I grew up with a father in the publishing industry, so there was never a lack of books in our home. I was a shy bookworm as a child, always furtively finding a quiet corner amid large, noisy gatherings to escape to another world between pages.
Since I lived in a small rural town, there was just one bookstore, but I fondly remember visiting it. My dad would peruse the magazines while I hung out in the children’s section. But it wasn’t until I was 12 that I experienced my first real love affair with a bookstore. My family was visiting San Francisco and we went to City Lights. I was a moony teenager who liked to write, and it was here that I discovered the shop’s founder (and famous artist and Beat Generation poet), Lawrence Ferlinghetti—in the store’s poetry room. That’s right; it has an entire room devoted to poetry, which just blew my mind. An hour must have passed as I sat entranced in Ferlinghetti’s famous book A Coney Island of the Mind.
The world is a beautiful place
to be born into
if you don’t mind happiness
not always being
so very much fun
if you don’t mind a touch of hell
now and then
just when everything is fine
because even in heaven
they don’t sing
all the time
Those words changed me forever. I would continue writing poetry for the rest of my life, never forgetting that a bookstore is where it all began. In Footnotes from The World’s Greatest Bookstores, an illustrated ode to the independent bookshop, by New Yorker cartoonist Bob Eckstein, I found this quote from a City Lights staffer: “We once received a letter from a young woman who wanted us to know, and hoped we wouldn’t be mortified by the fact, that she had surreptitiously placed her father’s ashes in various nooks and crannies throughout our poetry room. She said it was her father’s favorite place in the world and she was comforted knowing he was there.”
Bookstores—particularly the independent variety—are hallowed spaces, a place where one can retreat to a corner monk-like or, depending on your mood, engage with a like-minded staff person or customer. Bookstores are a safe social space for us introverts, a place where we don’t feel strange hunkering down with a pile of books or starting up a conversation about one.
My first job after college was as an assistant copywriter at a big publishing house. So, when I went to bookstores, it was always a thrill to find the latest book that boasted my words on the back cover or jacket sleeve—but even better were the beautifully designed covers. (The covers of books have always made me weak-kneed.) The first thing I do when I enter a bookstore is head to the new trade paperback table and devour the illustrations with my eyes. From there, I begin recognizing authors, titles, or picking up something that intrigues me.
But while bookstores will showcase some of the same new titles—the ones that are trending on bestseller lists—the real beauty lay in the particular, quirky choices made by the people working there, usually with scrawled, handwritten notes about why they loved them. This is where you connect with the soul of the bookstore, where you find a gem you’d never have otherwise, or experience a sense of contentment that someone else got a title as much as you did. How the bookstore is arranged makes it unique, and I’ve loved so many bookstores in my life because of this quality.
In Seattle, where I live, the independent bookstore is thriving, and the most famous among them is Elliott Bay Book Company. It’s been around since 1973, though it moved to a new space in the last decade. It’s not tiny by any means, but its wooden shelves, high rafters, and basement coffee shop evoke the Pacific Northwest—and it’s almost always a stop on famous writers’ book tours; their readings here are frequent and crammed. It’s a must-see for tourists, but a haven for those who live here. Because of its location, the store has a sprawling section devoted to writers of the region—and it’s always a pleasant reminder that New York isn’t the only city nurturing and producing the world’s best talents. Because of its size and rustic ambiance, I can easily wile away hours there and am almost always pulled away by my partner, who’s not the voracious reader that I am.
Before I moved to Seattle, I lived in New York City for about 15 years, and bookstores provided me solace on evenings when I was lonely or down about a failed relationship. If I didn’t feel like making plans for the weekend, the bookstore was always a place to go and not feel like a total weirdo. One of my regular haunts was the recently shuttered St. Mark’s Bookshop in the East Village where I lived. A skinny store with a great comics and graphic novel section, this shop reflected the punk sensibility of its neighborhood. There was plenty of poetry, and lots of subversive works featured. It was political and edgy and perfectly situated beneath a tiny Japanese grocery store. I liked it because it forced me to consider books I normally wouldn’t. It was for people reading zines and Bukowski, and the staff could be a little surly, which didn’t bother me since it matched the mood of the place. I took it as a challenge almost.
Every bookstore is a challenge or a comfort, depending on its personality and your mood. If you retreat to your favorite, you’re probably going to find exactly what you wanted, but if you enter a store that’s unfamiliar or unusual, you’ll likely leave with something unexpected. One store that always challenges me, maybe because of its sheer capacity, is Powell’s in Oregon. The original (there are now five locations in Oregon), is 68,000 square feet, contains over one million volumes and hosts 80,000 shoppers a day. It doesn’t sound very indie, and yet its vibe totally is. It’s the “world’s largest independent bookstore” but what makes it unique, among many things, is its collection of not just new titles but used and rare ones. In Footnotes from the World’s Greatest Bookstores, Kim Sutton of Powell’s recalls that “Philip Glass bought a Gandhi set here and is still working his way through them.” Of the collection, Glass says, in the book, “It must have been the early 1980s when we were just starting to do Satyagraha in Portland…there were 73 volumes. I believe I paid $125 for the collection plus $35 to ship to New York City, which comes out to about $2 a book. A great deal I thought.” Indeed, Powell’s is paradise for the value hunter, tempting you to dive into its massive inventory and come out with an incredible book that you can’t believe you got for the price.
As more independent bookstores close in the wake of online sellers and big-box stores, we veteran bookshop lovers cling to our neighborhood spots, and always make time to peruse indie bookstores on our travels. We understand the value beyond the read: that “the relationship between bookstores and their customers is give-and-take, reliant on loyalty and generosity. Customers work on the honor system and should be applauded—bookstores can be taken advantage of, dispensing free expertise and human contact only to have their place of business used as a catalog for online shopping, or a library, or simply a restroom. Bookshop owners are a very patient group,” writes Eckstein.
I know I’ve been both a good and bad customer over the years: reading for hours some nights without actually purchasing anything, but also paying back when I could. Where else can you spend so much time entertained for free, not chased out when you spread out on the floor with a load of books, lose yourself in a world of words, and walk out enlightened? Bookstores are the ultimate intersection of private lives and public space—and, in that sense, there is simply nothing quite like them.
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