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A customer browses for books at an Indigo in Toronto on Sept. 23, 2022.Christopher Katsarov/The Globe and Mail

Jason Guriel’s latest book is On Browsing, from which this essay has been adapted.

I don’t have a lot of stamina for online shopping. For scrolling. Give me the stacks; give me bricks and mortar. I love to tilt my head as I eyeball spines, to clack my way through CD bins, to seize on the rare, the used, the out of print. I love to browse.

But the verb “browse” originally meant “to eat buds and leaves.” It shows up in the mid-15th century as “brousen,” which comes from “broster,” an Old French word that means to sprout or bud. (“Broster” comes from “brost,” which refers to a shoot or twig.)

“Browser,” naturally, meant the thing that does the browsing: the nibbling animal. The noun entered the language around 1845, and by 1863, “browser” was being used to describe a person moving among books. Over a century later, in the early 1980s, the computer scientist Larry Tesler applied the term to a software search system he was futzing with. Today, billions of us bring up browsers when we want to sift the internet.

Etymologically, then, “browser” is a relatively recent phenomenon. But people have been shopping for pleasure for at least a few centuries. In their book Perceptions of Retailing in Early Modern England, Nancy Cox and Karin Dannehl observe that shopping – as a pursuit “distinct from” mere “purchasing” – wasn’t easy before the 18th century.

“The trappings of a modern shop, like counters and display facilities, appear often to have been absent, as were features like chairs, looking glasses, soft furnishings and lighting that would have made for comfortable and easy browsing,” they write. “Probably a customer was obliged to ask to see particular articles, and even then to rely on the retailer to gauge what was likely to please. The opportunities to see, touch and feel, and to ruffle through the stock … were almost certainly impossible in many shops.”

Later, in the 18th and 19th centuries, plate-glass windows and advances in lighting improved the ability to shop – and gave rise to a more modern form of browsing.

As historians and academics make plain, browsing doesn’t mean buying. In a 1983 article titled “Shopping Without Purchase: An Investigation of Consumer Browsing Behavior,” the researchers Peter H. Bloch and Marsha L. Richins furrow their brows and define browsing as “the examination of a store’s merchandise for recreational or informational purposes without a current intent to buy.” Browsing, the literature assures us, isn’t simply a prelude to consumption. The practice itself is fun. What’s more, it can yield knowledge: roughage worthy of nibbling.

It can even boast radical properties. In Victorian England, browsing was a way for women to move about a city unchaperoned. As the journalist Jeff Guo notes, “Housewives started roaming the city under the pretense of buying things. By this new definition, ‘shopping’ didn’t always involve an actual purchase. It was about the pleasures of perusing – taking in the sights, the displays, the people.”

A few decades after the Victorian period, William Moulton Marston – the psychologist and writer who created Wonder Woman – was extolling the virtues of inspecting store windows, and also wondering if women had an advantage in this field:

“Most men mistakenly assume that you look into show windows to find something to buy. Women know better. They enjoy window-shopping for its own sake. Store windows, when you look into them with pleasure-seeking eyes, are strange places full of mental adventure. They contain first clues to dozens of treasure hunts which, if you follow them, lead to as many different varieties of treasure.”

Marston sees window-shopping, a species of browsing, as a workout for the brain: food for thought. “Experienced window adventurers,” he tells us, “maintain that the perfect hunting ground for rare interests is the antique store, commonly called a ‘junk shop.’” One mind’s junk, suggests the inventor of Princess Diana of Themyscira, is another’s journey.

Perhaps Marston would be surprised to find that men now dominate in certain categories of browsing, such as record shopping. Consider the veldt of the record store, as lovingly satirized in the 2000 film High Fidelity, an adaptation of Nick Hornby’s novel. In one scene, a store clerk played by Jack Black confronts a hapless male customer. “You don’t have it?” the incredulous clerk says. The hapless male customer shakes his head. “That is perverse,” the clerk says. “Don’t tell anybody you don’t own … Blonde on Blonde.” Then, he sighs. “It’s gonna be okay.” He presses the album on his prey.

The camera cuts to the store owner, played by John Cusack, whispering to a colleague, “I will now sell five copies of The Three E.P.’s by the Beta Band.” (“Do it,” the colleague whispers back, as if participating in a crime.) The store owner pipes the CD over his store’s speakers – and sparks the curiosity of another male customer. The browsers, as the film depicts them, are both hunter and hunted: snobby flaneurs of the physical format, but insecure objects of attention as well. To browse is to act and be acted on: to exercise one’s taste while submitting to the authority of others.

Record shops, of course, have dwindled – picked off by larger predators such as Amazon. In 2012, the Melody Record Shop in Washington decided to close its doors for good. It had been a force for good and a source of authority: a beloved family-owned concern for more than three decades. But online shopping had bled Melody of business. The Washington Post sent a journalist to cover the death throes. The critic Leon Wieseltier lamented the loss in The New Republic.

Halfway through his elegy, however, Mr. Wieseltier began to dilate on something he called “the time-honored intellectual and cultural activity known as browsing.” His distinctions are helpful:

“Browsing is to Amazon what flaneurie is to Google Earth. It is an immediate encounter with the actual object of curiosity. The browser (no, not that one) is the flaneur in a room. Browsing is not idleness; or rather, it is active idleness – an exploring capacity, a kind of questing non-instrumental behavior. Browsing is the opposite of ‘search.’ Search is precise, browsing is imprecise. When you search, you find what you were looking for; when you browse, you find what you were not looking for. Search corrects your knowledge, browsing corrects your ignorance. Search narrows, browsing enlarges. It does so by means of accidents, of unexpected adjacencies and improbable associations. On Amazon, by contrast, there are no accidents. … But serendipity is how the spirit is renewed; and a record store, like a bookstore, is nothing less than an institution of spiritual renewal.”

How often serendipity saw to our needs back when we wandered the world without a data plan, like benighted exiles in a Bible verse. For instance, while lingering aimlessly in my university bookstore, I made a friend of a clerk, a kindred consumer of poems. And while killing time at a used bookshop in Montreal, I made another friend: The Castle of Indolence by Thomas Disch. As I turned its pages on the train home to Toronto, Mr. Disch’s charmingly acerbic book about poetry left me changed.

How often our wanderings rewarded us. I still remember – can’t not remember – the pale, long-haired proprietor of the Hairy Tarantula comic shop, who always looked like he’d just descended from some cross to partake of a spliff. He tolerated the loitering of me and my friends. He even opened his shelves to our wares – our homemade xeroxed comics – and actually paid us for them, though not without gently critiquing our approach to stapling. (Fold the pages and use a saddle stitch, was the takeaway.) Later, he invited us to take part in a mini convention for indie comic artists, at the rear of the shop. His investment in our amateur product surely added up to a loss for his business; our comics remained untouched on the shelf he reserved for local wannabes.

But what a thrill for us high-school kids – to be encouraged. To be on a shelf. Your real-world browser history, the one your mind accumulates as you wander the world, can’t ever really be erased.