Eric Lyngen and “The Book About Books”
on February 24, 2009
Eric Lyngen is an endearingly twitchy guy in his late thirties with a faceful of dark stubble, thick black glasses, and floppy black curls. He’s the co-owner of The Book Zoo, a small bookstore on Telegraph Avenue in Oakland, but he’d look equally appropriate working at a bike shop or a co-op grocery store. On a cold, cloudy Saturday afternoon, business was slow and we were lost in a long conversation about Lyngen’s dislike of Internet research (“Being in a bookstore is like being surrounded by 15,000 well-edited, thoughtfully constructed web sites!”) when the sound of someone loudly clearing his throat interrupted him. Unnoticed behind a tower of paperbacks on the shop counter, a customer was waiting for help.
“A customer! That rare and most welcome thing!” said Lyngen, twirling out from behind the counter. The guy smiled, or maybe it was a polite grimace, and backed up a step. He was in a heavy black overcoat over gym pants and a t-shirt, looking like a lawyer on the weekend. “Yeah. I’m looking for something by Raymond Chandler?”
Lyngen nodded a few times, rapidly. “Chandler, very nice. That’s Crime or Pulp, depending on title and date of publication.” He bounded off to the fiction section in the back. The guy looked at the spot where Lyngen had been standing seconds before and made the face that means, “Oookay…” He shifted his gym bag under his arm and followed Lyngen, who had hopped onto a stool and was thumbing through paperbacks.
Lyngen whipped around. “A particular title in mind?”
The lawyer-looking guy cocked his head. “Uhhh…”
“‘Anything,’ right?” Lyngen said, like someone impersonating a frat boy or a Soprano. Or a Raymond Chandler character. “I know you guys, you guys who want to get into Chandler. It’s always, ‘Anything.'” The lawyer-esque guy snorted good-naturedly and broke into a smile. “Sure,” he said, his opening his palms wide, “anything.” They settled on a title and the guy left, reading as he walked out the door and down the sidewalk.
Most of the purchases that afternoon were fiction paperbacks. Lyngen deals in some rare books, but you couldn’t rightfully call him a “collector,” he says. He’s an “accumulator.” There’s a difference. A collector approaches books with a discerning eye, while the accumulator hoards with unflagging, unconditional love.
The way Lyngen explained it, collectors sound like people who research dog pedigrees and work with professional breeders to acquire one perfect, pristine specimen for a lot of money. Accumulators are like those people in the “weird news” section of Yahoo, usually women, living in a trailer with dozens of stray dogs and/or alley cats they can’t afford yet love with all their hearts.
Lyngen was a private enthusiast for years, meaning his apartment was stacked ceiling-high with obscure old hardcovers on things like croquet and zoology, picked up for fifteen or twenty cents at flea markets. He also worked at other bookshops in Berkeley and Oakland, like Moe’s, and brought home a lot of unsold product, bagfuls at a time.
“Imagine the piles,” he says. “Piles, everywhere. Piles of piles. The bookshelves were long filled. Books were under the desk, where your legs are supposed to go. Books were behind doors, so you couldn’t quite close them.” He’s talking about his collection in a singsong, like a dark children’s verse where the monster keeps getting closer and closer.
“It’s hard to gauge numbers of books,” he says, but in terms of square footage of apartment, “they occupied almost every usable space. Well, no. I never put them in the cupboard.” He knows accumulators who do. He’s heard stories of floors caving in, people suffocating under their own collections, health officials breaking down the door.
Lyngen’s wife was patient. She was used to sharing space with his books, in even smaller spaces; they once spent a year traveling the country in a van, and the van quickly filled up with books. Then, five years ago, “the fever broke.” Lyngen packed his books into boxes and, with an old Moe’s coworker, started looking for a storefront to lease. He’s a rarity in the world of accumulators—he turned his habit into a business.
The Book Zoo is a pleasantly dark, surprisingly navigable space, mostly used books in very good condition and a nice kids’ section in the back. Books are organized into the usual categories like Fiction and Biography, but with subsections like “Show Trials” (under History) and “Genitals and their Manipulation” (Erotica).
Lyngen was reeling off some of the new categories he wants to reorganize his books into (Biographies of Animals, The Madness of Crowds, Books with Misspellings on the Spine) when the phone rang. The caller was a Cal student, looking for an econ textbook. I looked for a computer on the shop counter for Lyngen to punch the title into, like a clerk would at Borders, but only an old cash register sat there. “No, sorry, I’ve got ‘Folklore of Capitalism’ and, of course, ‘Religion and the Decline of Capitalism,’ which if you’re interested in the topic you probably want to check out anyway, but I don’t have that.”
The shop quieted down again. It was silent in the Book Zoo. Lyngen grabbed some loose books that were lying on a couch, and with a couple deft turns of the wrist and a couple orderly nudges, transformed them into a magazine-cover ready stack. He placed the stack on the counter. Standing with hands on hips, he looked to the back of the store, and then to the front of the store. Everything seemed to be in order. Lyngen stood silently for another moment. He was thinking.
He started suddenly, and zipped off to the back of the shop, swatting aside the sheets that section off his office. Bent over with hands on knees, he squinted at some shelves, shouting the whole time about a strange late 19th-century book he recently acquired called “Salmagundi, or the Whimwhams and Opinions of Launcelot Langstaff.” He popped back up to the counter with a thick red hardcover in hand. It was titled “The Book About Books,” and subtitled “The Anatomy of Bibliomania.”
It’s a paean to and an explainer about book collecting, published in 1932 by one Holbrook Jackson, an Englishman and a “bookman,” as he calls himself. Jackson dissects everything, from the proper assemblage of one’s library to the best lighting to read under, with chapter headings like “Varieties of Book-Eaters,” “Methods of Famous Bookmen,” and “On Parting with Books.” A short chapter about the bookworm (Oecophora pseudopretella) and the damage it inflicts cites some thirty sources, from psychologists to zoologists to traumatized collectors.
“You need to read this,” Lyngen said. He’d said the same thing earlier about both a medical textbook on neck diseases and a little-known Einstein essay on cosmic religiosity. “The Book About Books” isn’t for sale, but Lyngen let me borrow it after a gentle lecture on the etiquette and noble purpose of book lending, saying, “Care for it, enjoy it, do bring it back if you can, but if you happen to encounter someone who might benefit from it, I won’t hold it against you if you pass it along. It’ll probably end up back here one way or another, anyway.”
Update: The Book Zoo has since moved from Telegraph to Glen Avenue. More information is on the shop’s web site.
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