Living in the background of my computer as its virtual wallpaper is the image of a moment frozen from one of my favorite film scenes: when Humphrey Bogart, as detective Philip Marlowe, ducks into a bookstore across the street from the shop on which his suspicions are fixed and exchanges information and innuendo with the sly, sharp brunette who runs the store. It’s from The Big Sleep, a movie that, to me, has always paled in comparison to its source material, Raymond Chandler’s novel of the same name. But, where that single scene is concerned, the reverse is true. What is a moment or two of fun, functional interaction in the book becomes in the film an utterly charming and vividly memorable episode with a character unlike many other women depicted in classic Hollywood film. She isn’t the heroine, or the femme fatale, or the sister or assistant or villain. She’s uniquely independent of expectations. She doesn’t even have a name in the script. She’s the girl in the bookstore.
I know the girl in the bookstore, as a character, from the outside in. I recognize her. Many bookish women probably would. We make a point of recognizing her, because we know firsthand that she tends to get overlooked. We have a kinship with those whose childhoods and adolescences were defined less by parties and proms and more by books and solitude. We see each other prowling the aisles of the bookstore, dipping into new discoveries or old favorites, silently saluting the other’s space by keeping it intact.
The Girl in the Bookstore is our ideal future, what we hope we’re going to find after disappointing youth. Aging into graceful independence, with our own domain of books over which to rule, making our often unappreciated store of random knowledge an asset, perhaps occasionally sharing our expertise with, and letting our hair down for, a private detective with a bottle of rye in his pocket, if we feel like it. A life lived successfully on our own unpopular terms. How many examples of women doing that do we have? We hold on to every one we can unearth. The girl in the bookstore in The Big Sleep is our version of fantastic Hollywood glamour.
But, next time, keep the glasses on.