I saw this sign in the window of a small bookshop last week:
Customers enter at their own risk.
I thought it was a joke – until I looked inside. The shop was filled from floor to ceiling with towers of books. It looked like a hoarder’s paradise – so jam-packed with books that there was no space for the owner to sit inside. (I am not kidding. He was sitting across the street with a bemused look on his face as he watched potential customers go inside his shop, which I did because I always enjoy browsing.) There was already one customer inside – shuffling between two towers of fiction so cautiously that you’d think the ground was mined. I wanted to go in – but there was no space for more than one customer in the aisle. I waited for the first customer to come out before venturing inside. He didn’t buy anything. He just looked happy to come out, shaking his head.
Undaunted, I stepped inside. Almost immediately, I felt claustrophobic. On my left were stacks of crime fiction ranging from popular bestsellers to obscure cult titles. To look at them, I had to squeeze into a narrow aisle less than a foot wide. It was impossible to see the books at the bottom because there was no room for bending my legs. Since the books were not on shelves, each tower had hundreds of books in it up to the ceiling. They looked precarious, like massive Jenga towers. I was afraid of touching them. What kind of person thought that was a reasonable way of displaying his stock?
There were a few books that I had not read by John D McDonald – one of my favourite crime writers – but they were near the middle of a teetering stack. Though I was interested in buying them, I wasn’t going to destabilise the tower by trying to remove them. It already looked dangerous. I left the books to continue deeper into the shop, where I hoped things would become more sensible. I could not turn around to check out the books behind me until I reached a small space at the end. There I looked down the second aisle – which was even narrower than the first. There were books all over the floor, making it impassable. It made me wonder how the man had got so many books into one place. There must have been a point when he thought he had enough stock – but he had turned the shop into a lethal library.
By then I had the desperate urge to get outside as quickly as possible – so I twisted my body around so I could head back where I had come in, facing the other way. The science fiction section was on that side – actually on shelves. That was slightly safer than the towers – but the books were crammed onto the shelves three titles deep. It was impossible to see what was behind the first layer without lifting dozens of books out of the way – but there wasn’t the elbow room to lift my arms. I saw tantalising glimpses of long out of print titles – but no way of reaching them. I started to understand why the owner stayed outside. He had known what it would feel like to enter his shop. It was a hellish experience.
Angry and frustrated, I shuffled my way back out into the daylight, glad to make it out alive.