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Seeking sanctuary in books

Essay | 12 minute read
A Londoner's sense of home was left shaken after moving to a foreign country. A reading map of the city helped her to stop feeling like a legal alien in New York

It was a fleeting encounter with the underside of a prominent author’s shoe that got me thinking about my relationship with bookshops. Outside on the summer’s evening streets of Manhattan, its inhabitants moved with their trademark unapologetic purpose towards post-work drinks, exercise classes, jobs, trains, parks, home, money, hope. As a Brit in New York, I probably ought to have been in a state of appreciative ecstasy at a rooftop cocktail bar or a Brooklyn warehouse party or lingering joyfully somewhere near the Statue of Liberty. But here I was at a talk between two authors in the artificially lit basement of a bookshop feeling irrationally moved by the shop sticker on the sole of a patent leather black brogue.

It’s difficult to explain why this image – of the white sticker so fresh it didn’t have ridge marks from the sole – had such an impact on me, or at least not without sounding superficial. I kept wondering: had the brogues been bought just for this occasion? Did this person care more about their appearance than I’d thought? Whatever the reason, the sticker, momentarily revealed as the writer’s feet shifted position, had betrayed the public-facing persona of this figure. But to me, sat in the front row where I caught the moment as my gaze briefly shifted downward, it felt like a gift.

Afterwards, as I walked through the summer streets in all their pungent magnetic glory towards the entrance to the subway, a throng of sticky bodies and slippery turnstiles, I tried to make sense of my bizarre preoccupation. Now I realise why that moment felt significant – because it was an insight into the life of another human on a day that I’d been struggling to feel at home.

In London, where I lived previously, bookshops had served an important but strictly functional purpose to me. Although I have always enjoyed buying, reading and owning books, and while I always tried to go to independent, or at the very least physical, bookshops, as opposed to Amazon, they were not destinations in which to hang out or linger. Why would you meet a friend in a bookshop when you could instead convene in one of London’s plentiful supply of cosy pubs? Often bookshops don’t exactly encourage shoppers to hang around anyway. The excitement of buying books had always been about the acquisition and the subsequent readerly journey rather than the space in which they were bought and sold.

But about a week after moving to New York, my boyfriend and I wandered into McNally Jackson, a bookshop in SoHo. Nervous and tentatively excited, we were out exploring our new surroundings and trying to work out what a normal Saturday in this alien city looked like. It was still winter, but there had been a succession of bright, sunny days. Drawn in by the selection of books in the window display, we went in.

New York City by night (Photo by George Marks/Retrofile/Getty)

To think about that time now is like remembering a fever. Memories go in and out of focus. It sounds ridiculous because it was a choice – a privilege even – to move from one developed, warless democracy to another, with work to do and in good health. But the transition and the subsequent limbo had awakened something fearful in me. I kept picturing my mother standing at Heathrow inside her softly lined winter coat holding my childhood violin in its case (abandoned by me in a handover of possessions) as I walked through security. I’d just turned thirty. The passing of time and the shifting of eras were uncomfortably obvious. It was time to create something fresh and new. But for some time it felt like my personality, my identity, had got lost in translation somewhere across the Atlantic. With nothing to prop it up and just me to represent it, it felt flat. I would wake from intense bouts of sleep with a sense of disbelief and high alert. What on earth have we done? wailed my internal panic button.

But here there was a café, people milling around, reading, talking, accidentally knocking things over as they squeezed past tables – basically passing the time without urgency in a way that felt incongruous with the outside world on display before us framed by big windows. Existing. It felt inviting.

We sat down with our coffees and tried to tune into our surroundings. On any given day the space – in which small tables are packed close together, people’s newspapers and laptops get in your face and books hang from the ceiling not entirely successfully as decorations – is full of people of every age doing everything from reading the fashion magazines for free to writing their hopeful first novels. On this occasion there was a pair of young high school students decked out in designer clothing flirtatiously doing maths homework together sitting nearby and an extremely private conversation between two women in their thirties being played out extraordinarily loudly.

