't only slightly higher than at, say, a dentistry convention or a bear-baiting ring. Nevertheless, in a work that offers so many pleasures, these lapses are easily overlooked.
Halfway through the book, our author says, "for the health of bookstores, there are enough of us who ignore the sign in the shop window: Help wanted. Low pay, few or no benefits, questionable future, scant respect." The bookselling business, it's true, is sustained by dedicated and impoverished masochists (whose chief pleasure, it sometimes seems, is describing to one another just how quixotic their calling is). But what he could have added is that, for the health of bookstores, there are enough of us who recognise and are drawn to the near-perfection of the medium itself. Portable, durable, instantly accessible, and cheap, books are being published in record numbers¨a glut that would have harried Montaigne to the brink of insanity¨and have yielded little ground to incursions made by the ascendant computer. To have it otherwise seems inconceivable. Asks Buzbee, "how do you press a wildflower into the pages of an e-book?" ˛

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