Left on the Shelf? Not Quite

Book lovers find their passion is often thwarted - by the bookshop.

If they had told me how easy it would be, I wouldn't have believed them. I wanted to buy a book I needed, in a particular language and for a reasonable price, and I entered a bookshop - and succeeded.

Before I try to explain why I consider this to be a miracle - a minor one, admittedly, but still a miracle all the same - I'd better tell you what book I had in mind. It is a classic, "Joseph and his Brethren," the monumental work on which Thomas Mann toiled between 1933 and 1943, while the world was falling apart. I should have had a copy on my shelves, but I didn't. I could have borrowed a copy in Polish, one of the remnants of my father's library, from my sister, but that would have been too easy. The Hebrew translation, by Mordechai Avi-Shaul, published by Sifriat Poalim in 1957, is out of print and has been for years, so I looked for a copy in English.

And that was part of my pleasant surprise: I found a copy in Steimatzky's branch in Gan Ha'ir. Please remember that we do not have too many bookshops that carry books in foreign languages, and those who do carry them, whether bookstore chains or a few choice independent stores, import them according to considerations that are financial rather that cultural.

Those considerations are based upon the "shelf-life" principle, which applies to books in Hebrew and, even more so, to foreign-language books. Because books in a shop are like tenants, who are supposed to pay rent to an avaricious and rather greedy landlord: The space on the shelf has a price, and if they do not "pay" the rent and earn their keep for the landlord (i.e., if they do not sell like hotcakes - or whatever sells faster than fast food), they are "evicted" and sent back to the publishers' warehouses.

Booksellers, unlike landlords, prefer a fast turnover of their tenants. Most well-stocked bookstores carry what is called the "front list," new books, just published, that are - or hope to be - the talk of the town. And they carry best-sellers. It may sound redundant, but bookstores like books that sell.

On the other hand, every publisher knows that his reputation, and his business future, depends on the "back list" - all those books that he published and are supposed to be the culture's cornerstones (my culture has three corners ...), to be read by literati and glitterati alike. But those books do not sell by the dozen, and that is why most of them cannot be found in your regular bookshop. And those that do not sell (well enough) are not reprinted, and sink into the deep well of the past, the one that Thomas Mann wonders whether we should call "bottomless."

Real vs. virtual shopping

You will ask, and rightly so, why I did not look for the book on Amazon.com or BarnesandNoble.com. I did. But even those book-selling giants did not have it in their seemingly unlimited stocks. Classics that do not sell are not sold there.

There are two main kinds of book buying: You enter a bookshop either to buy a particular book, which you need badly right now, or you go in there to look for a book, any book, and then the book sort of buys you. The second kind of relationship is always requited: A real book lover seldom exits a bookshop without a book. But the first kind is more problematic. More often than not you will not find the book you need in even the best of bookshops, and I'm not talking here about the bibliophile's white ravens. Most bookshops that tend to their customers' needs will offer to order the book for you from the publisher, be it local or foreign. But that will not do: When you need a book, it has to be now. You cannot wait until it arrives, if it ever does.

This is what distinguishes the real bookshop - whether it is part of a chain (paradoxically, the bigger the chain, the more limited its stock) or an independent one - from the virtual bookstores of the Web. In the first you may browse at leisure and feel the merchandise. But when you look for something in particular, it is seldom there. In the second, you cannot touch or smell it, but if you know exactly what you are looking for, you may even find it and have it delivered to your doorstep - depending on strikes, mail service and fate, but not on the publishers' and booksellers' whims.

That is how I recently acquired another copy of Vikram Seth's "The Golden Gate," which I wanted to reread. I knew it was already sitting somewhere there on my shelves, but hadn't the faintest idea where.

"If they'd asked me, I know I can't cook, / but I could write a book 'bout buying a book. / I would write a preface on my urge to buy, / that no bookshop can ever supply. / And the simple secret of the plot, / is that I like book ... buying a lot. / And the world will discover when my book ends, / that a good book will always make amends" (pace Lorenz Hart).