Bookstores: A love story
My love of books reaches back to my youth, but my affair with bookstores took hold later in life.
I have distinct memories of checking out books at my small Catholic school library, a weekly occurrence, and of handing over my library card at the local public library for even more books during the summer, inspired by reading challenges.
That’s how we got our books then – at libraries. We had no small quaint bookstores nearby, and buying books was pretty much unheard of, except of course during the school book fair, the once-a-year treat that filled your auditorium with piles of books to browse through and dream of owning. If you played your cards right, you gave your parents a wish list and they came home after an evening school meeting with one or more of your choices.
Remember B. Dalton and Waldenbooks? Those are the first brick-and-mortar bookstores I actually remember – housed in shopping malls. Next came The Regulator on Ninth Street in Durham, N.C., a strangely foreign place we were sent to on rare occasions to buy a course book while in college, when we weren’t otherwise trying to make some cash trading in textbooks at the downtown Book Exchange.
It wasn’t until I became fully ensconced in the work world that I came to appreciate bookstores for more than just warehouses of books. Credit the Strand in New York for awakening me to all a bookstore could be: a lunchtime respite, where you could browse through its self-professed 18 miles of books, get a reviewer’s copy of a soon-to-be best seller at the used book price, thumb through travel guides, open the cover of new hardcover and read the first few pages before deciding on a purchase.
From there the love grew.
Now when I plan trips I seek out the local bookstores (and chocolate shops). When I think about places I’d like to live, I search for downtowns that include a bookstore. And when I envision my perfect life, I’m owning and working in a vibrant bookstore.
Why do I love them so? Let me count the ways.
Because they house books is the obvious explanation, shelves upon shelves of them, and offer up the sensory experiences of holding and feeling a book in your hands, seeing new fonts and colorful covers and illustrations, and being lured into so many stories yet unread.
But there’s more. Local bookstores take on the character of their place. They’re often spaces of community as well as refuge. And folks who own them or work in them are usually just as passionate about their towns and their people as they are about their books.
When you buy a book at a local store, you usually get a smile, a bookmark, a tidbit of information about the author, the book or similar titles, an anecdote about the town and an invitation to come back.
I had an ah-hah moment the other day when my local bookstore, Watchung Booksellers in Montclair, N.J., posted this quote on Instagram from Vincent Van Gogh:
“Bookstores always remind me that there are good things in this world.”
There you go.
We need more reminders like that.
Here then are just a few of my favorites.
Watchung Booksellers, Montclair, N.J. You have to have chops to be the community bookstore in a town dense with writers and creators, and Watchung Booksellers tops that mark. It is a literary tour de force, not only for its book selection and knowledgeable staff but also for its calendar packed with book events and clubs. When former Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton came to the store to sign copies of her recent book What Happened, the line of folks waiting for the meet-and-greet wove around blocks. And the annual three-day Montclair Literary Festival which the store helped launch last year rivals any book fest across the country.
The Strand, New York. 18 miles of books. What more can I say?
Book Towne, Manasquan, N.J. Bookstores in beach towns can tend toward the neglected, often because in the off-season traffic is slow. But not this store. Book Towne is a year-round powerhouse at the Jersey shore, and one of the reasons when I dream about living near the beach, Manasquan’s at the top of my list.
Kramerbooks, Washington, D.C. (Dupont Circle). They had me at 24-hour weekends. For someone like me, who’s up before dawn many mornings and can be found when out of town wandering around the streets looking for coffee and life, stumbling upon a bookstore that’s already open at sunrise is a rare treat.
McNally Jackson, New York. Just around the corner from the old St Patrick’s Basilica in NoLIta, McNally Jackson first caught my eye with its print-it-now Espresso Book Machine on display near the front of the store – Canadian owner Sarah McNally’s weapon against the E-book assault.
The Regulator Bookshop, Durham, N.C., Flyleaf Books, Chapel Hill, N.C., and Quail Ridge Books, Raleigh, N.C. Put several internationally-ranked universities within a ten-mile radius and you get a lot of intellectual curiosity. Despite their proximity, these three stores in North Carolina’s Research Triangle do not disappoint, each reflecting the decidedly different vibe of their host cities.
Poor Richard’s, Colorado Springs. Books and gifts, wine and chocolate, kid’s toys – all housed under the same roof. Need I say more?
Parnassus Books, Nashville. I’ve not yet been to this store, owned by one of my favorite authors, Ann Patchett, but I’ve followed its growth online and look forward to reading book recommendations and other notes on her “Musings” blog. The store is also one of the sponsors of the annual “Nashville Reads,” which has lots of folks in the city reading the same book at the same time – a pretty neat thing. Click here to see more about “when the whole city joins the same book club.”
powerHouse Books, Brooklyn, N.Y. This is another place I’ve not yet been, but am intrigued by its location on the East River and its adjacent powerhouse Arena, self-described as a “laboratory for creative thought: exhibitions, installations, presentations, displays, viewings, performances, readings, and retail therapy—all drawing upon photography and popular culture as sources of inspiration.”