I went to two different branches of the NYPL in a quest for books on “gift shop pedagogy” today. First stop was the Stephen A. Schwartzman building. I was there a couple weeks ago for the wifi’s database access but today was the first time since high school that I was in the stomach of the building up on the third floor. Everything is marble and gilded, which is how I remembered it, but the only open reading room is different, mousier. It’s how I would imagine a train conductor’s office. I like this office because it’s like a Chinese box. Everything in the building is hard and intimidatingly empty, but this room is small, moist, and dark. I think its ceiling is lower. There are special forms housed in special wooden boxes and the walls are all cabinets with rungs to hold the books in. It feels like the room was designed for a set of paper technologies no longer strictly required and maintained only to justify the wooden shelves, balls of rubber bands, and tiny desk organizers.
I waited for the books to arrive by browsing Instagram, which I never do. I checked in on the people I’ve been avoiding learned things I didn’t want to learn. I saw a photograph of me in a red scarf with my head down. I pushed the bad news photograph out of my mind by reading Catullus, and when my half hour was up and my books still weren’t there, I left.
Then I went to the science and industry library, which is a research library proper with microfiche stations and everything. You have to play the same game with library employees getting the books for you, but they’re much faster. I requested three volumes of “Souvenirs, Novelties & Gifts,” a trade publication, from 1998-2003, plus a couple reference materials about starting your own gift shop business and how to run a religious gift shop. The religious manual had tabs and three hole punches built in, which I liked. The trade publication was on magazine paper and was the shape and size of a Christian bible. I found a couple funny ads in the 1998 volume (cross posted on twitter).
“An artificial rose, the bud of which consists of a pair of women’s panties”
It’s not poop
The junk in gift shops doesn’t make me nostalgic, exactly, but it’s a good yardstick for how much things have changed. I found Beanie Babies, customizable beaded bracelets, plastic men on toilets that made tinny fart noises, Austin Powers incense, retro Budweiser signs, talking and singing bass, cookie scented candles, boxers with bright, italic flames, dollar bills with smiling George Bushes, dolphins, Cherokee reproductions, tie dye colored pencils, and — this one surprised me, but I ached for it — knobby wooden walking sticks. The feeling reminded me of that ache I get when I see photos of the loop in Chicago. Whenever I was in the loop it was because I was coming or going home and wanted to lose weight or was walking long distances and trying to lose weight. I was always hungry to the point of faintness in the loop. But I still miss it, I miss being cold and hungry and physically alone in a city that I was determined would be better than New York. I’m not very good at processing change. I’m angry that you can only know what a time (a situation, a place, a time) feels like in retrospect. I don’t know if that’s just a fact of life or if that’s what happens if you’re bad at processing your feelings in the moment, which I am. I want to be able to walk into a gift shop in 2014 and say, “This– this here is what’s happening now and in ten years I’ll go, ‘Whoa, that really brings me back.’” I think you can only really do that with children’s toys and hairstyles.