There is a feeling you get when you buy a book that is quite unlike any other. You’ve just spent minutes or hours searching through the aisles of a bookshop, or maybe even a whole day like some of us. You’ve weighed the pros and cons of one book over another, you’ve read synopsis after synopsis, looked at a myriad of author photos and wondered about the lives of the minds who have written the novels or poetry collections you hold in your hands, and finally, at the register you pay for the value of your chosen work and are ready to take it home to its bookshelf with a feeling of most glorious satisfaction.
But this truly joyful part of life was taken away from all of us for a good part of this year. Covid-19 completely changed the way readers and writers think about books. If we loved them before, then it was in March and April of this year, when bookstores throughout the United States and the rest of the world were suddenly forced to close, that we realized how much books were truly a lifeline for us, as were the places that sold them.
I remember the first time I realized back in late March that I couldn’t just stroll outside, as I normally did, and walk the few blocks from my apartment to my local bookstore and find a new book to read, from a budding new author perhaps, who wrote about a world very different from mine, who perhaps had written something that would whisk me away from my Covid confinement and isolation. I was being told I had to rely on ordering online, from huge conglomerates as well as smaller bookshops. And while I don’t see anything wrong with ordering books online and of course fully support the necessity of lockdown for everyone’s safety, for me there is just something indelible and unmatched in letting the hours peacefully drift away as you make your way through all that is on offer at a bookshop, in person, face to face with the many choices of books before you. It’s like being lost in the most wondrous garden, from the diversity of spine and cover of every book, to the smells of the variety of paper the words of each story has been printed on. There really is nothing like it.
But losing bookstores during the pandemic didn’t only affect me as a reader. Like many writers of my time, my new novel Aria was heavily affected in Britain by the closing of bookstores in the UK. Its publication date there was March 12th, around the time the pandemic was declared. When Aria was first released in Canada, only the previous summer, bookstores were the key places where word got out about my novel, which I had spent nearly ten years writing. I was lucky enough that Heather Reisman, the CEO of Indigo Books, the main Canadian bookstore chain, had chosen Aria as part of her “Heather’s Pick” book collection—a kind of Oprah’s Book Club pick. This kind of support does wonders for a writer. It guarantees exposure for the book as well as offering the author some status. It also means your book will get pride of place, front and center in every Indigo bookstore, and there are many of them. This made my novel a bestseller in Canada, and it would never have happened without the support of bookstores. You can imagine the heartache then that so many of us writers felt for those first time authors who had their books released during the harshest time of lockdown, left with little or no exposure and certainly no one at the bookstores browsing through the aisles to magically notice the beautiful books they had likely spent years cultivating, unearthing and bringing to life.
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But this isn’t just about the routines we are all used to, of heading out to our favorite shops and searching for our next reads. Now that bookstores are slowly re-opening what’s become clear is that these destinations, as well as harboring our beloved books are also places where we foster our mental health and well-being. Simply being in an environment surrounded by like-minded people, like those who love to devour books as we do or individuals who are perhaps just starting their literary journeys, this in itself can be a comfort. We can take a peek at what book someone else is holding and perhaps pick up the same thing. We may even ask them about it and start a conversation, leading to a possible new friendship, all based on a love of reading. If we are fearful about the implications of the Covid virus itself we might head to the self-help or spiritual section and see others there too, searching through the books that can help them and us with our anxieties. This is an experience you can never attain from ordering books online.
Bookstores are not only places where things are about a simple exchange of money. Bookstores are a community. In bookstores, we welcome stories that become a part of us— stories that become integrated into our lives and, in doing so, heal us. They are a welcoming home away from home for readers of all interests and backgrounds. They are staunch defenders of writers—our greatest supporters. But most importantly bookstores are mental healers, gardens of the mind, where our busy human brains can go, not only to be mentally stimulated but to be at one with other equally buzzing minds, to commune with curiosity, yet in that mental workout also find peace, tranquility, and excitement, all at once. Bookstores are, and will always be, a place of wonder.