Last week I spent over a quarter of a million Korean dollars on books. It’s actually only about 400 USD, but it sounds cooler as a quarter of a million bucks. At the time I quipped that this only increased the likelihood of my opening a bookstore café here in South Korea, because eventually we will have too many books and what else am I going to do?
Have you ever read Lavie Tidhar’s Osama?
It’s a great pulpy novel, but I’m not sure if my amazement of it is transferable to others unless you’ve lived overseas as an expat.*
“Alfred was a man full of stories; now he filled his life with those of others, the small shop filled with worn and battle-weary books that had seen more of the world in their time, he liked to say, than he had and, like himself, had finally come to rest, for a while at least.”
It might be hard to get unless you’ve absorbed that ambiance of random books hoofed into a foreign country and left behind by carefree, downsizing backpackers, of going into a bar or burger joint and seeing if they have a shelf of cast-off Penguin classics, or maybe you’ve had a mental conversation like this one my buddy Gord Sellar outlined:
“Huh, well, I suppose I could read some Tom Clancy, since this Alvin Toffler looks a little like a retread of his last book, and I’m not interested in the bodice ripper. I wish whoever bought the books I brought for trade-in would bring in a few of theirs so I’d have something to buy.”
It’s a world made of cast-offs. You find yourself reading anything you can find. And you’re reminded by how disposable books are (unless you’ve lived in a big city where you can regularly find books tossed out in the trash). They’re what most people leave behind when they divest themselves of access baggage.
Every city that boasts a marginally sized English speaking expat community will slowly start to accumulate books. Whether in a bar or a café, you’ll find a shelf. Tired old paperbacks, the hip authors from the decade before, the disposable pulp novels, and the ones someone read to improve themselves. Stuff you never knew existed like the works of Stephen Leather or the foreign to you analogs. (Quick, who is Australia’s answer to Michael Chabon? Australians, no helping.)
And if you’re a reader what happens? You accumulate more, and think, maybe I should consolidate the cast offs. Maybe I should be the person with the shelf instead of the shitty frathouse bar. And since I’m at it, I’ll make it a nice place to hang out. Maybe let people tutor here or get a cup of coffee.
And that’s how it happens.
Another English language bookstore gets born.
* I recognize expat is a loaded term. Right now my definition is an expat lives in a foreign country expecting to leave it at some point. An immigrant lives in a foreign country with the expectation of settling there. And there’s likely overlap between the two.