I once had this Japanese student who told me he could tell a book’s publisher from the smell.
He would close his eyes, crush a paperback into his face and inhale. Deeply. As if sucking down a cold beer after a hot day on the street.
And he would then sigh and pronounce: “Ah . . . this is a Kodansha.” Or: “Oh my, a Kadokawa. How sweet.”
I myself do not possess such fine-tuning. But books fill all my shelves, so much that my wife complains our house may collapse. She always urges me to “edit” them down.
Yet that would be like kicking out a friend, an act I am loath to do. And while my personal schnoz cannot tell a Penguin from a Doubleday, I too enjoy the delicious odor of a book. I also like the feel, the sound of ruffling pages, and the clean sight of black ink on white paper. No e-readers for me.
Thus Japan — which still has a bookstore at almost every station — would seem to be my paradise. For here, print culture continues to persevere in the face of nonstop digital assaults. At least for the moment.
The problem? I need English books and those stores are not quite at every station. And Amazon — God bless it — cannot yet let me touch, hold and smell.
So when I make a trip home to the States, a nice bookstore is always one of my prime targets. And, yes, they are getting harder to find.
Especially on my last trip. Which had me landing in Las Vegas.
How I got to Vegas is another story. The upshot is I had a full day in Sin City to do exactly what I like to do best: hunt for books.
The bell captain at my hotel had to ask me twice. “You want what?”
“A bookstore,” I said. Over my shoulder showed the never-sleeping glitz of the casino.
“You want what?” she asked yet again. But then shook herself and said there had indeed been a bookstore on the strip in years past. Her pupils grew, as if she were gazing into history and the noble days of the Southern Paiutes.
“But now you’ll have to take a cab into the city. Not so short a ride, either.”
A notion I scoffed at. “Oh surely, somewhere on this enormous strip of hotels and arcades, I’m going to find some books!”
“Wanna bet?” she said. A wager I accepted in spirit, not dollars.
So I was off into the dry Nevada air! And you can already guess what I didn’t find. Here’s what I did:
I found Darth Vader, Spiderman, Sponge Bob and more, all willing to say “Cheese!” for loose change. I found lines of men offering me “Girls, Girls, Girls” and their phone numbers on handy, wallet-sized cards. I found every retiree in North America mincing carefully along, in search of the next buffet.
And I found a befuddled concierge at each hotel/casino I stopped at on the long Las Vegas strip.
“You want what?”
“It’s called a ‘book.’ You know . . . it has a cover. And in between are words that tell a story. No pictures. No CG. Just words.”
“Um, are you sure you don’t mean, ‘bookie?’ ”
Finally, at a Walgreen’s I found a thin rack of romances. With about 50 words per printed page. I bought some chapstick instead. Helpful with the dry air and with headier reading material on the label.
And I trudged back to my hotel, thinking Sin City was truly sinful. The tackiness and sleaze I didn’t mind. But . . . no books!?
Here was a place where books had been extinguished not by fire but by slot machines. Somewhere Ray Bradbury was spinning in his grave.
Yet, I had an ace in the hole. A proud bookstore I had spied at the airport on the way in. In the morning, I would depart two hours early and gorge myself there.
At 9 a.m. I stepped into that store to be stopped by a man with both hands raised.
“Sorry. We’re closed.”
More than closed. They were shutting down — forever. Behind him, workers were sticking books into cardboard boxes.
“Not enough sales,” he said. “It’s the times we live in.”
“Can’t you let me browse for just a minute? Please?”
He could not. In fact, all he could do was commiserate.
“It’s the end of civilization,” he told me. “As we know it.”
I sunk my sorrows in some airport coffee. Shoeless, beltless, hopeless, I then slumped my way through the security check to my departure gate. Thinking: “I guess I’ll just read my chapstick.”
And there — beyond security, beyond the glitz, beyond the tomb of civilization — stood a bookstore. Small to be sure, yet with more than enough menu for the starving.
As if leaving the Las Vegas strip meant reentering the civilized world.
“Can I help you?” said the clerk, unaware I was thinking of buying her out.
“Maybe later,” I said, inhaling deeply.
“But first,” I told her, “all I want to do is smell.”