Love Among the Bookshelves

Last night, my wife and I decided to take advantage of the unusually warm weather by visiting Myopic Books in Chicago’s Wicker Park, a favorite haunt for both of us in the wild days before our marriage. (We had originally started in the direction of nearby Quimby’s, but, finding it empty, we made our way to the old standby.)

As recently as this time last year, I would happily get on the El and ride to Myopic, which gives the appearance of an inviting and quirky bookstore. Simple bookshelves, looking as though they were put together in the store’s lobby after hours, line the walls from end to end, and in one spot, a ramshackle additional floor has been constructed above the fiction section to accommodate the establishment’s sheer volume. College students walk between the narrow shelves, picking out volumes of everything from Palahniuk and Robert Jordan to Euripides and Hannah Arendt. It’s something of a celebrity among local bookstores due to the quality of their selection and the supposed eccentricity of the clientele.  Yet even though we drove fifteen miles essentially for the sole reason of visiting, we didn’t stay long. Even though we searched through every floor and passed every section, there was a melancholy about the place that we had never noticed before. After thumbing through an edition of a book I already had and embarking on a fruitless search for the Everyman’s Library edition of the Border Trilogy, I did something I haven’t done at a used bookstore in a very long time: I left without purchasing a single book.

In all honesty, I should add that I never remember being completely at home at Myopic.  As I said to my wife last night, I often felt like a stranger there. There was always something about the store’s atmosphere that oppressed me, even if I couldn’t put my finger on it. It seemed a far cry from my beloved Powell’s and O’Gara’s in Hyde Park, even from the labyrinthine—but staggeringly rich—Seminary Co-op. My wife put it best: In Hyde Park, you feel as though the browsers truly are completely, passionately absorbed in the books they finger through. Many of them are so absorbed in the knowledge to be gained and the entry into imagined worlds that they aren’t even truly aware of you as you pass them. In Hyde Park, you are among nerds to the extreme, and somehow the environment feels healthier on account of that. Despite their darker, dustier, and more academic ambiance, the Hyde Park bookstores seem to indicate a far more vibrant book culture than that found at Myopic. At Myopic, it seemed as if the browsers were looking through the shelves partially out of show, waiting for anyone of the opposite sex to come by and express a similar interest in the books they were looking over. I do not doubt that many of them were, of course, interested in the actual books, but the constant surreptitious looks out of the corners of their eyes hinted at something more. In our happiness, and in our similar love for books, we strangely felt out of place.

To be fair, some of this perception no doubt arises from the fact that we are both happily married. Many of Myopic’s customers are, in fact, college students seeking someone with similar interests in a world where fewer and fewer people love books beyond the latest bestseller, but I believe that the atmosphere is somehow significantly different from what one finds in Hyde Park. In fact, the environment of Hyde Park is such that I think it’s safe to say that people discover their interests beyond the stores and share them with their significant others within.  It was no different for my wife and me.  Even though we did not actually meet in a bookstore, we spent part of our first date by the cramped poetry section toward the back of Powell’s. This simple act of browsing led us to discover more of our mutual interests than had our previous walk along the shore and our dinner over oysters. Last night, in Myopic, it seemed that the customers entered the bookstore unsure of what they were looking for, lost in aimless browsing; in Hyde Park, we entered having some idea of what section we were both looking for and our browsing served only to give us definition. In the end, we both found what we were looking for because we had learned of it outside.

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