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Thursday, September 29, 2011

The death of a great American bookstore

I read this CNN article, 'The death and life of a great American bookstore' two weeks ago (it's a eulogy for Borders). These few paragraphs summed up best how I feel about a bookstore.

A shame, because when done right, there's something about a bookstore.

It's a library, a gathering spot, a refuge, a journey. Often it's small, maybe an 800-square-foot storefront jammed into a city street. Or it's idiosyncratic: an old house or converted barn, a rambling lobby or strip-mall space. It may not even be in your neighborhood, but that's where you go.

At its best, it's crowded: sometimes with people, always with books -- books stacked to the ceiling. Books lined up in bookcases. Books spread out on tables, highlighted on platforms, displayed in twirling, 5-foot-high wire racks.

Don't know what you're looking for? That's part of the adventure. A bookstore is governed by serendipity. You walk in and the world falls away. There's no rush. It's just you and the books, these pockets of words and paper that somehow transport you to a different place.

The best bookstores have a certain feel, a certain comfort to them. They're stately but not forbidding. The employees are a mix of the young and the eccentric, college students and lifers. The front of the store features their recommendations, a little offbeat, a little intriguing. If you're looking for something specific, they know where to find it; if you don't know what you're looking for, they can be your Virgil and Beatrice, guiding you through the world.
It is a place with a soul.

It's all about books :-)

Hanging out in bookstores had always been a personal joy of mine since my childhood.

During my primary school years, from 1991 to 1996, I travelled a lot. Visited the US four times, and Europe twice. Usually, these trips occurred because my father was having a business trip.

Went to U.S. the very first time when I was 7 (1991, San Francisco, Las Vegas and then Los Angeles).

Europe in 1992 (Vienna, Salzburg, London, Amsterdam and Paris).

U.S. in 1993 (LA, Orlando, New York, Washington DC, San Francisco)

U.S + Canada in 1994 (LA, Vancouver, Toronto, Buffalo, Memphis, San Francisco)

U.S in 1995, this time bringing the little sister along, we repeated the 1991 route.

Europe in 1996 (London and Vienna).

My last trip in US was actually in 1998 (Los Angeles, Las Vegas and San Francisco), where we then made a stop at Japan.

These trips usually lasted around two weeks, and vague as they are now to me, my memories of these trips had always been wonderful. But then, that's what nostalgia is all about, isn't it?

How can I forget my first visit to the fabled Disneyland in 1991? It was nearly Christmas, everything was like a winter wonderland. I discovered the joys of frozen yoghurt in San Francisco, during a cold afternoon. I liked it so much that when I slipped and fell while hurrying to cross the road, the yoghurt was unharmed even though I was bawling my eyes out. I liked getting up early in the mornings to interrupt my dad from watching CNN so I could watch cartoons, I also enjoyed US commercials. I don't remember anything about bookshops that year, aside from buying a really good Simpsons book.

In 1992, visiting the hometown of Mozart in Salzburg, I had trouble trying to sleep because I feared Mozart's ghost. When you were 8, had an over-active imagination, and saw Mozart's face everywhere, statues, busts, chocolates, CDs, posters etc. in a place it could haunt you.

Mozart, being intimidating

Nevertheless, I did buy a bust of Mozart, and Beethoven, to put on my piano. (they're still there).

Dad had his conference in Germany, so mom and I had to wait for him in London while staying at his cousin's house. My mom would go to a shopping mall and put me in a bookshop. I would then spend hours and hours going through the books. It was a treasure trove. WWE photobooks (then known as WWF, yes, I was already watching wrestling back then), some nice storybooks, some books of jokes, some encyclopaedias. I fell in love with the illustrations of THE WATER-BABIES, A FAIRY TALE FOR A LAND BABY by the Reverend Charles Kingsley, so I got it.

Water Babies
My book had this exact cover!

Along with a book of jokes, and also an encyclopaedia about dinosaurs. (This was the very same trip where I visited the National History Museum of London for the very first time, and briefly wanted to become a palaeontologist, my film director dream was put aside for a while.) My mom marvelled at the fact that I could sit still in a bookshop for THAT long.

1993's trip in US was memorable because of my visit to Disney World. Dad had to have his meeting in Miami, so mom and I were left in Orlando. We visited Disney World for four days. It was mindblowing for me then because it's the size of a couple of Disneylands! 1st day was Magic Kingdom, 2nd day was at the Epcot, and days 3 and 4 were, of course, at my favourite Hollywood Studios (back in the day, it was known as Disney-MGM Studios).

Every night, after dinner, I would hang out at the small bookshop opposite my hotel, to read Ninja Turtle and Superman comics. Superman had just died, there were four new heroes emerging in his place, each claiming to be Superman. It was compelling. Yup, after an exciting day in Disney World, I thought the best way to relax was to read comic books in a tiny bookshop. When dad rejoined us again for the trips in New York and DC, walking past the White House inspired me enough to buy a book of U.S. presidents.

