Darryl Pinckney

       I like visiting Manhattan when the weather lets me walk around to look at what has happened to the island since I moved to Europe 10 years ago. I don’t get to see the city that much anymore, which makes the changes I do notice very striking, perhaps too much so. For a while there I couldn’t get over the huge multiscreen cinema complexes. I regretted the disappearance of the run-down art houses of the Upper West Side, the rep theaters with their unloved murals and desirable vintage posters. Then one day back in London I found myself on an escalator in a huge movie complex, realized that these places were opening everywhere, and as soon as the lights went out, got over the new international department-store way of going to the movies.
       I can’t make the same adjustment to the huge chain bookstores, the gleaming brass and bright glass. All day long people flip through magazines, have coffee, and consult the self-help shelves. Did this style begin with the big record stores? They caught on and were praised for their late hours and for the intelligence of their customer-cruising, looking for someone to listen to that new Charles Wuorinen with. I read somewhere that sociology has given a name to these consumer refuges with cafes–“third spaces” or some such. Not home, not public, but somewhere in between. I remember Manhattan as being dotted with dusty, anarchic, treasure-stuffed secondhand bookstores and small shops dressed up for fine editions and prissy reading series. You went to these places to observe other urban homesteaders, to overhear voices in the brick wilderness, to receive instruction from the city. The classics consoled.
       This memory of how I used to scrounge for books makes me look at the long aisles in the new book department stores as a form of cheating. Everything is laid out for you. The aisles of look-alike titles remind me of popular institutions like the New Christy Minstrels–clean-cut singing groups, sprightly choirs in tennis sweaters. I am not a part of youth anymore and becoming middle-aged is making me resentful of change. I like it when friends who have grown up in publishing complain about how the great numbers of returns from chain stores that overorder and undersell are ruining the book business. And yet the book department stores do seem to have a large number of titles in stock. When they first opened the worry was that they’d have 100 copies of 10 titles instead of 10 copies of 100 titles. Perhaps the average shelf life of a book is somewhat longer now than the five weeks I was told it was 10 years ago. Perhaps not. In any case, book department stores give me the same feeling I have in record stores–I don’t know what is happening anymore. I can’t discriminate. I can’t hunt. I used to go to bookstores with the confidence that someone–or a hidden shelf–would reveal something to me. Now, if I don’t know what I’m looking for, I just don’t know what to look for. Street vendors sometimes set up tables not far from the proud book department stores. I turn to them with unfair expectations. The prices on those tables are no bargains anymore. Maybe that 1897 global history of prostitution with the predictably outrageous chapter on the barbarous sexual practices of the Hottentots will have to stay where it is in the pre-Seder air of Broadway. I slip guiltily away from the guy who is neatening up the stacks I’ve just rummaged through. I step into the street and hope a taxi will stop. I’m happy because I’m going to Three Lives, a shop in the Village run by nice women, a bookshop that fills me with the old feeling of discovery, choice, and intimacy with the printed page.