There’s a certain way of moving through a used bookstore. Walk in, nod to the owner. Have no expectations about what you might find. Don’t ask: where’s the fiction? Where’s the poetry? You’ll find it. Go slowly. Pull out the spines that interest you. Read the back covers. Search through the bottom shelves, the stacks on the floor (especially the stacks on the floor). Read the fliers on the wall; read everything. But most importantly, just look.
Moving that often, I’d get presumptuous; I would think I had a city figured out after just days or weeks of being there, only to break down when I’d miss a turnoff biking home at night, lost without brightly lit landmarks.
But inside a bookstore, I always knew where I was. They absorb the cities around them: fliers advertise local bands’ performances and events with hometown authors passing through on tour. But at the same time, from place to place, they are overwhelmingly, comfortingly, the same. The smell: woody, maybe a little damp. The stacks: cramped, overflowing onto the floor, religiously alphabetized if not proudly haphazard.
Seeking out bookstores was my attempt to translate a pattern from my past onto my new city. And it’s true that each time I walk into a bookstore in Brooklyn, I’m comforted: I feel like I’ve arrived somewhere I understand. But it’s not an act of regression. By searching for these pockets of familiarity in an unfamiliar city, I’ve brought the whole borough closer to me, and every day it feels more like home.