When revisiting the Manga section 1.5 years later feels like 15
It’s the first weekend of 2021’s May. It has been nearly a year and a half since I’ve set foot into a bookstore, a Barnes & Noble in this case. Even though I walk in fully vaccinated, I’m still wary of going into any store during peak hours. To my relief, it was pretty dead aside from a small group of people hanging around the Starbucks. This bookstore trip was something I’ve been wanting for a while now: to just hang around, find a few books, and maybe have a cup of coffee. Though the start of my trip was perusing the media section, specifically anything from the Criterion Collection, my primary interest is the Manga section. A target fueled by nostalgia for a time had been surprisingly dormant in my mind until recently.
Over the months of April and May, I’ve been splitting my time between preparing for a move back to the midwest and being in a depressed, sleepy haze. On one of my more productive evenings, I tried to wind down with a gyro and a video essay from one of my current favorite creators. In her video “Why Did We Like Elfen Lied?”, Hazel examines the time and culture that made that series a hit at one point. Being roughly around the same age, her experiences resonated quite a bit with my own. What hit me the most were the stories of her middle school library’s manga section and how she devoured it. It took me back to my own middle school days.
This was around 2006, where a couple friends and I would read pretty much every Manga that came through the library’s door. This was primarily because the public library was right across the street from the middle school. We’d often zero in on the manga section in the back of the building. The manga shelves are right between the Young Adult section and the magazine rack if I remember correctly. Shaman King, Flame of Recca, Hikaru no Go… you had a hefty selection to work your way through if you wanted. Over time the library added more and more Manga thanks to little dorks like me going up to the reception desk with large lists of titles, asking for most of them because the cover art looked hella dope. With some titles that came through, my friends and I occasionally felt like we were getting away with something. In particular, all the casual nudity in Ranma ½ springs to mind.
While the library’s selection was where I found most of my reading material, I was often at bookstores buying series I really liked or couldn’t find at the library. I occasionally would go by the local Barnes & Noble, but I ended up with most of my manga from a couple different Borders locations around the Detroit suburbs. Around the holidays, I’d usually get a $50 gift card, leading me to agonize over what 4 titles I’d choose to meet the store’s “Buy 3, Get 1 Free” deal. More than once, my folks got a bit frustrated waiting for me.
One specific Borders location became frozen in my mind. It was off a major road in this suburb, pretty much surrounded by new development projects and open land. Once you push open the heavy doors, you’d find a slick bookstore with most of the goods shelved on the first floor. Just a few steps away from the entrance, there was an escalator to an overhanging second floor with a coffee shop and tall shelves lining the walls. There were sliding ladders to get to the top of those shelves, though I don’t know if sliding ladders over a pit was the best design choice. Like the escalator, the Manga was right by the entrance; directly to the left of the door. That’s a layout that I’ve rarely seen since. In my experience, most bookstores want to keep the “weird” stuff in the back or hidden with the Young Adult fiction like my library did.
At that time, it was hard to hide Naruto if you were anywhere in the atmosphere of the manga section. The series took up it’s own shelf along with any display that was set up to promote it. The first volume’s cover art was burnt into my mind due to its ubiquity and abundance. Color me surprised when 15 years later, I laser in on that volume taking up only a small corner of a display table. Picking up that volume, with the same art and layout as it had back then, I realize that I’m in a Manga section that is as much the same as it is now different. Oddly enough, this Barnes & Noble is set up almost exactly like that suburban Borders. I say “almost” as the coffee shop and the Manga have traded places here.
This lonely copy of Naruto’s first volume is joined by numerous volumes from series like JoJo’s Bizarre Adventure, Wotakoi, My Hero Academia, and that one manga about the large people™. I initially thought there was way more variety on that sample table than back in the day. I remember it mostly being whatever Tokyopop had going, maybe a Shojo Beat title, and the Shonen Jump mountain of Naruto on Naruto, Bleach on Bleach, and One Piece on One Piece. Now, the only member of that “Big 3” with a healthy presence on the shelves was One Piece, and if I asked an employee about Bleach, they would tell me to check the cleaning section of my local Target.
I was surprised that the Manga section was now in a “loud and proud” arch surrounding the display table. An oddity still, as the section is still often in the back or with the YA. The titles on the shelves are now a much more eclectic mix of your standard shonen, slice of life, horror, classics, and the occasional BL title. While much of this reads as “old head shocked at changing times”, a lot was the same. The largest chunks of shelf were taken up by big shonen titles like My Hero Academia and Fairy Tail, reminding me so much of the shelves being clogged with Naruto and Bleach. I also was fairly young back then, so if there were any eclectic titles, my “I’m 12 years old and don’t know what this is”-blinders were firmly on.
By the way, shout out to the employee who decided to turn a shelf end cap into this location’s official BL section. You’re my hero.
I walked away with four books on this trip, though sadly there was no “Buy 3, Get 1 Free” deal this time around. It had only been a year and a half since I’ve been in a bookstore, but everything that’s happened in that time makes it feel like the last one I went to was that suburban Borders 15 years ago. I feel like I’ve been reacquainted with an old version of myself I haven’t given much thought to in a long time. One that I don’t have any hard feelings towards, but one that just peace’d out for a bit. They also helped me realize that I was probably hyping this bookstore trip a bit too much. Though feeling those pangs of nostalgia by doing something so normal and mundane after so long, might not be that over hyped, actually.