barbara's+bookstore-01This isn’t a book review. However, it is a review of how a Japanese-American girl raised by a single father in a gritty, pre-gentrified Chicago discovered a love for reading through a small, somewhat anarchic independent book shop called Barbara’s Bookstore. To learn more about NoraTallTree, read her bio below.*

So let me tell you about myself. I’ve officially become “middle-aged” this year. I’m not too sad about it – just stating the facts. I’m accepting of it because 1. I don’t really have a choice, do I? and 2. I don’t want to be any other age. I mean that I don’t want to go back or forward in time or age. I think younger people have it way worse than I do (i.e. look at their bleak future!) and the older generations always seem befuddled and mournful for their lost youth. I’m at the perfect age that I can do both: I can be woeful and relate along with younger people in “real time” and I can wish for the “good ole days” with older folk.

I can do this, especially the latter, because I sort of remember the “olden days” or at least I remember the wanting for the old days to come back. It seems like ever since Reagan was in office, there has been a standardized American cultural yearning for “olden days” or perceived “simpler times.” I don’t really know if say, the 1950’s, was really a simpler time – in my opinion, no time is simpler if women frequently had to wear girdles and had to defrost meat without a microwave, but so be it! Who am I to argue? There is a definite and palpable perceived impression that these times were the “Golden Age” and the best days of America.

Since I am too young to have really lived through the girdle years and the turbulent 1960’s, I can go right along with my elders missing those years. I don’t have any real memories or regrets because I wasn’t there, so my yearning for simpler times is just a mental entertaining exercise for me. It’s like remembering the best scenes from an episode of your favorite childhood TV show: You remember the best stuff, which describes about 5 minutes’ worth, at the most, and you edit or erase the drivel that represents the majority or the rest of the program!

But what is real and nostalgic for me is my love for books. Love, love, love books and its motherlode flagship – the bricks-and-mortar bookstore! There is no other out-of-body experience for me or as intoxicating as walking those first few steps into a bookstore – the smell of strong coffee (thanks to the modern bookstore with its Starbucks Cafés for wiring this into my sensory brain), bound paper and the smell of, “Is that glue or sugar, paint maybe?”, all mixed in with cold canned air! WOW! Isn’t that the best?!! It my “Breakfast at Tiffany’s” nirvana/heaven, slightly orgasmic moment – POP! It instantly calms me and presses my “happy” button. No one is truly alone or can be unhappy at a bookstore – it’s just not possible!

The love for the bricks-and-mortar bookstore goes back to my childhood. I have memories of growing up in 1970’s urban Chicago’s Lake View area. Instead of going to a proper after-school sports program at the nearest field house like my 10 year old contemporaries did, I would walk a mile or two through an interesting, sketchy neighborhood (considered downright “red light” by today’s standards) to the alternative/gay/radical Barbara’s Bookstore. (Obviously helicopter parenting wasn’t invented just yet).

Lake View, back then was the hosting neighborhood for a wide range of diverse group elements – Latin street gangs, aging hippies (that time’s “hipsters” – the owners of the crafts/ethnic/back-to-the-earth, think lots of macramé); pockets of Jewish-ness, anchored down by their temple; gay forefathers and newly out gay singles and the chase for the latest young hot trade (obviously pre-AIDS); seedy SROs (why are all the tenants missing teeth?) and pay by the half-hour hotels. The random Japanese-American businesse,. leftover from post-WWII Chicago neighborhood segregation made of Japanese-internment-camp- refugees” who weren’t welcomed in any other neighborhood except Lake View where the rents were cheap and they could work at restaurants near Cubs’ ballpark. And no one would rent to the “untrustworthy” Japanese, only except neighborhoods like Lake View. Lake View, in the 1970’s, seemed to be the landing neighborhood that gave respite for all those either going up or down Chicago’s social and economic ladder.

Well back to Barbara’s Bookstore. I would walk past, but more like slink past, the tall cashier’s counter at the front of the store. The male bookstore attendants would ignore me, probably too busy reading their latest socialist/commie/radical rant to look up at me, but there was a woman, I childishly thought she was the actual “Barbara,” who became aware of me and thought I needed adult supervision.

This new bookstore clerk supervision forced me to “slink”. I would wait and go in with other customers, so as to not be seen so much, and go straight to the back. The back-of-the-store is where the magazine section lived, along with its right and left henchmen bookshelves, the self-help/sociology/psychology section and gay/straight/alternative sexuality section. In this little trifecta of floor-to-ceiling bookshelves, away from view from the front of the store, I would basically spend about 2-3 hours every school day for years reading the latest periodicals and books.

