Libraries, Liberties, and
The All-American Return Policy
It’s Springtime but nippy and raining horizontally. Cursing the weather for its “unreasonableness,” I take shelter in the warm luxuriance of a downtown megabook merchant. Once in, Coffee and Dvorak waft down and lure me up to the glass of the bookstore café.
I’ve noticed before that most Philadelphia bookgiants are Full-Servicely Only; deciding— wisely but unfortunately— to store their coffee carafes behind the counter to discourage would-be wiseguys from filling up Burger King cups with twenty free ounces of Cinnamon Pumpkin Spice. This bookgiant is no different. Oh well, c’est la vie. I shelve my principles, order a large, and head to the stacks where, fueled by cup after cup of delicious, world-disclosing “coffeine,” I polish off a volume of Horace in under two hours, sitting crosslegged in the aisle. I fetch another title— shorter this time— and devour that one. Then another. Five and half hours have passed. I sense some curiosity and mild distress from Darryl the Doorman, but continue grazing at my leisure. This is a library afterall. Granted, no signs say as much, and I’m positive the staff would grumble otherwise, but the meaning of the things lies in their use… so this is a library. Superior in many respects to our publicly owned branches: tighter, brighter, with treats and caffeine and a monthlong lending period that hairsplitters prefer to call “The Return Policy.”
This lending policy does require a pinch of discipline and capital, but I tell you there is no feeling more triumphant than slumping up to the counter with 150 dollars in glossy paperbacks, on the 30th day of a 31 day return policy, and walking away with your pockets weighed down with riches. Gets even better when the countergirl asks “the reason for returning your purchase, sir” and I reply with an unassailable grin:
“Yes, I’m done reading it.”
With the advent of the return policy, I can finally own everything in the world without wondering where I’m going to put it all. I can take a mid-century Electrolux (with a Sears and Roebuck sticker slapped across its side) back to Wal-Mart and— with some brassball chutzpah— get enough store credit for a shoppingcartful of powder groceries. Never, ever yield to the fear of excess. Drop the life-savings on a top-of-the-line videocamera, make a short documentary among consenting adults, then drag it back a month later for a full refund guaranteed. Compliments of Circuit City. If a month doesn’t suffice, you can always “refresh” your purchase by coming back every month on the month for a quick switch and a few kisses blown in the direction of customer service. All of the pleasure; none of the guilt.
And if every once in a while, I mismanage my receipt jar or actually decide to keep my purchase, it’s still cheaper than trying to reconcile all those death-threats piling in from libraries up and down the Eastern seaboard. I feel like writing back: “Look, you keep sending me these notices— to no effect. When are you going to take a hint? You’re obviously not getting your money; so let’s just put all this ugliness behind us.”
I’ll even put books on order that I already own and cherish, treating the customer service desk like my own little corporate ballotbox. “I need ten copies of Richard Rorty’s Philosophy and Social Hope, stat.” I think of it as a tiny nudge toward a future of economic democracy, and in a world which has yet to fully realize Money’s sidedoor usurpation of political power, every nudge counts. Now I know that for many of you, Barnes&Noble is one of the most nefarious flagships of this takeover, but while agreeing with you, let me just mention something in its defense. Throughout my childhood years in Virginia, I was forced to choose between the mausoleum dinge of second-rate libraries and the drooly kitten-and-cookbook selections of B. Dalton Books. Barnes&Nobles, when it arrived in highschool, was the library of Alexandria by comparison. The march of Freedom bearing the torch of Reason. Every author, topic, and translation were available, visibly encyclopaedic, and— most significant for young Virginian illiterati— laid out in a sexy and enticing way. Teenage hangouts like Tower Records began blurring at the edges with Barnes&Noble, opening up the literary universe onto the stripmalls of America. I saw these chains as a benificial species in the flora and fauna dotting the American landscape, especially when complimented by my devious shopping sensibilities.
I have since become more guarded in my enthusiasm; aware that these great big glowing public arenas are still on “private property” and thus subject to its aims and whims. When I have Darryl the Doorman shadowing my every step, and others telling me that I have no right or reason to loiter around the commercial sector like I do, I suddenly realize a rethink is in order. I can only assume that these people are under mistaken impression that somebody or some entity owns any more of the world than I do. Well, they don’t; no more than they own the clouds, the Sun, or the planet Neptune.
It’s all about the meanings of public versus private space. I save absolutely no respect for trespassing laws; even less for those against loitering. The way I see it, one loiterer makes a pest; a thousand makes an Age of Enlightenment. What would ancient Athens have been without all their headscratching idlers in the public square? Pretty sure that Diogenes had no real business masturbating in the open market, genius or no. In fact, I feel sorry for people who do have “real business” at Barnes&Noble; they no doubt live out their every free hour as if it were an orthodontist’s appointment.
Loitering is the sound of the soul breathing easy. Teenagers who gather curbside with friends and blueberry Slurpees understand best how every inch of this earth is a perfect occasion to better know your fellow man. No one even pretends otherwise. No one ropes off parts of the Seven-Eleven parking lot. No one pays through the nose to belong to some Civil War clubhouse whose sole selling-point is its “exclusivity” and whose patrons could hone meatcleavers with the ski-tans of their foreheads. The teenage world is still filled with space and possibility rather than with real estate and purpose. It is the world that I, at twenty-five, still inhabit.
“Well, Brandon, how would you like it if half of Christendom congregated on your front yard for a barbecue?”—I would like it just fine; surrender the lawn but gain the world. The commercial sector is public domain, as far as I’m concerned, and it’s hightime for us all to begin treating it as such (the culmination of which would be persuading Home Depot execs to let me sleep, eat, and live in their showrooms as a kooky “mediabuzz publicity stunt.” But that’s for another day). Barnes&Noble, along with every other landhog in this sector, has a public responsibility to provide a service in proportion to its size. And that service, at this moment, comes down to a solid read and a cushy armchair to plop down in while my mini-thins and coffee send me into hypoglycemic spirals. If these bookpeddlers dislike this sort of compromise, then maybe we’ll restake our claims a little more assertively…
I wander back through the aisles and observe the mix of bookstore browsers. Businessmen reading Esquire on their lunchminute. A homeless gentleman, worn tired from life as a human speedbump, nodding off and dropping the Sports Almanac he propped open as an alibi. Some young lovebirds nestling into a book by the window. An elderly woman turns to me by Mythology and Anthropology—“Excuse me, could you slip this book back onto that top shelf there? I’m not tall enough. Between the other two Clifford Geertz books.” I mention my admiration for Geertz and she starts up schoolmarmishly “yes, me too, because I believe that Man lives on meaning and not…not on bread alone.” Why else were we there? Surrounded by good-smelling, freshly-pressed meanings; webs of significance; shelves upon shelves of cultural merchandise. There for all the world to enjoy.