The Fine Art of Not Knowing What You Want

You know what I miss? Browsing.

Way back before all this started, I was a fond browser; I likely irritated all manner of store owners because of it, but there’s a very particular joy in heading into a bookstore, a record store, a comic store, wherever, with no plan or agenda — not even, really, any real intent to actually buy something — and just wandering around to see what’s available, almost willing yourself to be surprised. I’ve found countless favorite things that way, stories or songs that nowadays feel integral to my personal history even though I found them by accident.

It started when I was in art school, I think, decades ago. I’d arrive at the weekend with only vague plans, and amongst those would be grocery shopping. For the majority of my time in Aberdeen, both studying and later teaching, I’d live some distance away from the town center with all the stores, so even just heading to pick up milk, bread and almost inevitably frozen breaded chicken breast — I was a creature of habit — would be an undertaking; I quickly resolved that, if I was going to spend an hour or so getting there, then I’d make the most of being in the center of town as I could.

In practice, that meant spending a lot of time browsing in the bookstores and the record shops. I’d spend hours in there every weekend, checking racks for new releases or looking for old favorites. I spent so much time in these places — and, to a lesser extent, the comic stores in town, but they almost aggressively pushed browsers away, preferring those who knew what they wanted and knew where to find it — that I can remember the layout of each store even now, a quarter century after I’d last visited, and likely after the stores have gone out of business.

Here in Portland now, I still like to browse Powell’s, occasionally check in on Jackpot Records or somewhere similar. The curiosity, the joy of discovery, is still very much there. Except, of course, right now, it’s not — and I feel that, more and more with each day. I miss that space, that freedom to find unexpected things; I’ve started literally dreaming about it. Some day soon, I hope, I’ll have a chance to feel it again.

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