Tellingly, it is only when I think of Community Bookstore, among all the bookstores that I frequent regularly, that I realize how far I have come from my roots.
Counting sheer hours I have spent in bookstores, I have spent the most hours in Community Bookstore till date.
Initially, it was a five-minute walk from Berkeley Place. It is a two-minute walk from Garfield Place today. I drop by when I step out to get milk. I drop in when I want to stretch my legs. I walk into the store when I want to warm myself on a cold evening and the pre-war steam heating system hasn’t kicked on in my ridiculously expensive cubby hole around the corner off 7th Avenue.
It is also when in Community Bookstore that I like to think I am most unwelcome.
This feeling is exacerbated nowadays by a sticker that has appeared on the storefront after the election of Donald Trump. “Refugees are welcome here” the glass pane reassures me reminding me of my immigrant status everytime I walk by. The sticker is a picture of a scruffy looking adult, presumably the father, sheltering his daughter in his arm. Both of them look haggard and lost, exacting a feeling of easy emotional charity from the onlooker. Ephemeral guilt and instant absolution.
I wonder how many non-English speaking refugees and immigrants find solace in that message versus the number of multilingual upper-class egos stroked, both immigrant and landed. Is it because I am not part of this sanctimonious succor supply-chain that I am faintly rankled – this short-circuiting of a problem, of immigration and opportunities, from the very rich to the very poor, by-passing the rich immigrant with legal problems? Is this the gray zone where Trump operates? Am I am too proud to advertise the fact that I am an immigrant in need of help, but not above feeling peevish at not being acknowledged in the discourse?
It is always in such a state that I step into this luxuriously elegant Park Slope bookstore.
Subconsciously, the fact that there are no second-hand books adds to the exclusivity of being a regular shopper here. Community Bookstore is the literary playground where this display of sainthood between the rich immigrants of Park Slope and the uber-rich brownstone owners of Brooklyn plays out.
I’ve just come back from a vacation to India. I spent some time in Bangalore, Pondicheri, and Trivandrum. In Pondicheri, I walked down to Higginbothams near White Town. It was a depressing display of literary sensibilities. The store had outdated volumes of technical books on subjects like accounting, calculus, and fluid dynamics, written by dispassionate career professors. In the children’s section, there were books on how to count, on mastering the English alphabet, and other functional and thinly veiled books that gamify prescribed syllabi on cheap quality paper. For sure I saw some Harry Potters, Asterixes, and Enid Blytons, all wrapped in thin plastic to keep away the dust. It reminded me of highly prized possessions of poor people who have spent way too much on luxury, like remote controls that weren’t to be pressed too hard because it would ruin the television. I know this is the reality of many parents and children in India and it frustrates me that a trip to a bookstore is always accompanied by a reminder of the functional, academic aspects of reading for the little ones, alloying pleasure with the threats and pressures of performance. Children are allowed their reading indulgence, those invaluable embers and sparks of imagination, always accompanied by a constant dulling reminder that these pleasures are inevitable stepping stones to the more dreary educational rungs leading to upward social mobility. Peter Pans and Harry Potters are calculatingly purchased with constant reminders of the mind-numbing technical literature that they all descend into even before they turn into their pre-teens, as we adults watch and wonder why kids hate the acquisition of knowledge and why their lives and romances are devoid of colorful magic.
By contrast, Tiny the Usurper, the resident feline of the Community Bookstore was featured in a Japanese book about bookstore cats.
I try to ally myself mentally and emotionally closer to the house negro, someone inside the house, away from the plantation, but who is still a slave. This is a false self-characterization. Do I not acknowledge that I can easily afford books from here? Why is it that I am tempted to paint portraits comparing the best of the first world with the worst of the third world? Is it because I do not know how to talk about the guilt-free happiness of the rich in third world countries, a demographic that I am squarely a part of? When will I deal with the reality that my status is closer to a benign feudal lord with coffee table communist ideas?
It does not take long before it becomes apparent that my reactions to first world independent bookstores are a reflection of my imposter syndrome, a pang of perennial guilt and shame that I have failed to overcome in the face of poverty and inequality at close proximity. I do not say this is a bad thing. In fact, I try and tell myself that it is a good thing that I have not completely assumed a comfortable conscience.
It is calculated and cultivated guilt, complete with its tinges of privilege; elegant and erudite. The independent bookstore of guilts.
The good folks at Community Bookstore are familiar faces to me and I like to think that I am a familiar face to some of them. Like how regular early commuters in ferries develop a foggy relationship with the anonymous familiar storefront workers on the banks of their everyday ferry route, faces of strangers they’ve grown to expect in predestined locations along their daily passage, we greet each other awkwardly.
I continue to smile, browse, and shop at Community Bookstore while they continue to pretend to almost get my name right when looking up my membership in their loyalty program.