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A certain tension has always existed between what bookstores deign to stock and what book-buyers think they want to get. Even if a shopper doesn’t ask a clerk for suggestions, the very selection on the shelves conspires to tell him what he ought to be reading. Bookstores require a sometimes uncomfortable, sometimes even annoying amount of humility from their patrons. As a veteran bookstore owner once indiscreetly confided to me: “We do this for the books, not for the customers.”

Why do we put up with this? Why, indeed, do we cherish it? The reason is that bookstores are human places—they are extensions of the personalities of the men and women who operate them.

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