Books

What Kind of Bookstore Browser Are You?

We booksellers have seen it all.

A chair sits in a bookstore's stacks.
Original caption by Flickr user: “Inside the Seminary Co-op, the best bookstore on earth.” (Image from 2008, before the Seminary Co-op’s 2012 move to a different space.) Matt Hampel/Flickr

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The good bookstore sells books, but its primary product, if you will, is the browsing experience. Until 1870, when the poet and essayist James Russell Lowell used the word in reference to John Dryden’s reading habits, “browse” meant, primarily, to chew cud, to ruminate. Here, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, is one of the earliest written appearances of the word “browse” utilized in this context: “We thus get a glimpse of [Dryden] browsing, he was always a random reader—in his father’s library, and painfully culling here and there a spray of his own proper nutriment from among the stubs and thorns of Puritan divinity.” And later, Lowell writes of the German polymath G. E. Lessing, “Like most men of great knowledge, as distinguished from mere scholars, he seems to have been always a rather indiscriminate reader, and to have been fond, as Johnson was, of ‘browsing’ in libraries.”

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One of the great benefits of the act of browsing is the rumination it evokes. To create a space that is intentional in its gathering of materials meant to provide intellectual and literary stimulation, a space wholly devoted to books, be it a bookstore, a library, or a personal collection, is to understand the fulfillment provided by the activity of rumination and reflection. We are, after all, “of the ruminating kind,” John Locke writes of the relationship of thinking to reading, “and it is not enough to cram ourselves with a great load of collections; unless we chew them over again they will not give us strength and nourishment.”

To say it more directly, browsing is a form of rumination. Books, like the leaves and shrubs known as the browsage, provide ruminant-readers with their nutrients. What an unparalleled activity it is to browse a bookstore in a state of curiosity and receptivity, chewing one’s intellectual cud! The space of a bookstore must be conducive to unhurried rumination, if only to promote good digestion.

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We booksellers mark the transformation as our patrons, upon entering the store, leave their everyday concerns at the door, as though stepping into a more thoughtful confine. We know it is our responsibility to create and enclose this space, allowing anyone to enter, but not any thing. It’s a place for books, just books, and for a certain kind of book whose presence alongside the rest of the collection is meant to create something of a pasture for The Hungry Mind—the name that the erstwhile booksellers gave to their legendary bookstore in St. Paul, Minnesota.

There are many forms of browsing, and many types of browsers. A non-exhaustive list of those we see in our wilds would include the flaneur, who meanders through the stacks, observing, loitering, shuffling; the sandpiper, who sees the world in a grain of sand; the town crier, who heralds the latest news from the pages of the books on the front table; the ruminator, chewing their cud; the pilgrim, seeking wisdom, they know not what or where, but knowing that they must find it; the devotee, who prays daily, regardless of the season; the penitent, who has not lived as they ought and is now seeking redemption, or at least forgiveness; the palimpsest, who reads and rereads and knows that every reading leaves its inscrutable mark; the chef, who trusts their senses to help them identify the most delectable ingredients; the initiate, who doesn’t know the mores of the place but is hopeful they might soon belong; the stargazer, who takes in the sky with a well-honed attention; the general, who sees the stacks as a thing to be conquered; and the idler, who just wants to while away the hours among books.

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Novelist Christopher Morley, one of bookselling’s greatest champions, laments that most habitués of the bookstore have yet to understand its uses. He knows that bookish spaces are made for the wandering browser, reflecting on sundry matters, as they travel the stacks. He thinks of the bookstore as a great instrument and bemoans the fact that we visit bookstores “chiefly to ask for some definite title,” playing the instrument like an amateur. He goes on:

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Aren’t we ever going to leave anything to destiny, or to good luck, or to the happy suggestion of some wise bookseller? Too many of our dealings with bookstores remind me, in their innocent ineffectiveness, of children learning to play the piano. I hear their happy ploiterings among the keys, their little tunes and exercises ring in my head in times of softened mood reminding me of all the lovely unfinished melodies of life. But it isn’t what a connoisseur would call music.

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The connoisseurs of the bookshop develop their unique style. They learn divagation. They know to leave a bit of room for inspiration and aspiration.

There are great pleasures awaiting those who submit to this instrument. Samuel Ibn Tibbon, the thirteenth-century Maimonidean, could be describing the browse when he writes, “If your soul be satiate and weary, change from garden to garden, from furrow to furrow, from sight to sight. Then will your desire renew itself and your soul be satisfied with delight.” And elsewhere, Ibn Tibbon articulates our position well: “Let your book-cases and your shelves be your gardens and your pleasure-grounds. Pluck the fruit that grows therein, gather the roses, the spices, and the myrrh.” He understands the stacks to be a pleasure ground whose verdure remains.

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The stroll-about has been a tool for rumination for some time. One of our seminal philosophers even named his school after the up-and-down walk. Aristotle, who was “Plato’s most genuine disciple,” left Plato’s Academy to found his own school. According to Diogenes Laertius’s account, Aristotle “made choice of a public walk in the Lyceum where he would walk up and down discussing philosophy with his pupils.” I imagine the intellectual descendants of Aristotle, wandering the crooked aisles of the Seminary Co-op—modern-day peripatetics—discoursing on the ethical life, heeding the master’s wisdom on what makes it all worthwhile: “For without friends no one would choose to live, though he had all other goods.”

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Epicurus thought the noblest were “most concerned with wisdom and friendship.” It was written upon the threshold of his school, known as the garden, “Stranger, here you will do well to tarry. Here our greatest good is pleasure.” In 2014, the Seminary Co-op Bookstore (where I am director) adopted this inscription as our guiding principle, imagining no greater aspiration than toward wisdom and friendship, those Epicurean pleasures.

There is something of the prospector about the reader lost among books, as there is about the reader lost in a book. Nineteenth-century writer and critic John Ruskin, speaking of the way of the world, reminds us that writers, scattering bits of wisdom throughout their pages, are just following the method of nature. He describes a phenomenon readers know well: that there is a reticence in the wise whereby one only receives their wisdom as a reward for effort set forth. Likening wisdom to gold, which Ruskin calls “the physical type of wisdom,” he sees no reason why the electric forces of the earth don’t consolidate gold to an easily accessible spot, from which we might fashion our currency. “But Nature does not manage it so,” he writes. “She puts it in little fissures in the earth, nobody knows where: you may dig long and find none; you must dig painfully to find any.”

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And so it is for the accomplished browser when confronted by a good bookstore. They seek the reward— they hope they are worthy—and they have developed their unique strategy for surveying the crags and fissures, as Ruskin would have it. When we come to a book, he tells us, we must ask ourselves, “Are my pickaxes and shovels in good order, and am I in good trim myself, my sleeves well up to the elbow, and my breath good, and my temper?” And so it must be for the browser, approaching the bookstore, preparing to excavate the gold they seek. “Gold-seekers,” Heraclitus says, “dig much earth to find a little gold.” But here, as in any work worth doing, the effort is also its own reward.

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Excerpted from IN PRAISE OF GOOD BOOKSTORES © 2022 by Jeff Deutsch. Reprinted by permission of Princeton University Press.

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