I have an ideal bookshop in mind, no bigger than a thousand square feet, usually a little bit smaller, broken up into two or three rooms, each with floor-to-ceiling wall units, the top shelves reachable only by ladder -- a rolling library ladder, one that does not have an 'employees only' sign on it -- and a few scattered floor units, no taller than five feet, interspersed with three or four tables of differing size and shape. Easy-to-read signs clearly denote the proper category to be found in each section. There are at least one or two wooden chairs in each of the rooms finished in dark cherry to match the shelving and to complement the simply patterned wall-to-wall carpet. The lighting allows for easy reading without being obtrusive. The shop has two bay windows facing the street with mullions separating the panes and an arched entrance with a brass-handled wooden door. The tiny vestibule allows one to park an umbrella if need be, and there's a tinkling bell that rings when someone enters. The cash desk sits just to the right as you enter and is large enough to accommodate two or three customers at a time.
If there is music playing, it'll be Mozart, the Oboe Concerto in C, for example, or perhaps the orchestral works of Delius or Vaughn Williams. Never vocal music. If there is coffee -- nice but not necessary -- it will be free. If the shop is to have a mascot, it should be a painting of one. And, of course, there's a public toilet. A bookshop without a toilet is a barbarism. After all, I spend a good deal of time there.
The bookshop I have in mind is one that carries a brilliant selection of smartly presented titles. A selection that caters, of course, to me and others who share my enthusiasms, but also one that surprises me whenever I visit. Surprises me in a way that Amazon's geeky algorithms will never do, that make 'suggestions' which simply confirm my already ingrained prejudices and delusions. We all know what we like, until someone shows us something different, more interesting, more tasty, perhaps even better, as measured by our own internal pleasure scale. After all, one only reads for pleasure. My ideal bookshop is full of marvelous, unexpected adjacencies, because the books are arranged by a living intelligence for whom BISAC codes and catalog copy mean nothing when compared to personal knowledge and common sense. No subject or category lies outside its ken and yet nothing is stocked just to 'fill out' a section or category. Its assortment is neither 'high' nor 'low' -- if Dostoevsky rubs elbows with DeMille, so be it. If Bukowski sits next to Cavafy, it reminds me that Poetry is an ocean, not a pond.
Though I often make my way to the Mystery and Fiction sections, they are not allowed to overwhelm the other subjects, for works of science or history or biography or psychology can be just as pleasurable as a deeply involving novel. Any subject at all. So can wonderful children's books and beautiful illustrated books, as long as there is enough room to open them and look inside. My ideal bookshop carries practical books too, but only the best of them, those that have withstood the test of time, and are cited by experts in various fields. New titles are added very carefully to the mix in those sections. There are a few other items on display -- stationery, cards, objets d'art -- but they never detract from the books.
In my ideal bookshop, I can browse undisturbed for as long as I like. However, if I want help or just good conversation, someone is always around who likes books just as much as I do, and, even better, likes to talk about them. After a while, we get to know each other, staff and customers, and we get to trust each other. This makes it a good place to come and visit, even if you don't need a book. Call it Treasure Island, where landlubbers who dream of going to sea can voyage far and wide without ever leaving home.
Close your eyes. Conjure your own ideal bookshop. Breathe deep and take in that tactile world of color and texture, of silence and conversation, of people and books. Open your eyes. Shut down your computer, turn off the phone, get dressed, put on some shoes, and go into town, wherever your town may be, whatever size it is. Now. Find your ideal bookshop.