In some families (okay, my family), there’s a first birthday tradition for children. A parent sets out three objects: a silver dollar, a book, and a cup. Then everyone sits back and waits to see which one the child picks up first.
You can probably guess the symbolism of these objects. If the tot snaps up the dollar, (s)he’s destined for wealth and power. The child who opens the book will adopt intellectual pursuits and live the life of the mind. The kid who grabs the cup? Well, let’s hope (s)he opens a successful wine bar.
I, erudite child, greedily snatched the book. And I must confess, this acquisition of things to read has become something of a lifelong habit. Which means I have spent vast quantities of time in bookstores.
Being a bookstore junkie, unlike many other forms of addiction, is not without merit. Bookstores encourage democratic values. Mysteries receive the same shelf treatment as histories. Skinny volumes sit next to fat tomes. And a used book is as good as a book whose spine has yet to be cracked (unless someone has underlined all their favorite passages with a wide-tip felt marker). Since no book lover worthy of the name ever throws a book in the trash (my heart seizes up just thinking about such a deed), used bookstores also play their part in recycling.
I think we can all agree that bookstores contribute greatly to the good of society. What perhaps is lesser known are the many health benefits to be reaped from hanging out in bookstores. Just a brief burst of erratic research on my part has uncovered the following:
1. Peace of Mind
As wealth management strategists (who are these guys???) love to remind us, the key to true peace of mind starts with financial security. Know where your money goes. Be able to lay hands on your assets quickly. Bookstores address both these concerns. You know where your money’s gone. It’s gone to bookstores. As for getting to your assets, they’re right at your fingertips 24/7, alphabetized and neatly shelved or randomly stacked on all available horizontal surfaces.
2. Greater Physical Flexibility
Bookstores give you many of the benefits of yoga without having to buy special pants or stand on your head. A single afternoon spent in a bookstore takes you through numerous reps of The Sun Salutation and Downward Facing Dog as you squat down low then fully extend upward to read through the selections on every shelf from Fiction to Travel.
Used bookstores may be the best gyms of all. Organized in a way that no one can fathom, they provide a good stretch for your hamstrings while you attempt to discover the title of that book lying way, way up near the ceiling. There’s also the thigh-killing duck walk from pile to pile, as you sift through stacks of titles, hoping to find that one out-of-print book you’ve been seeking since 1990.
And for sheer aerobic exercise, nothing beats a couple of runs up and down the four flights of stairs at Foyles flagship store in London. With its 200,000+ different titles on more than four miles of shelves, Foyles keeps you moving. (Note: I believe this magnificent bookstore on Charing Cross Road is where all good bibliophiles go when they die.)
3. A Boost in Caffeine Consumption
Scientists have discovered that consuming a lot of coffee has multiple health benefits. Not only may dosing up on the caffeine decrease your chances of developing Alzheimer’s or dying from a cardiovascular disease, it also releases fatty acids into the bloodstream that become a source fuel for your muscles. You’re getting fit just sitting in your local bookstore café with a cup of java and your favorite read. Stay all day. Stay forever. Think of the muscles you’re fueling.
4. Stress Reduction
Yes, yes, I’ve read those articles that assure us some stress is okay, even good, but I ask
you: When you’re stressed, does it ever feel healthy, or does it feel like you’re one beat away from a massive pulmonary meltdown? Bookstores are excellent places for the over-stressed. I can personally vouch for this. In my little life, I’ve had some number of less-than-pleasant calamities (send $500 for the complete list), but NOTHING BAD HAS EVER HAPPENED TO ME IN A BOOKSTORE. So, Q.E.D. (as my high school geometry teacher used to say) bookstores reduce stress.
5. Connection With Others
From reducing incidents of minor illness to increasing our longevity, scientists are proving over and over that social connections are crucial to our well-being. And what lovelier people can you hope to meet than those who frequent bookstores? One of my favorite memories occurred during the October 2011 ice storm (surprise!). After several days without power or heat, my husband and I heard through the grapevine that the Barnes & Noble one town over had just gotten their power back. Since we already had our coats on, we ran out the door and jumped in the car. We arrived to find hundreds of people wandering the store, reveling in the warmth, the availability of hot coffee, the working wi-fi connection. In every aisle, complete strangers chatted and laughed like old friends. It was a true model for a better, more harmonious world. A bookstore world.
6. Enhanced Foreign Travel
While I’m not certain this is normally considered a health benefit, it can’t hurt. As the photos here show, bookstores dot the planet, making bookstore browsing an international form of entertainment. My husband and I have visited bookstores in Paris, Lisbon, Florence, Arles, Toronto, Montreal, Madrid, London, and a bunch of other places. Okay, they were English-language bookstores (though I parlez-vous Franҫais, I’m not quite up to reading Proust in the original), but they were bookstores, and they did enhance our travel.
Nowhere is this truer than at Foyles flagship store (see Greater Physical Flexibility above). A highlight of every trip to London is “book day.” Entering Foyles, we arm ourselves with baskets, set a time to meet, and then go our separate ways to gather books to our hearts’ content. There are only two rules: 1) There is no limit set on the books we can choose, and 2) We don’t bother about prices. When time’s up, we bring our books to the main desk where some lovely bookstore clerk boxes them up, we pay, and for less than the price of a beer and sandwich at most airports, our carton of reads is shipped by courier, often arriving home before we do.
7. A Happier Heart
Science has uncovered some pretty compelling evidence that what makes you happy also makes your heart happy and, therefore, less prone to heart disease. Now, I ask, what could be happier than wandering a bookstore? All those titles. Aisles and aisles of books whispering read me, read me. As Neil Gaiman said: A book is a dream that you hold in your hand.
Bookstores are the repositories of our dreams.