I sit down in my premium economy seat, the abbreviated way of saying "economy as it was fifteen years ago, but at a higher premium", and deeply internalize my physical constraints for the next six hours. A small box outlined by my seat, the side of the plane with its tiny window, the seat in front of me, and a precise, though invisible, boundary between myself and 19B. I grab a thin paperback out of my bag before sliding it underneath the seat in front of me.
It's just barely light out, and I won't be turning on the light above my seat. I have less than an hour to spend peeling through my book's pages before the night will fall, the plane's lights will dim, and a redeye passenger such as myself should fall asleep. I think to myself that I should have packed a hardcover instead - this paperback will certainly bend and fold on its way to wherever it ends up between me and my seat - but a hardcover wouldn't have packed well.
It doesn't matter. Black inks on bound textured pages with their soft scents are familiar feelings. I can read them on planes, on trains, in cafes, or between the sheets of my hotel bed and feel at home in their arms.
I was afforded a recommendation for a book I do not own and another recommendation for a place to find it. I make my way to what is apparently their new store, just one address over from its predecessor, south of the Tottenham Court Road station. It's a bright white all over, like at the start of a new lease where the owners kindly paid for a new coat of sterile paint for the apartment walls. There are many books on many warm wood shelves on many open floors, and each book knows precisely where to reside and how far apart from every other book it should be. Well, they know those details until someone like me comes along and plucks them from their shelves. Gives them new life outside the store. Or instead confuses them just enough that they can't find their way home on their own and end up on a mobile, metal shelf for refiling.
But it's the twenty-first century and we have a mobile app. Just type in some information about a book, and receive where it can be found and how many copies are available. Drat, the recommendation would usually be in Fiction W, but it's currently out of stock. Pop over to searching a few book sites back in the States and no dice to find it directly. I didn't actually want to purchase it from either of the two giants, but if at least one of them had it, my local bookstore could order a copy with some luck.
Off to the poetry section - I find staff picks the most useful here because while I like poetry, I am not a good judge of the genre. I pull the top copy of a staff recommendation off a stack, lift open its cover, and am taken by the boldness of this paperback's particularly stiff cover as my fingers grace it. Maybe this is why the store's walls are so coldly white, to contrast how much life resides within its books.
I read a few lines, smile, and remember how much I love the escape of poetry and how grateful I am that someone more well-versed than I will curate it for me. I read a few more lines, glance up, read another, and am reminded about how this process causes me to tie together poems and the places I am when I read them. I pop in and out of the fragmented world of the poems and the one around me such that they begin to quickly meld into one. And they are. I am there, in those pages, in the moment, in that place. Poetic Scientifica still feels like Portland, and Bright Travellers has already begun to feel like London between my hands.
These thoughts pass. I read the next page, put the book down, and remember I still need to purchase it. And I do.
I know I've already made the one purchase I allotted for this trip, but I can't help myself from browsing more. I'm a bouncy, smiling cliché just shy of twirling through the stacks. So many more books to buy - there are always more books I desire to read - but especially on vacation, especially now with a suitcase already overflowing with tea, I cannot.
So I jot down titles, authors, notes within my graph paper notebook to take advantage of this store's curation. I know that this store's arrangement - the way it highlights some stories and relegates others to distant corners - must be studied carefully before I leave it behind. I turn careful placements in the reality that surrounds me into two-dimensional scratches in hopes that I can remember enough of the feelings that prompted me to want the books I note.
Curating a list for my future self through the curation of another. Touching the pages and reading early excerpts to see what sticks. Seeing another's nose in a novel you were considering and the smile across his face as he closes it.
The art of the physical bookstore that I hear is dying. Today, for me, it is very much alive.