I’ve always been an avid reader, and in 8th grade I identified myself as a lover of classic literature. Whether or not that was a good thing may be up for discussion, but it was fact. My junior and senior year of high school, there was a Barnes & Noble directly on my route. I drove right past it twice a day. When I needed a new book to read, that’s where I would go. I usually headed right to the upstairs table filled with summer reading books assigned by area schools, because it was a collection of good literature that I hadn’t read yet. I would also frequent the “Barnes & Noble Classics” display for the same reason. I knew the entire floor plan of the store – the literature, the mythology section, Shakespeare, poetry, drama – I knew exactly where to find everything I wanted. I loved it.
The summer after I graduated high school I got a job as a pool operator at a hotel. I spent 10 hours a day sitting next to an often-empty pool, and if there wasn’t anyone to guard in the pool, I read. It rained a lot that summer, so I did a lot of reading. That same Barnes & Noble was on my route again, so I would frequently stop in to pick up a new book. I had a friend who worked at the attached Starbucks, and he passed me free coffee drinks whenever his manager wasn’t watching. I was at the bookstore so often that a sales guy began to recognize me, befriended me, and was soon giving me his employee discount on my purchases. It got to the point that on any given day, I could enjoy a fancy coffee drink and leave with my choice of book, only spending a total of a few dollars. It was dangerously addictive. For an English nerd like me, it was glorious. And even though I didn’t recognize it at the time, it was my emotional salvation.
Twelfth grade was a difficult year for me (see my posts “On Teen Angst” and “Pretty Girls are People, Too” for more on that). As I prepared for my first year of college, there was a lot that I needed to mentally process that my friends and parents wouldn’t understand – my friends because they couldn’t, and my parents because I wouldn’t let them. It was a summer of quietly separating myself from the world that held an unrealistic perspective of me and the “popular smart girl” persona it expected me to maintain. Barnes & Noble became my escape. It was the one place I could go and sit in quiet without having to worry about a boss, a parent, or a sibling coming in to disturb my ponderings. Of course, I wasn’t a complete recluse. I spent many enjoyable nights with my friends, celebrating our last summer before we headed off to college. But the hours alone at Barnes & Noble were vital to me that summer.
No one in my life knew it, but in addition to browsing the literary classics, I spent hours sitting cross-legged on the floor in the religion section, soaking up the message of Christian authors like Lisa Ryan, Dannah Gresh, Shannan Ethridge, and Stephen Arterburn. They reached out to the soul of a teenage Christian girl trying to find her place in a secular world, and they understood me when the rest of the world didn’t. A senior year full of social insecurities, broken and recovered hearts, and mostly, the world of fear and hospitals that set me apart from everyone I knew – they all had taken their toll on me. My nerves were frayed and needed time to be soothed back in place though the hours of quiet meditation. A strange, unidentifiable distance had formed between me and those people closest to me, and I needed to allow myself to accept it. It wasn’t unusual for me to spend five hours at a time among the quiet shelves of Barnes & Noble, soul-searching, praying, and thinking. And when I was done with that, my reliable literary classics offered me respite and quiet enjoyment.
As I prepared to leave behind my high school life and move away from home, I mentally pulled away from my family and friends – not because I wanted to or disliked them, but because it was what I needed to do. Without my hours at Barnes & Noble, that process could have been easily more destructive and painful, but as it was, the physical isolation of the bookshelves gave a safe outlet to the emotional process. It was so subtle that I doubt few, if any, of the people close to me noticed. I valued my active social life just as much as the hours of quiet. I spent just as many hours in deep discussions with my friends about life, faith, morality, and country music. Through both the discussions and the isolation, I was preparing to leave, preparing to grow into the adult I would eventually become, even though I had no idea who that would be. I think I knew that summer that I would never move back for good. I think I knew that the person I would become was someone very different from the valedictorian-prom-queen girl I’d been in high school. I let go of her between the shelves of the Barnes & Noble.
At the end of that summer, both my friend at Starbucks and my connection in the Barnes & Noble sales department quit their jobs simultaneously. With the enablers of my coffee-and-books addiction gone, my trips to the bookstore reduced in regularity, and then I headed off to college myself. It’s been 10 years since that summer, but Barnes & Noble has always continued to be a special place, always been more than just a bookstore. It is a place for girl-time hangouts, shopping for curriculum, and one of the few materialistic indulgences that I allow myself sometimes. And there are still times that I will stop in for absolutely no specific reason except to enjoy the quiet and spend some time in my own thoughts.