Whispers In The Stacks
By Robert Beck
Bookstores are a portal to a world of your own making, and places that sell used books add a magical layer to that. You can see, smell, and feel it as soon as you walk in.
A typical contemporary book store has an eye toward what is popular, what is the latest, what is hip, and what customers buy. They know what you want, or should want, before you arrive. A used book store is a rescue mission. They have what showed up at the door. Some are rarer than others, but all are worthy of consideration. This is where you discover the seasoned, the memorable, and the obscure. Spirits of the printed word greet you at the door and take you to places and times that speak in their original voices.
Books are tactile, intimate treasure chests. They have lives. They go places, passed from hand to hand, delivering the message. The information, the story, is right there, solid and weighty, with no concern for connectivity or battery life. Used book stores are sacred places. For some of us, it is blasphemous to discard a book. I’ve bought them just because they deserved a good home or to show them respect and appreciation. A visit to a used bookstore is like heading into the woods to hunt for mushrooms. Okay, maybe that’s not the best analogy to use on the Upper West Side. Rather a restorative trip to a foreign land. An adventure.
I did this painting on the second floor of Westsider Rare & Used Books, across from Zabar’s. [81st and Broadway] People came in, stopped to absorb the two-story, floor-to-ceiling shelves stuffed with books, and their eyes widened in anticipation. Some asked where to find a specific subject or author. Regulars knew right where to go. Others browsed. Topics ran from one shelf to the next to the next, luring people deep into the stacks with volumes they didn’t know they needed, subjects they weren’t expecting, references out of memory, jewels biding time. They would slide one out of line, open and cradle it in their left hand, the middle finger of the right lifting the tip of the next page, and listen to a voice that has been waiting, welcoming them to an enchanted place.
Westsider Rare & Used Books has a new Instagram account: @westsiderbooks
To contact Robert Beck or see more of his work, visit robertbeck.net
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Lovely painting. Lovely story. Thank you again, Robert Beck for all you do to chronicle the UWS. Might your essays and pictures be published as a book?
It’s a lovely idea, but I have to focus on painting and writing. Ask me again at the end of the year.
That is so wonderful. It made me feel at home; it made me feel like part of history. I doubt that I can afford that painting. Would the artist consider making prints or large postcards so that the bookstore’s customers could buy them, and perhaps use the income to support the bookstore?
I grew too old for NYC and the UWS and moved away four years ago. But what a treat it is now to find Robert Beck’s wonderful paintings and posts in my inbox. I loved this bookstore and now I have a lasting image of it. Thank you.
Love Robert Beck’s work and this bookstore. The article as well as the painting captures its essence.
Howdy Doodles Mr Beck. Another fine painting and from an angle in that store that I have never experienced. You sure do get around. And you tell a great story each and every time. Pop up to my terrace any time to paint that view.
Your biggest fan.
A perfect angle and beautiful composition. Fabulous work Robert Beck!!
I love the idea of a postcard of this painting to sell at the counter! Susan
Robert Becks work is phenomenal.
I agree that would be wonderful if you made a coffee table book of your work, or postcards, or greeting cards. Your images are so real that I have to take a second look to see if it’s a photo or painting. And as an upper westsider, I feel at home with your work.
Please bring back all the book and card stores on the UWS.
My daughter and I had a wonderful visit with Robert Beck at his studio this week. What a pleasure to see so much of his beautiful work on display. A gifted artist and storyteller for sure.
Thanks for your time Robert.
It was a treat to have you come and visit. Thanks
Thanks Robert Beck, for your beautiful painting and essay. You are a gift to the upper West Side! As a little girl, my father would take me to the then one and only Strand used bookstore in Manhattan, and to the various tiny used bookstores and stalls that lined Atlantic Avenue in downtown Brooklyn, each a treasure.