Is there anything better than discovering a new bookstore while travelling? In that sacred hushed moment, you become completely present, the hours spent pacing a new city far away. All that matters are the rows and rows of books, lovingly curated with eyes different to the ones back home.
One of my most vivid bookstore experiences was at the legendary Three Lives and Company in New York. Before my trip I had always planned to find this store - referred to in The Hours as 'the most civilised place on earth - but the experience itself was better than I could have ever expected.
How I ended up in New York is a story in itself. I had been living back in South Africa for a year since a stint in London, and my best friend Emma from the UK came up with the brilliant idea for us to meet there for a girls holiday. It was a beautiful, emotional, spur-of-the moment adventure. We had spent the day walking from Times Square to Greenwich Village, catching up on all our love life dramas (we had many in our twenties) and having a new epiphany every block.
“He is in love with you!” she said with an excitement exploding beyond her tiny frame (Emma is unafraid of exaggeration).
“It’s so obvious! Why else would he chat to you on Skype every day? And why would he invite you for dinner dates? The signs are there.”
She had a point. I spoke to the guy in question every day. We both loved books and worked in financial journalism. In each conversation our banter burned bright and crackled with references to modern literary classics and grammatical snobbery. The repetitive orange flashing of his name in my toolbar was a source of delicious joy in my otherwise mediocre working day. He was funny, so funny, and recently (after what has seemed like an excruciating few months of hinting) we had left the online platform and gone out for pizza where he made me laugh in person.
The night before my trip, I'd visited his flat where he lent me a novel for the plane (The Reader) and sent me off with a lingering hug. It was an evening I savoured, but New York had made me bold, and I was determined to tell him how I felt on my return with a thoughtful and intellectual gift. A gift that would obviously be procured at Three Lives and Company, the elusive bookstore.
Emma and I took long strides in unison as we marvelled intricate tattoos of ivy embellishing house faces of deep red clay. We ambled into old record stores and stumbled on the iconic cupcake store made famous in Sex and the City. The calves of our legs ached in glorious spasm from pacing countless kilometres from mid-town to Manhattan.
Emma slowed down. ‘Honey, isn’t this what you are looking for?’
Indeed it was. The oldest, most elegant bookstore in New York. Everything from the hand painted signage and dark wooden floors to the round-spectacled shop assistants was how I wanted it to be. Better.
The object of my affection would have loved to be here in this hub of literature and creativity. I would have loved him to have him there, cackling alongside me, making the strangest small observations about the most everyday things.
‘Can I help you?’ Asked some spectacles.
‘She’s choosing a book for a guy she is in love with back home as a way to confess how she feels about him!’ said Emma. ‘Please help, it’s got to be perfect!’ This is the thing about New York, everything feels like it's part of a movie. Of course I'd rally a bunch of strangers to help me get a boyfriend!
Thanks to Emma’s charm and the general American weakness for grand romantic gestures, the shop attendants and regular clientele offered their choice of the perfect book to give to someone to tell them you love them and that you thought of them while incredibly far away. The team of us settled on the memoirs of a journalist who lived in Greenwich Village during the 1960s and socialised with the great writers. It was as close as I could get to cutting out this period of time, preserving it and bringing it home to him. The owner wished us well, handed us his details on immaculate stationary and made us promise to write and tell him (and the regulars) the result of my gift.
Days later, saturated with sights and overburdened with luggage, Emma and I slumped into a booth at a café in Heathrow Airport. The tea before us was pathetically pale and oversweetened but we both needed something to smooth over the lump in our throats. I was about to board my flight to South Africa, and she was about to hail a cab that would drive her to South Kensington.
‘Have you written in the book yet?’
I shook my head.
‘Do it now my love, I want to see you do it! I know you and know you’ll chicken out and end up keeping the book for yourself. You’ve been pining over this guy for far too long and it’s obvious he wants to be with you too. ’
We agreed on a simple yet heartfelt inscription and swallowed the rest of our grey tea.
Our goodbye was short and self-deprecating, belying the gravity that we may not see each other again for a few years. It was only when she walked away that I allowed a few perfectly whole tears to fall onto the pages before me, smudging my recently written note. I stared at the page until my vision blurred, took a deep breath and gathered my things.
When I got home, I discovered that the guy I was after had started dating someone else, which caused me to awkwardly end our friendship over email with little explanation. I still have his copy of The Reader. The book never reached his hands. I started reading it, but left it in a hairdresser, which eventually closed, the book lost somewhere among old hairdryers and empty bottles of shampoo.
The moral of the story? Three Lives and Company is a wonderfully personal space well worth a visit. I hope something magical, or at least interesting, happens to you there.