Love in Bookstores

Browsing customers often circle each other like timid sharks.

Several years ago, when I was not a bookstore employee but merely a regular customer, I wrote up BookCourt, an independent bookstore in Brooklyn, for the Village Voice’s Best of New York. My entry posited, though I had no evidence to support it, that single people claimed the bookstore was good for finding romance.

It seemed to me the sort of thing that was probably true, in the same way that I assume good-looking waitresses and bartenders often get phone numbers slipped to them on cocktail napkins. Bookstores are magnets for people with an hour to kill, and isn’t that when one’s eyes are most likely to wander, to scan other people’s faces for signs of friendliness? The wide tables of alluring, face-up hardcovers and paperbacks invite lingering fingers and quiet conversation. Surely, Brooklyn’s single population was using the bookstore (and others like it) as a backdrop for finding true love.

I started to work at BookCourt a year-and-a-half ago—already an old, married lady of 29. Many of my co-workers, however, are in their early twenties, single as can be, and they often get asked out on dates by customers, and vice versa. The encounters often start with a question about Haruki Murakami or Roberto Bolano or Don DeLillo, which tells you something about both the literary taste of Brooklyn’s youth and the writers most likely to be name-dropped by people who don’t read very many books but who want to see you without your clothes on.

I have occasionally wondered why no one ever asks me on dates, but when a 23-year-old co-worker laughed hysterically at the thought of me going to her New Year’s Eve party, I realized that I probably don’t exude the glowing flares of someone who would go home with a stranger after a witty conversation about the lesser works of Philip Roth. Nevertheless, I watch it happen regularly: the shy approach, the careful hand-selection of a novel or a volume of poetry, the hand-off, the sweet ringing of the cash register, the slip of paper with the telephone number, the awkward good-bye.

Of course, it’s not just staff members who find bookstores and their bookish patrons appealing. There are many reasons why bookstores are naturally romantic environments: the smell of paper, the soft lighting, the baseline understanding that those inside like to read, and are therefore probably not morons. Browsing customers often circle each other like timid sharks, the piles of books in their hands their only weapons. Heidegger implies late-night conversations over coffee and cigarettes; Rumi, a bathtub surrounded by candles. Ayn Rand indicates a need for a wide berth; Sarah Vowell means mornings spent listening to NPR while baking gluten-free cupcakes.

I’ve seen strangers start conversations over the newest arrivals, and maybe they’re also checking one another’s hands for tell-tale bands of gold. Well-established couples shop together, the bookstore clearly a part of their routine. Later down the line, they come back with dogs and strollers, but at the beginning, all they need is each other and a room full of potential conversations. Teenage couples curl up together in the children’s section and read aloud to each other from their not-too-distant memories, and pairs in their twenties try on adulthood by merging their bookshelves, filling in the gaps by adding an Infinite Jest here, a Middlemarch there.

There are readings several nights a week at BookCourt, and the endless, free plastic cups full of Malbec stir the feeling of being in one’s elementary school after hours, with the dark sky visible through the skylights and the room lively with possibility. I also feel this way when I go to other bookstores, whether its day or night, where I know the books on the shelves less intimately, and am more likely to be surprised by an unfamiliar spine. There is that tactile pleasure, the spine, as if each book were a new lover whose body must be learned.

I suppose this connection is why some bookstores, such as Brooklyn’s WORD, have a dating board, with anonymously-written index cards stuck into cork, each note expressing their paper-y needs: must love Nabokov, or detective novels, or villanelles. I know of one couple, still together more than a year later, who met in exactly this way, by picking each other’s card off the board. Isn’t that what we’re all looking for, after all, a feeling of community that may extend beyond the book club and into our bedrooms? I imagine that people who care most deeply about cooking would want to find a like-minded soul, and that those who prized rodeos above all else would begin their search there, in the dusty ring. Bookstores have the additional bonus of being all of those things at once, with each section acting as a wardrobe one can walk through into a different world.

A few days ago, on a slow evening, a young couple lingered on the sofa at the back of the store. I wasn’t working, having long ago discovered that I am more of a rooster than an owl, but my good friend who usually works nights reported that the couple shuffled up to him, both beaming and bashful, and reported that they’d just gotten engaged, right there on the couch. They wanted to know if there were security cameras, because they’d like to play back the moment, over and over again. Maybe there is also that impulse inherent in a bookstore romance, that the love story itself will be codified and reproduced, printed and bound. Bookstores offer the hope that love, like any favorite novel, can be enjoyed over and over again, until one knows every sentence by heart.

For another take on bookish flirting, read Mark Oppenheimer’s Slate essay from last year, “Judging a Girl By Her Cover.”