Design for Action in the Stacks program sheet
Late yesterday afternoon the Russian Hill Bookstore hosted Action in the Stacks, described as “a three-part meta-composition of collaborative invocations, sonic illustrations, and curious collisions of sound, action art, spoken word, and space…amongst the books.” Reflecting on my experience of the first of those three parts this morning, I found myself thinking about Brian Eno’s Music for Airports, the first of four albums that Eno produced under the series label Ambient. It was clear that Action in the Stacks supplemented the experience of browsing and reading while in a bookstore, just as Music for Airports intended to do the same for those in an airport terminal.
However, Eno appreciated, probably through personal experience, just how stressful just being in an airport terminal could be. Music for Airports was his way of trying to defuse at least some of that stress. The Russian Hill Bookstore, on the other hand, is about as stress-free as one could hope to find these days. The space is large and casual. It establishes quickly that it is there for browsing, rather than the purposeful quest for a specific title. Finding areas for specific categories is not always easy, but the staff is friendly and eager to assist. It is a far cry from the few remaining “industrial” shops that are branches of large impersonal chains, places that often feel even more depersonalized than Amazon Web pages.
As a result the ambience provided by Action in the Stacks was qualitatively different from anything Eno had in mind for his Music for Airports installation. (Ironically, this year is the fortieth anniversary of the release of the Music for Airports album.) Subtle electronic sounds were synthesized and mixed by the Klooj duo of Thom Blum and Charles Kremenak. Those sounds neither enhanced nor impeded my browsing. They just were there; and, perhaps, they sustained my lingering at some of the difference shelves arrayed throughout the store.
Less ambient was the presence of Janet Silk, in costume and delivering a monologue through a headset while discarding illustrated sheets of paper as she moved across the bookstore space. The impression was one of eccentricity; but the delivery was relatively low-key. Ultimately, it was difficult not to look and ponder over just what Silk was doing; and that meant turning away from the shelf or book one happened to be browsing. However, within the overall course of the first of the three sets to be performed, Silk’s appearance was relatively brief, long enough to leave an impression in memory but not intrusive enough to detract from enjoying the bookstore space.
Personally, I like the idea of listening to something when I am browsing in a shop like the Russian Hill Bookstore. Nevertheless, as regular readers probably know by now, I am more than a little picky about my listening matter! Truth be told, the “auditory environment” of Bird & Beckett Books and Records is a bit more to my personal taste. That environment is pretty much consistently established by music related, one way or another, to Charlie Parker (“Bird”); and that is an environment that I never really want to leave. It can keep me browsing there longer than I intended, even if I never find a book to purchase.