Using my purple NatWest card, now not just a bank card but a significant symbol of home, I bought two items: Zadie Smith’s essay collection Changing My Mind (I would have been drawn to this regardless, but as the product of a flourishing Brit in New York it had extra appeal: it felt like a link between New York and London) and The New York Review of Books. Their physical existence today feels like a miracle; how did these same objects accompany me from here to there?

Paging through that now yellowed copy of The New York Review of Books, dated March 2016, it’s hard to believe only two years have passed. The articles conjure a vision of a world in which Barack Obama was still president, the Republican presidential candidate was still to be decided and Brexit was still considered, to Remainers at least, unlikely-to-inconceivable.

I have changed too. I feel older. Scrolling backwards through time on Instagram – hardly the deepest of outlets but a record of something nonetheless – to a photo I took on that day of my new purchases the contrast feels surprisingly stark to me. There’s a giddiness and excitement that feels both worryingly and reassuringly distant now. ‘Saturday afternoon swag,’ reads the painfully upbeat caption alongside a selection of New York-themed emojis. Upbeat because you have to be when you’re new, and I was genuinely excited, painful because I can’t read things I’ve written from this time without hearing undertones of fear and impending internal crisis. But it also gives me pleasure. Pleasure that I was optimistic enough to move to New York and pleasure because it marks the day that changed my relationship with bookshops forever.

Despite this early discovery, I still thought the answer to getting a grasp on New York was in its geography. There was comfort to be had from mapping the physical. But it didn’t take long to realise that in fact it had the reverse effect. I would make a mental note of which shop or café was here or there, or would form an attachment to a particular building or block, only to return a few weeks later to find that it had either been replaced or demolished. Such is the rate of change.

I met with an old friend of an old friend in a newly gentrified coffee shop on the Lower East Side full of exposed brick and wiring, where, according to the unspoken code of honour, she kindly imparted her New York veteran wisdom on me. When I complained that I was struggling to latch on to my new surroundings, the now friend told me, ‘You have to go with the flow in New York City.’ Instead of fixating on change, she recommended taking up a physical and mental discipline like martial arts or yoga, as well as a project, or ‘side hustle’. Getting beyond surviving in New York takes stamina, was the message. No shortcuts.

So I followed her advice on the yoga and project-wise I started focusing my attention on US authors – enjoying the fact that all the references that had previously gone over my head were finally starting to make sense. I can’t recall everything I read in that time, but they included Jonathan Franzen, Ottessa Moshfegh and Miranda July (as it happens, her novel The First Bad Man, which I read soon before moving, proved a surprisingly illuminating introduction to the US health care system). Then, subconsciously, I started homing in on New York-specific books.

‘I’d thought this was how artists moved to New York, alone, that the city was a mecca of individual points, longings, all merging into one great light-pulsating mesh, and you simply found your pulse, your place,’ says Reno, the protagonist of Rachel Kushner’s The Flamethrowers.

Starting with Kushner’s novel about a young female artist and motorcycle enthusiast who arrives in 1970s New York from Reno (her nicknamesake) which I had bought at City Lights on a trip to San Francisco the year before, I started forming connections between the page and the world around me. Sitting near the fountain of Washington Square Park after work one evening, it was with a feeling of absurd delight that I discovered that the dialogue I was reading was in fact referencing Tompkins Square Park, a short walk away.

Then there was Hanya Yanagihara’s brilliant New York-set novel A Little Life – a book so harrowing that simply carrying it on the subway prompted nods of recognition from fellow passengers. Every time I walk down Greene Street I look up and wonder: which apartment might Jude and Willem have lived in? Back in Washington Square Park, a popular spot among NYU students, I followed the description in Zadie Smith’s Swing Time to the chess tables that I’d previously failed to notice in the corner.

