Shelf 7

The little book shop was called Mr B’s Emporium of Reading Delights.

It was painted a very light cream colour, it was on the same street that I grew up on — but in a different city and country — and the cheerful Englishman behind the counter had the improbable name of Mr. Scotland.

The shop had an upstairs, and also a basement reached via another staircase hidden elsewhere. There were typewriters beside bookshelves, handwritten recommendations all around, and appropriately to its location in the eponymous spa town, one of the display tables was a full-sized claw-footed bath with boards across the top.

Bookshops are an urban oasis. They’re the survivors of our lost cultural elegance; temples to both erudition and make-believe. Palaces of the mind, where we are all storytellers, and where each person reads a book ever so slightly differently. There are three places in the world where I feel truly at peace: by the ocean, with waves crashing against the rock-face; in the hothouse of a botanic garden, amidst the humidity and perfume and running water; and in a bookshop, surrounded by the smell of paper and ink, carpet and coffee, wood and leather.

It’s rare to see an unhappy person browsing books. To step into these avenues of shelves and tables is to unconsciously smile. Perhaps the scent of print conjures up cherished memories of curling up by the fire during school holidays or on Christmas Day, travelling to far-off places while staying at home; living without a care in the world. Books are recapturable universes, given form and colour by our own imagination.

We automatically adopt a certain air of respectfulness in these places. Not solemnity — books bring joy above all else — but we hush our voices, and move with quiet dignity, causing no disturbance. We carry our prospective purchases almost as if they were ceremonial offerings, but we take them away with us afterwards. There’s a ritualistic quality to it. We go to pay obeisance to something greater and older than we are, and to celebrate its continued existence.

Whenever I’m in a bookshop, I first look at the newest titles, just to assess the zeitgeist and either smile or shake my head. Then I’ll take a tour of the genres I most enjoy: adventure, thrillers, horror, and perhaps even science fiction. I’ll certainly have a look at any graphic novels I happen to encounter. Staff recommendations always draw my eye, too. Those are my intentional locations, but as the minutes pass, I find myself glancing around for signposts. I find my feet carrying me towards the same point I always end up at, no matter where the bookshop is. No matter whether I’ve ever visited it before.

Shelf 7.

Oh, it might not literally be the seventh shelf; indeed, it usually isn’t. It might be near the front of the shop, or along one side. It might even be towards the back, or upstairs. I’ve found it in all of those places. But I’ve always found it.

Sometimes it’s half of a rack, and sometimes it’s a single row. Sometimes it starts at knee-height, and sometimes it’s at eye-level. It’s easier to find in independent bookshops, like this one, because they don’t have enough space or stock to separate by genre.

I’ve looked at this shelf a lot. Enough to be on nodding terms with its invariable inhabitants. Good morning, Mr. Grisham. How nice to see you again, Mrs. Gaskell. Gaiman and Golding. At least two Gibsons. Graham and Gorky. So many Greens and Greenes.

Perhaps they recognise me too, by now. That man (he was a boy once, wasn’t he?) who wanders by every so often, stops, and peers in; nose pressed against imaginary glass. Different places and times, but always the same face — and the same look. The expression of the outside-looking-in.

My gaze skips along the spines, only noticing the familiar names in passing; I’m looking between the books, not at them. They’re pressed together, standing rigidly upright, with nary a gap. But is there room, nonetheless? Is there somehow space?

Certainly. With one purchase of Lord of the Flies, or The Firm, or North and South (not that we need another), a gap would open up on the seventh shelf. Perhaps slim, and perhaps wide.

It’s a dangerous thing to set a goal. It can also be helpful, certainly. Motivational. But it’s dangerous. I’m not sure I’ve ever formally — internally — set one for myself before.

I didn’t when I was at university. I didn’t when I was working for myself in my former career. I didn’t in my personal life. I knew some of the things I wanted, and I would muse upon those things often; sometimes obsessively. But I always had the personal deniability of just letting things happen as they would. Just seeing how it would all turn out.

Then there’s the seventh shelf, with the paper-thin negative space between the spines of its contents. Dark matter nestled there, almost invisible, but also alight. Pluck one book from where it belongs, slide another into its place, and… what?

You’re left with something different. A seventh shelf from a different place. Inside, looking out.

I don’t put it into words. That’s a rule of mine. My wife sometimes does, and I just smile. I neither confirm nor deny. I can want — we’re allowed to do that — but I can’t ask, and articulating is a lot like asking, as far as the universe is concerned.

So I go on holiday, and I take my reading material with me; all electronic these days. More than enough. More than I’ll read all year, with new titles added for the occasion nonetheless. A shelf worth of books in digital form, bringing no weight besides that of the device itself. I go on holiday, and I read, and I swim, and I walk… and if the opportunity arises, I go into a bookshop.

New titles. Adventure. Thrillers, and so on. Recommendations. And then I end up there again.

Mrs. Gaskell. How nice to see you again.

A pleasure as always, Mr. Gemmell.

Ah, Mr. Golding. All well, I trust?

I have no cause to complain, Mr. Gemmell.

Their voices have changed over the years. They’ve gone through tones of welcome, weariness, enthusiasm, pity, encouragement, and even embarrassment. The voices have moved as I have, I suppose. But they always reply.

It’s been different lately. These days, there’s something else. Not in the words — those are the same as always — but in the pauses afterwards. In the gaps. Once we’ve made our customary greetings, it’s as if they’re waiting — and I think it’s me they’re waiting for.

Will he say it this time, at last, Mrs. Gaskell?

I do wish he finally would, Mr. Golding.

I stand for a moment, gaze skipping over the spines, performing the ritual. If there’s been a sale and they haven’t yet been around to restock, there’ll be a space there, and I’ll swallow because my mouth will suddenly be dry.

Then I’ll turn and walk away, without looking back.

Not in shame, because shame can only come from accountability. I haven’t tipped my hand. I simply move on, until the next time and place.

It’s a dangerous thing to set a goal.

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