On the heels of the recent annual Book Expo America convention, it seems an appropriate time to extoll the pleasures of a wonderful book that was published last fall: My Bookstore: Writers Celebrate Their Favorite Places to Browse, Read, and Shop (Black Dog & Leventhal). Though I am only now writing about this gem, I've actually been reading it, dipping into and out of it, since November. I hadn't originally intended to devote a blog posting to this book, but when I read the Afterword, by novelist Emily St. John Mandel, I realized I had to.
With an Introduction by Richard Russo, and edited by Ronald Rice and 84 booksellers across America, My Bookstore celebrates all these wonderful, quirky, real bricks-and-mortar stores in many geographic locations across the U.S. and it also acknowledges the passionate people who work in these stores. The stories that each writer shares about his or her favorite stores are terrific, as you might imagine, but what you might not imagine -- I didn't until I reached the end -- is that the book is nothing less than a manifesto for what writer Lawrence Durrell referred to years ago as a "spirit of place". Not only was Durrell a master at evoking place but one of his volumes of travel writing was entitled Spirit of Place.
I always visit bookstores when I travel, and to me bookstores are essential to any itinerary. I share recommendations for local bookstores in all of my books, and I have spent many wonderful moments in bookstores, both here in North America and overseas. You can learn a lot by visiting independent bookstores in other places. In Paris, the featured destination of my most recent book, there are especially terrific bookstores, many devoted to a particular subject. The stores where I’ve had the most memorable travel encounters there are Galignani (“the first English-language bookstore on the Continent,” www.galignani.com) and Village Voice Bookshop (www.villagevoicebookshop.com). I admittedly also met some great people and found great books at Brentano’s, which sadly closed its doors in September of 2009 and which wasn’t exactly an independent but in Paris it felt like one (I still have my Brentano’s-imprinted edition of the Plan de Paris). Anyway, Galignani, under the arcades in the rue de Rivoli, is a beautiful store with gorgeous, creaky wooden parquet floors where you can overhear the most delicious conversations (in both English and French) and you can obtain all sorts of tips and advice. The store is frequented both by locals and wise tourists, and on many days is a literal font of information. And if you forget your eyeglasses there, like I did once, when you return to find them you might be assisted by the same staff member who helped me, and you’d be very lucky: she said, “I noticed that your glasses were in our room of Paris guidebooks and maps. But I bet you didn’t notice some guides that are my favorite. Come, follow me” and of course I did, and soon I had a copy of Secret Paris: Off the Beaten Track, several restaurant recommendations, the French words for “fever blister,” and an invitation to a party that night. At Village Voice, you can feel in a short period of time that you’ve met every expat in Paris, especially if you are there for one of the store’s many readings. The community that supports this lovely store is warm and generous, and their enthusiasm is infectious. I have taken to stopping in several times during the course of a visit, just to see what’s going on, who’s in the shop, strike up a conversation, and buy (a few more) books. Always in stock is an extensive selection of books about Paris, as well as books written and published in Paris (and not necessarily about Paris). Village Voice is like a home-away-from-home albeit one that’s still exotic.
Each of the bookstores featured in My Bookstore is absolutely of its geographic place, and each could be located nowhere else. Reading about the stores is akin to taking a tour of the U.S., and it's enormously enjoyable. And, as Wendell Berry notes in his profile of Carmichael's Bookstore in Louisville, Kentucky, books themselves carry the memories of a place: "I still own books that have remained alive and dear in my thoughts since I was a boy, and a part of the life of each one is my memory of the bookstore where I bought it and of the bookseller who sold it to me."
Emily St. John Mandel writes that when she was on a book tour recently she couldn't help but notice "the crushing sameness of the spaces between cities and towns." The outskirts of nearly every single town in the U.S. looks basically the same: "The same big-box stores, the same retailers' names in the interchangeable malls, the same ten or twelve restaurants with the same logos shining out in the twilight." She's absolutely right, and I find it incredibly depressing, but though it's especially bad in America it's not unique to America. Mandel also notes that here and in other countries "the story's always the same: We were lured to the outskirts of town by lower prices, but the low prices always came with hidden costs." In addition to the reasons why this phenomenon has hurt communities -- a larger amount of money remains in a community when purchases are made in locally owned stores versus nationwide chains, local charities benefit more from locally owned businesses, the tax base is lowered when wages in communities are driven down -- the less tangible reason is that every town begins to look like every other town. "The things that make a given place uniquely itself, the things that made it different from all the other places on earth, begin gradually to erode."
It is for this reason that people who love to travel will love this book, and perhaps together we can do our part by supporting these stores, which are all essential to the continued health and well-being of their communities.
Since it seems appropriate, I can't resist sharing with you my favorite Great Independent Bookstore Moment. It took place at The Complete Traveller bookstore (199 Madison Avenue/35th Street here in New York, www.ctrarebooks.com; I love how the name of my series is so similar to the name of the store!), which specializes in antique and out of print volumes. Owners Harriet and Arnold Greenberg and their staff have for many years occupied a very special place in my heart because they graciously hosted a party for me when the first books in my series were published in 2000. I had became somewhat of a legendary customer the previous year: I was seven and a half months pregnant and on a very hot August day I was tucked away in a corner of the store paging through an A&C Black volume on The Riviera. All of a sudden water started pouring on top of me from the ceiling above, and quickly it became a mini Niagara Falls, so I started picking up all these valuable books and moved them to the part of the store that was dry. I saved a number of books from the flood and I was happy to help, and I didn’t feel my efforts were unusual. But Arnold and Harriet were very grateful, and they have never forgotten that day. And obviously, neither have I.