Economics teaches us that we make choices based on the constraints we face. Often, these are based on the limits of the income we have at our disposal. I was reminded of this concept as I recalled my graduate school days of living in Boston.
I have many fond memories of living in Boston as a graduate student. I remember trips to the ocean and wandering around Harvard Square Quincy Market. Such trips often included stopping into tiny bookstores hidden in the back alleys of Boston and Cambridge. There, one could spend hours sifting through old books, trying each one on for size by reading the inside front of the book jacket, only occasionally taking one home on a graduate student’s stipend.
When I left Boston and moved to the suburbs of Cleveland, I was surprised to find that there were few such quaint little bookstores here. Instead, I was happy when a national chain of bookstores moved in with a good selection of merchandise. I remember the first time I visited it; I felt like a kid in a candy store. It was only when the pile of books I had selected began to feel heavy in my arms that I realized this was not a library, and if I wanted all of these books, I would need to purchase them all with money I didn’t really have to spare. With a bit more of a taste of reality, I sat down to decide which of the books I would keep and which would be left behind. I left with a few books that day, and often came back to scan the stacks when I had a few minutes to spare, which these days usually happens while I wait to pick up my daughter from some activity after school.
I have many shelves in my own home, filled and overflowing with old books from my past, many dog-eared and marked up with notes from college or graduate school days. I laugh when I open an old text book to find my 25 year old handwriting proclaiming “study!!!” in the margin. And I have to smile at the things I thought were important and which therefore got underlined as an undergraduate. They are like time machines taking me back to other places and stages of my life.
When she was just a baby, I bought my daughter a small bookshelf for her room. For several years, it held only wipes and spare clothes, but as she grew, it slowly became the home of her collection of books. Today it is overflowing with books, some about a magic tree house or a wimpy kid, as well as with the classics of childhood that talk about a stuffed corduroy bear and saying good night to a moon.
Years ago, our neighbors were cleaning out a room in their house, and asked us if we wanted some old books for our daughter. I said yes, not knowing what to expect. Instead of a pile of random paperbacks, she presented me with the full collection of “Little House” books, old friends from my past. I almost cried to think that someone was passing along such precious books to my own daughter, and looked forward to the day when I could share them with her. She actually started reading some of them when she was in the first grade, although she has yet to make a large dent in the collection. I know well the joy that awaits her when she does read them all.
Last weekend, my daughter asked me to take her to the one large bookstore that was my refuge when I first moved to town. She had heard that it was having a huge sale, and wanted to buy some books herself. I knew that the sale was due to the fact that it was going out of business in the fallout of its parent company going bankrupt, driven out of its market by new technology and approaches in both delivering and selling literature. Together, we wandered around the stacks that had given me so much joy as I had waited to pick her up, but now saw only empty space that had previously been filled with knowledge and inspiration.
We didn’t buy anything that day, but I left feeling like I had lost an old friend.