Monday, November 28, 2011

The King's English

"A magic book . . ."

"Aren't they all?"


I spent this morning at King's English.

King's English, for those of you who may not know, is a small indy bookstore down towards fifteenth south and fifteenth east. It's a tiny little place. I think it was originally just a private home . . . a respectable little two-bedroom house in a quiet east side neighborhood, quaint but unremarkable. But instead, it became King's English.

King's English is packed, but packed, with books. There are so many books, there's barely room to walk around. The place is rich with interior walls, many of them there for no real architectural purposethey're just there to be covered in books, books, books. It gives you the impression that you're exploring a labyrinth. So many corners, and no telling what's behind any of them. (No, really . . . I don't think any two rooms in this building have floors that are level with each other, so if you're distracted [by a book, for example] as you move from one room to another, you may end up falling on your face. Just a warning.)

Despite the danger (or perhaps because of it), I love King's English. This, I feel, is what a bookstore should be . . . a place where getting to a book is as exciting as getting into it. Of course, Sam Weller's, SLC's other famous indy bookstore, is a lot closer to home, but I don't like it nearly as much. It's too downtown. I feel like I'm not progressive enough to shop there . . . like it's reserved for people who occupy Wall Street and dress in edgy, non-designer designer brand clothing and drink espresso and have unusual piercings. I am not cool enough for Sam Weller's. King's English feels more like a place where people run into each other around unpredictable corners and immediately start gushing, "Don't you love books? I love them! We should be friends." I try to shop there whenever I can, because my life is richer when I know that some few lucky souls get to work in such a place.

Terry Pratchett often talks about books as things that bend reality around themselves, causing odd things to happen by the sheer power of their presence. That's the kind of place King's English is. With that many books packed into that small of a space, odd things are bound to happen.

One of my professors at BYU once introduced me to the fascinating idea of liminal space. A liminal space is a border between worlds, a connection point between two realities, and it is at such points of connection that magic occurs. Forests are liminal spaces, rich with trees that connect earth to sky. Seashores are liminal spaces. Churches and temples, that link the mundane to the divine, are extremely powerful liminal spaces. So are doorways. So are mountains, that connect upward, and caves, that connect downward. Dawn and dusk are liminal spaces, or moments, if you'd prefer. Ruins, that tie present to past, are liminal spaces, too. And bookstores, where all that stands between you and a whole new reality is a laminated paperback cover, may be the most potent liminal space I know.

Of course, being LDS rather than Wiccan or Neopagan, I don't technically believe in magic. Not in the classical sense. But I'm fascinated by that intense, electric, fire-in-the-bones feeling that these crossover spaces produce. Have you ever just let yourself get lost staring out across the sea? Have you felt that brief moment of panic on a clear summer night where your whole body was suddenly convinced you were going to fall up into the sky? Do you remember the breathtakingly loud silence that fills a house on Christmas Eve when everyone else has gone to sleep? Have you ever walked into a bookstore or a library and felt it take your breath away?

Whatever that feeling is, I call it magic. It's as serviceable a term as any. It captures the mystery, and the draw, and the almost-terror of the experience. No, seriously. I remember walking into the Salt Lake City public library after my mission. It was paralyzing. I'd spent eighteen months with exactly three volumes of narrative: the Bible, the triple, and Jesus the Christ. I'd read them over and over again, in several languages, struggling to stave off withdrawal from the addiction I'd been nurturing since I was four years old. Then, just like that, my stake president said 'I release you' and I took off the tag and that was it. Books weren't forbidden anymore.

I walked into the library several days later and I just couldn't handle it. Thousands upon thousands of books. It was like being picked up out of the middle of the desert and being dropped into the middle of the ocean. All I could do was wander the shelves, running my fingers along the spines of the books and feeling them crackle with energy. I couldn't bear to read them, not that first time. I don't think I checked out a single volume. I just soaked up the astonishing, overwhelming feeling of power that came from being surrounded by so many books.

King's English still makes me feel that way. I went there this morning knowing exactly what books I wanted to buy, and they were easy to find, but I still stayed for the better part of an hour, just exploring the corners and crevices and nooks, taking volumes off the shelves and holding them in my hands. There were books I knew and books I didn't, books that reinforced things I believe and books that rebutted them, books that fascinated me and books that bored me, books to make me think and books to make me dream. If I live to be a hundred and end up with a million million dollars, I don't think I'll ever feel richer than I do wandering the treasure caverns of the King's English.

Open one. I dare you.


  1. I completely agree. I also notice that I tend to get those mystical vibes more often when the books are used, like in libraries and used book stores. It's almost like the delight we experience as we read isn't a one-way stream...

  2. In A hat full of sky, somebody (Granny?) says something to the extent of "Just because you know how it works, doesn't mean it's not magic." Just because magic certain senses isn't real, doesn't mean things aren't magical. Like books. to read. That old bookstore on center street felt like it might inhabit L space. I think it's closed down now, which is positively tragic. (the one with the ten foot tall old man, with the shock of white hair).
    Sadly, although being from Salt Lake, I've never been to the King's English. I'm not a big book buyer, which is really tragic if you think about it, but I aim to change this somewhat in the future, as our income changes. Libraries though...I grew up going to the library on Ninth west and something like 6th south. You need to go there - it's a carnegie library, and looks like what a library should be.

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