Bookstore cats are such a pervasive cultural meme that they’re everywhere in pop culture — you can hardly swing an, uh…dog…without finding a collection of adorable bookstore cats. And yes, they have punny names like Isbn. Cats and books go together like ice cream and apple pie — as we know from the image floating around of inky footprints on a medieval manuscript. Where books go, the domestic cat will follow, perhaps because cats are fascinated by anything that draws our attention more than them. Perhaps because they love the warm, serene environment of bookstores and libraries, and the fact that people in such spaces tend to be calm and prone to sitting for extended periods of time with laps conveniently placed for settling down and purring.
When I spoke with YA author Stephanie Perkins earlier this year, one of the things we talked about was the connection between cats and authors, which links to that between cats and books. She pointed out that as classic loners, cats are drawn to the authorial aesthetic, one that’s commonly isolated and hyperfocused to get work done and ensure that it’s not disturbed. Cats sit peacefully on our desks — dogs demand attention. Cats occasionally help sort our manuscripts — dogs eat them. Cats can be trusted to calm down and look after themselves for the length of an editorial call — dogs are too hyper and attention-seeking to deal with it. The cat desperately craves attention, but would be utterly embarrassed to admit it, making cats an ideal companion for many writers (as I write, Loki is curled in his heated cat bed on my desk, one ear perked to the keyboard, waiting for me to reach a hand over and pet him).
Bookstore cats, I argue, serve an important cultural role. They may have originally been brought on as staff members to manage mouse populations with an interest in eating the stock, but they’ve become so much more. Cats bring in customers, and create a locus of fascination for people who might otherwise feel uncomfortable and uneasy in a bookstore. For children in particular, I think they add a welcoming atmosphere — even an intolerant bookstore cat who retreats with a hiss is a draw, something to help a kid get comfortable. And there’s something about the sight of a kid reading to a bookstore cat or seriously consulting an apathetic feline about a purchase that reminds me of the connection animals offer us, a sounding board, a listener, someone we can confess to without admitting that we want someone to talk to.
While I will of course frequent any and all bookstores in my travels, I’m automatically pulled into those with cats. For bookstore owners and booksellers, cats are a smart business move, because the longer I’m in a bookstore, the more books I tend to acquire and lug up to the counter with me. (Seriously though why don’t more bookstores have baskets. Or possibly shopping carts.) And when there’s a cat in the bookstore, I am of course obligated to stay there until closing because I am besotted with cats, even when bookstore cats view me with haughty disdain from a high perch or slip into the racks of the self-help section, knowing that even I have limits when it comes to how far I’ll follow a cat.
Cats make bookstores feel comfortable and warm and friendly, to me, less like places for business transactions and more like places where I can bond with people over a mutual love of books. I spend a lot of my time in public feeling tense and uneasy, anxious and uncomfortable, but that fades away when I’m somewhere with a cat, with places to sit down, where I don’t feel the pressure to move and perform and be something I’m not — bookstore cats take me as I am, not as the person they want me to be.
In return, I bring them tributes. I try to keep cat toys around when I’m traveling so I can deliver them to bookstore cats when I pop into local stores, and I keep Catsby, the Gallery Bookshop cat, stocked in catnip bananas (seriously, if you haven’t checked out the catnip banana, do it. These things are amazing. They came recommended by the staff at the Feed Store because their senior cat who pretty much spends all his time sleeping goes, well, bananas for them, and I figure if a toy can get a 19-year-old cat playing like he’s 9 months old, it’ll work on pretty much any feline). It gives me something to do and focus on when I’m feeling anxious and shy, uneasy in a strange city around strange people, and it helps me bond with booksellers (who are usually charming and friendly people to begin with!).
I write in passionate defense of bookstore cats because I feel like in an increasingly sanitised world where people want everything to be all tidy and sharp corners and clean edges, some people seem to think there’s no space for cats in bookstores. (Aside from people with cat allergies, who quite reasonably select bookstores on the basis of which have cats and which do not out of a perverse desire to breathe.) They dismiss the idea of a friendly animal around as being silly or outdated, or, worse yet, cliched and cute. Cats, my friends, are not cliches. They are and should be taken as exactly what they are: Majestic creatures who have no time for your nonsense, and who are as much of a part of a bookstore’s staff as everyone else is.