Let me tell you about how books were arranged back then. First of all, there was no ordained, real order to shelving and “facing” incoming books. I mean after a while the bookstore owners would get lazy and not want to move sections around – at this particular store, there was very heavy art and photography books in the front. You know the kind – the heavy book that costs a lot of money and if it fell off of its high shelf it could kill someone. Plus there were naked people on its cover, seen by giggling kids from the street view. No marketing/sales consultant/child advocate around to tell bookstore owners how to pander to the general public’s taste. No marketer or sales space consultant to shudder in revulsion or gasp at the lack of consideration for big sales. No big box bookstore list to tell you a strategic schema as to where to put which books.

Anyways, for the customers, though, once you were in the store, you were basically left on your own to explore. Even book covers didn’t call out to you with any eye catching or visually stimulating designs, only the titles and authors’ names. (That’s what made romance novels back then really stand apart from real literature, the outlandishly colored covers. They were cheap-looking and garish.) Real literature was bookish and library-ish, not just meant for entertainment like romance novels, but prized for its true meanings and love for words. The “truth” behind its simple cover – that was what was going to sell the book.

(A sidenote: There was also no advertising or posters for any events or books or anything. That was considered “gauche” and commercial…)

So in this maze and forestry of book discovery and word luxuriousness, I flourished and grew up. Books filled in all my missing childhood gaps and taught me how to live in and deal with the general world. Having no mother since I was almost 2 years old, being a latch-key kid (kids ask your moms and dads what that is), and having older siblings who were busy doing their own extracurricular activities, I had no real direction or guidance (maybe “Barbara” at the front was right to worry about me!).

My siblings were extremely smart; I was too, and I had an immense curiosity. After the mags and periodicals became stale, since the sellers would change them only monthly (yes, monthly! and that’s if they felt like it), I would venture to the henchmen bookshelves and end up reading self-help books, religion books, and spiritual books. New Age books before they were deemed “New Age” and sociology and psychology books (yes, folks, there are sections in a bookstore called “sociology and psychology” and they weren’t just all about aberrant crime or anything catastrophic). These books would explain why regular folks are “who they are” and “why they do things” – either as individuals or as groups.

Books gave me the vocabulary and some semblance of social awareness that was lacking in my lonely and singular sphere. I mean what’s a “woman, living in the post-feminist movement” should be thinking or feeling about her world? (Granted I was 10 years old but I wanted to know about “my body, myself”). Who would teach me how to be woman? My old-fashioned Japanese father? The one who grew up in post-WWI Japan? The one indoctrinated and marinated in “bushido code”? (What is bushido code, by the way? A book in the sociology section would know and be available to read!).

A free-roaming, disorganized bookstore would have something on any subject and topic. Since the bookstore is kind of organically random, I had to learn to use word association and thought siphoning to help me field my way through. Exploring all kinds of books gave me some pretty good highly educated guesses and theories that were tailor-made for me by me. I learned how to find out how to “find out” answers, ask questions, explore feelings, describe emotions, learned what was normal, what wasn’t, what works, what doesn’t and why it doesn’t, and most of all – the beauty of words and its power when it clicks and resonates with you. Reading books allow you to test your theories without having to risk living them out, experience cultures you’ll never meet in real life (like an African tribe who shuns all technology and outsiders) and learn about events you’ll never know anyone personally who was involved, like reading a book about Tibetan Monks who were deposed from their homeland in the 1950’s. Reading novels can put the words in your mouth and help you clearly define your thoughts, even if the stories are from a couple of centuries ago and from the other side of the world!

Books also keep you company, distract you from your daily worries and anxieties, broaden your world in taste and beauty – self-discovery at your fingertips. It’s one of the greatest pleasures this world has to offer, having been made solely from and of this world, and helps you create your own world within the world.

Hi, I’m NoraTallTree. I’m a person stuck in the middle: In-between Baby Boom I and Baby Boom II, punk or hippie principles, both groups simultaneously exciting me and also get on my nerves; stuck between Christianity passion & Buddhist calmness; stuck between American boldness & Japanese subtlety; I’m even stuck in the Midwest, between both coasts. Sounds kind of mixed-up, doesn’t it?!! Oh, well, it’s just me.

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