The thing I love about independent bookstores is how much is missing. They don’t have room for stacks and stacks of the latest iteration of The Lovely Bones. (Is there anything as disheartening as seeing the name Sebold beside the name Sebald on the shelves of a bookstore? Of course, peopled always have to get past Dobozy to get to Doctorow, so maybe I shouldn’t talk.) What they do have room for, just barely, is the distillation of a certain taste in reading, a canon of novels and poems and plays and essays peculiar to whoever runs the store, whatever he or she thinks is a worthwhile continuum of titles and authors and subjects. I’ve always loved that, in whatever city or town I am, coming upon an independent bookstore (and there are less of them than ever) and being treated to someone else’s mind, to a series of books more often based on quality and sensibility, rather than the quantity-driven ethos (by which I mean whatever deals have been made with various publishers as to how many books will be ordered, where they’ll be placed in the store, how long marketing demographics have determined they should stay on the shelves) that you get in the big chains, whose similarity from city to city, even country to country, manages to be bewildering and depressing at the same time. When I was a kid there was a Catholic priest who used to come to dinner at our place once in a while, and he often said that the great thing about the Latin mass was that no matter where you went in the world it was always the same, so I guess you could say the reason I stopped being a Catholic is the same reason I prefer independent bookstores to the big chains—I don’t want to live in a world dominated by the same.
Even if I disagree with the books on the shelves, I’m always intrigued. Why Joseph Heller and not Ken Kesey? Why Rimbaud and not Lautreamont? Why DC and not Marvel? And when the choices they’ve made synch up with my own, and then throw in titles and authors I’d never considered or heard of before, then it’s pure magic. Not only have I discovered another branch of writing forking off from works I love in a way that renews my interest in reading, but I feel as if the proprietor is my co-conspirator (even if I know that this is naiveté and wish-fulfillment, and they could be the worst person in the world) if only in the sense that they’re keeping alive something that feels precious to me, and the thing that is “precious” is equally the specific books themselves and also the evidence of just how much variety there is in tastes, combinations and possibilities.
My favourite bookstores (many of them now gone)—Ficciones in Montreal; Munro’s in Victoria, Black Sheep in Vancouver, Words Worth in Kitchener—were (or are) all places of secrets barely concealed, where I spent hours thumbing through the shelves amazed by what was out there, the life-affirming sense that no matter how many years I spent there would still always be something interesting to read, another novel or short story collection or book of poems I had to get to. Whenever I asked one of the clerks or proprietors about something they never looked it up in a computer database but drew it from memory, cross-referencing writers as they took me around the store pulling this or that off the shelves. Not that I have anything against computers or the internet, but the “customers who viewed this item also viewed” series of tabs or hyperlinks is not the same experience, mainly because it was less about the books than the experience of someone else’s mind moving through its personal library, making connections I’d never made before, drawing out aspects of writing and reading I’d never considered, educating me less about a reading list than on ways of sustaining and refining literary taste.
Tamas Dobozy was born in Nanaimo, BC. After receiving his Ph.D. in English from the University of British Columbia, he taught at Memorial University. His work has been published in journals throughout North America, and in 1995 he won the annual subTerrain short fiction contest. When X Equals Marylou, his first collection of short fiction, was shortlisted for the Danuta Gleed Award. Tamas Dobozy now teaches in the Department of English and Film Studies at Wilfrid Laurier University in Ontario. His new book Siege 13 has been nominated for the 2012 Governor General's Award for Fiction. On November 7, he was awarded the 2012 Rogers Writers' Trust Award for Fiction.