This is what an old bookshop knows and can teach us

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One of the blessings of travel is the chance to discover new things. Such was the case recently when my wife and I visited New Orleans for a few days.

Basically an island between the Mississippi River and Lake Pontchartrain, New Orleans attracts over 11 million visitors each year.

Travelers come for the jazz, Creole cuisine, culture, restaurants, booze, entertainment, gospel music, jazz funerals, Cafe Du Mond beignets, Mardi Gras, and more.

Old bookshops in New Orleans, however, are probably not the top attractions.

Illustrations and photographs by John P. Weiss

The day we arrived, my wife was under the weather and opted to rest in our hotel room. I ventured out and found a wonderful coffee shop, where I enjoyed a latte and sketched in my Moleskine notebook.

A warm glow of light

Walking back to the Bourbon Orleans hotel, I strolled past Orleans street and noticed a set of large, locked up wooden doors. The sign above them said, “Arcadian Books and Art Prints.”

I couldn’t tell if the shop was closed or completely out of business, but I filed it away. Namely, because I love old, used bookshops.

I returned to our hotel room and found my wife feeling better and ready for dinner. We headed out, enjoyed a fine meal and began strolling below the French Quarter galleries (wide balconies) and trees festooned with ubiquitous Mardi Gras beads.

We rounded the corner and found ourselves on Orleans Avenue.

“Hey, I was here earlier today,” I said to my wife. “There’s something I want to show you.”

We crossed the street and I pointed to the old bookshop, knowing my wife loved books even more than me. She smiled.

The large wooden doors were open, the proprietor was standing outside the entrance, and a warm glow of light was emanating from within. It was getting chilly and we were happy to step inside.

Elegant chaos to it all

Walking through the large, wooden, entrance doors was like stepping back in time. Every inch of the interior was filled with old books and tight passageways. There was elegant chaos to it all.

Precarious stacks of books rose up all around us, like towers of forgotten words and literary ambitions. Navigating the books and makeshift aisles was hard enough, but then more people showed up.

My wife, surrounded by books.

The musty aroma, dust and cramped quarters felt like another era. Like a library or bookshop long forgotten.

The really old books were tucked away, their covers faded and pages brittle. We blew off the dust and carefully thumbed their pages. Their long slumber awakened, perhaps they were grateful to see light on their pages? Surely it felt like eons since they last encountered the interest of a reader and the joy of fulfilling their purpose again.

The worst was the suicides
I felt sorry for the books and their shared obsolescence. This age of smart-phones, computers, e-readers, and digital distractions has almost rendered books as cultural artifacts. Quaint, analog containers that hold information and content from before the Internet.

The worst was the suicides. The occasional thuds from books, tired of their neglect and sense of irrelevancy, as they dove from dusty shelves to the cluttered graveyard below. Some landed squarely, in a dignified repose, while others lay splayed, their spines painfully contorted and arched.

In one corner, an electric fan was wedged between an archway of books. It seemed an engineering impossibility, but then, this was no ordinary place of commerce. It may have lacked the order and modernity of a Barnes & Noble, but it retained a kind of magic. As if ghosts of authors hovered, still hoping their works would be discovered and loved.

So many books, so little time!

There was every variety and imaginable genre to be found. Fiction, non-fiction, fine art, instructional manuals, poetry, and more. There was also all manner of old prints, on the walls and floors. Black and white photographs, artwork, and images of the past. In a way haunting, but then parts of New Orleans are famous for this.

What an old bookshop knows

Old bookshops contain countless treasures and wisdom if you’re willing to spend time poking around. Bookshops are not for hurrying. Like an intimate dance, they require your full attention, patience and a slow hand.

An old bookshop knows about your pain because it contains books written by authors who have been there. Authors who have lost spouses, children, and loved ones. Look around and you’ll probably find a forgotten, dog leafed copy of Joan Didion’s The Year of Magical Thinking.

An old bookshop knows about your guilt because it has copies of Dante’s Inferno, as well as dusty standbys like Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment and Toni Morrison’s Beloved.

An old bookshop knows about love because on its shelves somewhere reside Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, as well as volumes by the Brontë sisters.

Further instruction on love can be found in the cluttered poetry section, where Shakespeare, Neruda, Dickinson, Keats and more await discovery.

Don’t be surprised to experience a bookshop reunion. Perhaps you’ve forgotten what Charlotte’s Web meant to you until you see a tired old copy peeking out from the children’s section. The spirit of E. B. White will surely smile as you slip your old friend off the shelf and thumb through its pages and illustrations.

Handwritten notes in the margins

I remember when my Dad reminisced about his boyhood. How he and his family would gather around the radio after dinner and listen to programs.

“Dad, you’re a dinosaur,” I used to say.

“Well, Johnny, we didn’t have televisions yet. They came later. But in a way, listening to the radio was more vivid to us, because we used our imaginations,” Dad said.

I feel the same way about books. Somehow the scenes they conjure in my mind are superior to Hollywood adaptations. CGI is no match for the human imagination.

Fast forward a lifetime and I’m telling my son about the black and white television I had in my childhood bedroom.

“Black and white TV?” my son would ask. “Was it broken?”

“No,” I said, “We only had one color TV back then. It was this big Zenith, and you had to get up to manually change the stations. All five stations.”

I remember my son looking at me the way I used to look at my father. I’m sure he thinks I’m a fossil.

Thankfully, books have managed to hold on. For now, anyway.

There’s something special about their physicality. The way they smell, and that satisfying solidity in your hands. Unlike computer screens and tablets, book pages don’t glare at you, causing eye strain.

I kept many of my father’s books. Even now, long after his passing, I still encounter pages with his handwritten notes in the margins. It’s such a joy when I discover them. It’s like a part of my Dad’s spirit saying, “Hey Johnny, I’m still here, connected to you, so don’t worry.”

Being in the Arcadia Books and Art Prints store in New Orleans had a similar effect on me. So many old books, with their stories and author’s dreams. Thoughts and ideas from the past, suspended in time, enclosed and encased in aging covers and tired spines.

Like my Dad’s handwriting in the margins of old books, there are gems to be found in old bookshops. The past doesn’t want to give up the ghost easily. It still has its wisdom, experiences, and messages for this harried, modern world.

Technology may change, but not the basic human condition. Our need for love, belonging, meaning and relevancy carries on down through the ages. It will continue to do so. Thankfully, tired books in old bookshops, like artifacts of the past, will be there to share their wisdom with us.

Their secrets for a better life can be found and revealed, but you better hurry, before these splendid bookshops lock their doors for good.

I’m John P. Weiss. I draw whimsical cartoons, paint landscapes and write about life. Thanks for reading!

This article first appeared on Medium.