There’s a lot of pessimism about books at the moment. When I tell people I’m devoted to real books they look at me like I’m a bit sad and hopeless; when I tell them I want to own a little bookshop one day they say things like ‘Well, if people still read books in ten years, that is…’ or ‘But there won’t be any bookshops in the future…’ and other nonsense.
We’ve all watched in horror as, in America, Borders closed, in Canada,Indigo replaced books with slippers and throw pillows and in the UK, Waterstones dropped the apostrophe and added Kindles to its shelves. We’ve all seen a local independent close. We’ve all heard the by-now trite advice that if a bookshop wants to survive, it has to up its game, becoming a cafe on the side and selling games, toys and household trinkets that have only the most tenuous relation to actual books.
It’s a sad day for our culture when books aren’t enough, when the hundreds or thousands of titles available in a bookshop can’t hold our attention. Because, you know, it’s just the entire creative and intellectual output of an entire civilisation, but you’re right, it’s just boring when we can’t also buy chaimochafrappacinolattes and throw pillows in the same place.
The sooth-sayers are loving it, saying that bookshops are doomed, saying that consumers are too lazy to leave home and too apathetic to support local businesses. Frankly, it’s all crap.
I know that because yesterday I went to She Said Boom!, a used bookshop in downtown Toronto, which thoroughly lifted my spirits. She Said Boom!, which sells books, comics, CDs and records, is not gimmicky or touristy or sexy. It’s just a good bookshop. All that means and all that should ever have to mean is that it has knowledgeable staff, a good selection and a bit of room to browse. A beloved institution on College Street, She Said Boom! was bustling when I visited. It does this old heart good to see that a good local bookshop can still draw a crowd.
The College Street location is a kind of satellite store for She Said Boom!’s main location in Roncesvalles Village in the West End of Toronto. Both have excellent and very broad selections of books, but specialise in Literature, Philosophy (of the Eastern and Western varieties), History and Politics. The College Street shop also has an interesting selection of books on Religion and a great poetry section, where one of the booksellers had a really sweet conversation with an older customer about his love of Robert Frost as she helped him find Frost’s Collected Poems.
At the College Street location, the books get the most attention. Bookshelves cover all available wall space in the shop, jutting out into the middle in places to create nice little private nooks where mousy booklovers can follow the alphabet from A to Z as the Fiction section snakes its way over many shelves and in and out of corners. All the books are used, so they are always significantly cheaper than retail price. Even though I really shouldn’t be buying too many books while I’m away, I bought Luka and the Fire of Life by Salman Rushdie for $8 (£4.75) and I love it so far. Salman Rushdie is one of those authors whose writing I trust so deeply that I will gladly buy anything he wrote without reading the blurb; his name is enough for me.
She Said Boom! has a section devoted to the Classics, by which they do not mean Jane Eyre and David Copperfield, but actual Classical writing from the Ancient Greeks and Romans. I love when bookshops have a selection of Classical literature that has more in it than The Iliad, The Odyssey and The Aeneid. Here, you can find Greek tragedy, epic poems, Roman comedy and all the greatest writers of antiquity, including Sophocles, Euripides, Catallus, Cicero and Ovid. Like any good bookshop, She Said Boom! has a selection that does more than just satisfy your cravings and demands, but inspires you to explore different books and give them a chance.
In the middle of the shop, there are tables and boxes full of records, CDs and even the odd cassette tape. Now, I may know my way around a bookshelf, but (as that statement perhaps proves) I’m not very cool. The people rummaging through these boxes of old records like they were on a treasure hunt definitely are, so I was reluctant to budge in and push them out of the way; they looked like they knew what they were doing.
I was a bit intimidated at first by these objectively cooler browsers (not to mention the tattoo-ed, incense-burning, Velvet Underground-playing, grumpy-looking staff). But then I saw the looks of joy and contentment on the faces of all different kinds of browsers, whether they were mouthing Robert Frost poems to themselves, gingerly turning the pages of vintage comics or quickly flipping through piles of records like they were magazine pages. And I realised that what’s so great about She Said Boom! is that they have something for everyone, and a way of bringing out the geek in each one of us.
Bookshops like this – good bookshops – are places where it’s okay to get excited about silly little things like paper books and vinyl records that other people will try to tell you are behind the times. Good bookshops are places where we come together to acknowledge our common weirdness, our geekiness, our passions for things that other people tell us aren’t worth it. I’m partial to books, but I think that what I’m looking for between the pages is the same thing that other people find through their favourite lyric or a single burst of colour on a canvas. We’re all just looking to know that someone else in the world shares (or once shared) our passions, our thoughts, our feelings.
That’s why we still need bookshops like She Said Boom!, where the passionate weirdos and misfits who’ll one day rule the world can discover new things to get inappropriately excited about and fan the flames of lifelong passions.