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When I was a boy growing up in Louisville, Kentucky, I used to haunt W. K. Stewart's bookstore on Fourth Street. I still remember its distinctive smell, the aroma of good paper and polished wood. I still see those rolls of brown wrapping paper and hear the crisp shearing sound as sheet after sheet would tear along the black blade poised above the roll.

Most of all I remember the books--Great Illustrated Classics, Modern Library Giants, the Everyman series, and, best of all, Scribner editions embellished by N. C. Wyeth. The long, narrow store was a cornucopia of books. They climbed the high walls and meandered on to balconies. Leaning over those balcony railings, I seemed to be peering down into a maelstrom of learning and imagination.

Bookstores aren't quite the same anymore. It isn't that metal shelves have replaced the wood or that slick plastic bags have beaten out brown paper. The smell is different, more antiseptic, and the books are different, too. The lower ceilings and lower shelves bespeak a lower reason for existence.

As one enters the typical chain bookstore these days, the order of procession is painfully familiar. On your right clamor the best sellers, on your left the bargain remainders or beefcake calendars. Behind them, the computer-related manuals herald the arrival of cooking, gardening, auto repair, and get-rich-in-real-estate. Like icons in little niches, the classics in paperback, now consigned to flashy covers, look on the hubbub with an air of mournful painted piety. Philosophy, relegated to a corner spot near the floor, has been neatly condensed into a couple of titles, perhaps Plato's Dialogues and Pirsig's Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance.

"The worst thing about new books," said Joseph Joubert, "is that they keep us from reading the old ones." I wonder if our collective memory is not becoming shorter as we spurn the rich strangeness of the old for the glossy familiarity of the new. I wonder if standardization, monotony, and vacuity are good for the human spirit.

I am not particularly drawn to retail bookstores these days. They seem to expect less of me and less of themselves. There are no sounds to delight, no heights from which to peer, no scents to captivate the mind.

Comments (1)

Wow, thanks for a trip that seemed familiar to me, too.

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