Outside, it is raining and cold and gloomy. Parents are dragging their whimpering, half-asleep toddlers to dim sum with the grandparents. People jam themselves into the bus shelter, waiting impatiently for the bus to arrive. An unsuspecting pedestrian shouts indignantly as a car drives over a puddle and splashes him.
There is a cramped, hole-in-the-wall bookstore on the corner of 6th Avenue and Clement Street in San Francisco. The bookstore is quiet except for the shuffling of boxes being unpacked, the creaking of the wood floors, and the plitter-platter of the rain against the roof. The only voice is the polite greeting at the door, or the hushed but excited whispers from one friend to another. The air smells of aging, dusty books. The cookbook area downstairs is a bit too warm, but the psychology section upstairs a bit too drafty. The shelves are packed, books pushed into the shelves every which way.
Despite all its flaws and imperfections, this is my environment; this is my home. The flaws make it real. Without the overly pristine feel of regular chain bookstores, I can truly relax and enjoy the store. Walking into the bookstore, I hop into a bubble. I walk around, sipping my tea, and reading book reviews by the employees. The stresses of life evaporate, and nothing by the stories and I exist. My mind is blank as I meander around, ready to jump into the worlds contained in the pages of the old leather-bound novels. Pulling a book from the shelf and settling into a lumpy sofa, I enter completely different world.
The bookstore sells used books. Used books have withstood the test of time. It's warming to know that I am about to connect with the thousands of other people who have read and learned from the same books. If generations after generations of people have read the books, it's still going to have relevance in years after mine. I can picture myself speaking to the people of the future about books we've both read. The best thing this bookstore does with some of its used books is placing them in a cart outside the store. People can stop by and leave books or choose new ones to read for free. The casual system is different from a library's strict schedules and fines. It lets me feel like I'm holding a glimpse of someone's life in my hands.
This bookstore is a gift, an opening to endless opportunities. I have control. There is so much I can absorb. I can read whatever I want, whatever my curiosity pushes me to read. I can read more into Pavlov's experiments with his dogs, or a priest's life in pre-apartheid South Africa. I can learn how to take an mp3 player apart and put it back together so that it still works. The bookstore provides a break from normal, everyday life. The books change me from a first generation daughter of Asian immigrants living in the 21st century to a knight of the Round Table, a Death Eater, a teacher in one of Brazil's favellas, a kite runner in Afghanistan, a scientist dealing with moral controversies, or a parent living in a dystopian future.
The books force me to keep an open mind, to walk into a book without expectations or assumptions. Stories that are based in alternate universes that have different social norms invite me to see the world in which I live in a different light. The bookstore introduces novels that challenge my beliefs. I can read from the viewpoint of a male character with heavily misogynistic thoughts. Reading novels that challenge my beliefs either strengthen them or offer a different side that I didn't see before.
The bookstore on Clement Street is an odd place to find contentment. But, given the chance, it can be better than any tropical paradise.