I love e-books. I really love them. If I hear about a book I want, I can download it in seconds – and for less than I would spend on a physical book. I can read it on any device I like: phone, laptop, Kindle. I can make the type size suit my eyesight. I can read in bed without a light and avoid carrying bulky paper books when I travel. I can search by keyword for passages I want and highlight them with a touch. I always know just where my e-books are – no straining to remember what dusty bookshelf I stowed them on. E-books are a wonder and I buy and borrow lots of them.
But, God, I missed bookstores. I realized just how much this week when I walked into one of the best: Munro’s Books in downtown Victoria. This opium den for book lovers was established in 1963 by Jim Munro and his then-wife Alice Munro – “yes, that Alice Munro,” as the store’s website puts it. In 1984, it moved into a grand old bank building on Government Street, a short walk from the Empress Hotel and the provincial Parliament Buildings. With its 24-foot coffered ceiling, creaking wooden floors and arched front window letting the light flood in, it’s the ideal place to wander and browse, surrounded by the delicious scent of new books.
I could spend hours there, except I would leave a pauper. Within minutes of passing through the front door, I had an armload of books. Before long, I had to ask for one of those rolling baskets you get in supermarkets. “I bought too many books,” I confessed as I loaded them, one on top of another, onto the checkout counter. “That happens a lot,” the clerk replied.
Part of the draw is the wide variety of books on offer. Munro’s has sections covering science, history, nature writing, horses and current affairs, among others. It sells works of Indigenous fiction and non-fiction, books on anxiety and self-care, books about how to work out at home, and books recommending writing tips. Enticing signs identify bestsellers and staff picks. Near the back stands an excellent example of that dying artifact, the magazine rack.
Kids were sitting on the floor of the children’s section when I went in, leafing through picture books and chapter books. A woman carrying a sleeping baby in a sling walked out with a paperback novel. A clerk called a customer to tell her when to expect a new book to arrive.
The pandemic has been a huge boost for online shopping, sending sales and men with too much money into the heavens. But it has also reminded us of why we like to meet and shop in person. Shopping for books online, efficient and easy as it is, doesn’t hold a candle to the experience of roaming through the mahogany-toned shelves at Munro’s, eyes flitting hungrily across the cleverly arranged titles.
You see not just what you came to buy – or expected to buy – but a whole galaxy of random delights: a new novel by Jhumpa Lahiri; a book on the emotions of animals; another examining “one of Canada’s last great trees;” one titled Drunk, about how we “Sipped, Danced, and Stumbled Our Way to Civilization.”
If you can’t find something, one of the store’s dedicated booksellers will help you find it. If you can’t decide what you want, they’ll tell you what they think might interest you. And if you’ve bought too many books, they’ll ship them to you at home so that your plane can take off. As vast and varied as the online world is, it is hard to match that experience on the web.
Browsing in a bookstore is a bit like turning the pages of a newspaper. You see not just what you know interests you, but also what interests others. It broadens your field of vision and exposes you to other ideas. Goodness knows we need that these days.
So, yes, I will continue to buy books with a click or a touch, marvelling as they appear magically on my screen, ready to devour. I will also – sorry – continue to buy a few physical books online when it’s easier that way. But, now that they’re opening for business again, I plan to spend lots of time haunting independent bookstores, searching for something new while my credit card trembles in my wallet.
The bookstore is back. Hallelujah.
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