But the US trips in 1994,1995 and 1998 were the ones giant bookstores like Barnes And Noble and Borders began to play a much more prominent role in my memories.

In 94, 95, I would hang out at the comic books section, going through Spider-man's Clone Saga. I was devastated to learn that Peter Parker was going to let some dude (his clone, Ben Reilly, but at the time, Peter thought he himself was the clone and Ben Reilly was the real thing) take over as Spidey! And then Spider-man became Scarlet Spider??? Dazed. I would then head to the magazines section to browse film magazines, and video game magazines, like Electronic Gaming Monthly. When I was done, I would just pick up the latest RL Stine books from either his Fear Street and Goosebumps series to read or buy. I discovered RL Stine in 1994, when his popularity exploded.

Despite reading all these sort of 'horror' books, it was never really the horror that appealed to me, but the fact that I got to see kids my age, or teenagers, performing heroic deeds, that tickled my imagination. So were the supernatural aspects, so were the occasional fantastical aspects. They were like hot dogs on the street, fine to eat, lingers a little once you're done, but completely forgotten hours later.

I shifted to reading fantasy books when I was 12. It all started with, er, Dragonlance. That was 1996. I shoved all those RL Stine and Christopher Pike stuff aside. Visiting London again (that would be my last trip there until 2009), it wasn't the museums nor the other tourist attractions that excited me, since I've went to most of them in '92 anyway... nope, I only wanted to go to their biggest bookshops. Going through shelves of books, by accident I picked up the first three books of Narnia, and also some book that was highly recommended to me by the store employee called NORTHERN LIGHTS, by Philip Pullman... in the rest of the world, the book was known as THE GOLDEN COMPASS.

I could fully appreciate the wonders of book stores when I was 14. During my last trip in US. The tram rides in San Francisco to the nearest Borders, to Barnes and Nobles. Again I would ask the employees for recommendations, and then pick a few. Neal Stephenson's SNOW CRASH, the first few books from the Terry Goodkind's SWORD OF TRUTH series (the first book was fine, the rest of it became increasingly traumatizing)... etc. Terry Goodkind looked badass though.

Terry Goodkind

In many ways since then, book stores remained a huge part of my life. My trips to Singapore was spent mostly in their Borders and MPH, I cannot help but feel a sense of sorrow when I hear that the Borders is gone.

When studying in Perth (2004-2006), I loved taking the bus either to the city or Fremantle, to visit their small-ish bookshops like Dymocks (I even went to Jasper Fforde's book signing).

Jasper Fforde and me.

Borders opened during the second year that I was there. And I would always go, after classes, mostly alone, but sometimes with Justin. Having coffee, going through the books, picking up some that Justin recommended to me. Those were the times when I discover many that would become my favourite literary works.

I picked up Gabriel Garcia Marquez's LOVE IN THE TIME OF CHOLERA in a bargain bin at Dymocks and swooned with it. I was suffering from heartbreak, what can be more effective as a remedy for unrequited love, than to read a book about a man pined after a woman for 51 years, 9 months and 4 days? The intensity of Florentino's lovesickness felt just like my own. The object of my affection was just as elusive and cold to me as Fermina Daza was to him. Florentino wrote poems, I put together silly videos, wrote a novella, drew portraits and the like... I wondered then whether I was going to suffer too, for 51 years, 9 months and 4 days.

I also picked up my first two Haruki Murakami books, WIND-UP BIRD CHRONICLES and NORWEGIAN WOODS, because the covers looked nice.

Wind-Up Bird Chronicles

I went through the labyrinthian plot of WIND-UP BIRD CHRONICLES and grew increasingly annoyed. NORWEGIAN WOODS was more my cup of tea.

2006 was when I began my film studies. The odds were seemingly stacked up against me during the GIRL DISCONNECTED shoot (my final film in Perth), with supposed crew member quitting after another, until there were only me, the cinematographer and the producer/ assistant director.

The girl who offered to help design costumes for me disappeared. The girls who offered to help do production design for me had other commitments and pulled out abruptly too. (to make things even crazier, I even had to replace the main actor) Knowing that I had to shoulder a massive load, I took a bus to Borders and looked through design books and magazinees, searching for inspiration, reading up books about films from yesteryears to understand how filmmakers of that era could work despite technological limitations. After all, the idea for the script came months earlier when I stumbled upon some Shaun Tan picture books...

That's what I've always been like. Hanging out in book stores.

My uncle passed away a little more than a year ago. My parents, who were visiting Tokyo for my graduation ceremony, had to return earlier. I went to Roppongi, to the Aoyama Book Center. I went through some books, one filled me with intrigue. It was Kanai Mieko's THE WORD BOOK.

I flipped through her short stories.

Earlier this year, one of them became the main inspiration for my short film, LAST FRAGMENTS OF WINTER.

Shooting the sunrise at Shirakawa-go

I initially wanted to eulogize Borders in this blog post, but as I ran through my own memories, I realize that book stores STILL play quite a role in my life, the magic is always there. I only realized it when I'm writing this.