Hanya Yanagihara (Photo by David Levenson/Getty Images)

I noted the sixth-floor walk-ups of East Village and imagined the ‘roommate and roaches’ inside as described in Ariel Levy’s memoir The Rules Do Not Apply, and thought about Manhattan’s ‘dazzling imperfection,’ according to Ifemelu, the heroine of Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Americanah. I didn’t have to look further than the supermarket or the TV to recognise the monotonous consumption-focused world of Staten Island-based author Alexandra Kleeman’s You Too Can Have a Body Like Mine.

More recently, I read long-time New York resident and composer Philip Glass’s memoir Words Without Music and imagined what life might have been like in a time when taxi drivers feared for their lives, artists and musicians gathered in lofts for concerts and Manhattan rents were still affordable. These references, although largely the settings of either the past or fiction started making me connect with my surroundings. Rather than fixating on the gulf between me and the city, I would instead see a street sign or a landmark and feel familiarity.

Reading was also a way into learning about other people’s experiences of the city. In his brilliant essay, ‘Walking While Black’, Garnette Cadogan talks about his lifelong love of walking and how his freedom to do so came under threat after moving to New York. Cadogan, who grew up in Kingston, Jamaica, writes: ‘Much as coming to know New York City’s streets has made it closer to home to me, the city also withholds itself from me via those very streets. I walk them, alternately invisible and too prominent. So I walk caught between memory and forgetting, between memory and forgiveness.’

As a by-product, or as a natural accompaniment, to all these New York-based stories and memoirs, I found myself gravitating towards the shops that sold them more and more. Not just as a place for financial transactions, but as a place to go to free workshops and author talks, to hang out and eavesdrop on conversations in cafes, to collect clues – to learn what it is, if anything to be a New Yorker.

As a newcomer, there’s a lot to be learnt on the subway. I noticed my tendency to take up as little space as possible felt submissive compared to New Yorkers’ confident stage-taking attitude to the space around them. But I was taught one of my biggest lessons about the differences between British and American culture at Housing Works, a Manhattan bookshop, during a creative writing class. When, after the first task, the teacher asked whether anyone wanted to read out their work, I expected a drawn-out silence, awkward shifting around in seats and a second or third call for volunteers. I sat looking down waiting for the anticipated charade to follow. Maybe I’ll volunteer later, I thought. But almost instantly, up shot about ten hands from around the large coffee table, belonging to an array of ages, waiting to seize their long-awaited moment. Quick, there’s no time to waste! The next workshop I attended, this time at WORD, a bookshop in Brooklyn, I took the hint: speak up. I realised that feeling at home is not just about taking up space, it’s also about making noise.

Photo by Oscar Chevillard

Bookshops, I found, were also a place for listening. Speaking at a Freeman’s event at Greenlight Bookstore in Brooklyn last spring, poet Lawrence Joseph pinpointed how a shift in location can change people’s perceptions of their own identities. The writer said despite having been born and grown up in the US, it wasn’t until he moved to England that he felt a strong sense of his American identity. After years of strongly identifying with European culture, he said it was while in England studying at Cambridge that ‘I really realised I was an American.’ While I had never especially identified with US culture before living there, I had the reverse experience of Joseph’s in the sense that it took moving to the US to realise how ‘British’ I was.  I felt much more foreign than I had expected to feel. And yet, attending this talk, I felt entirely at home.

Last time I was in London, I found myself at a loose end between meetings and, bored of hanging around in coffee shops and overdosed on caffeine, I went into a bookshop. I bought a book and sat in a window seat for an hour or so reading. Two women sat nearby on miniature plastic children’s chairs chatting, while their sons kept running up to them and requesting, unsuccessfully, to be bought books. As I sat there, vaguely aware of the sounds around me, I realised that I was there because I no longer had my own official space in this city, my former home. My own space was thousands of miles across the Atlantic, but actually I didn’t mind. I had found a place where I could think, feel, even obsess over a stranger’s shoe if I wanted to, wherever I was in the world. Bookshops had become my sanctuary.