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Writers Celebrate Their Favorite Places to Browse, Read, and Shop
Edited by Ronald Rice
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In My Bookstore our greatest authors write about the pleasure, guidance, and support that their favorite bookstores and booksellers have given them over the years. The relationship between a writer and his or her local store and staff can last for years or even decades. Often it’s the author’s local store that supported him during the early days of his career, that continues to introduce and hand-sell her work to new readers, and that serves as the anchor for the community in which he lives and works.
My Bookstore collects the essays, stories, odes and words of gratitude and praise for stores across the country in 81 pieces written by our most beloved authors. It’s a joyful, industry-wide celebration of our bricks-and-mortar stores and a clarion call to readers everywhere at a time when the value and importance of these stores should be shouted from the rooftops.
Perfectly charming line drawings by Leif Parsons illustrate each storefront and other distinguishing features of the shops.
The first great bookstore in my life wasn't really even a bookstore. Alvord and Smith was located on North Main Street in Gloversville, New York, and if memory serves, they referred to themselves as stationers. I don't remember the place being air-conditioned, but it was always dark and cool inside, even on the most sweltering summer days. In addition to a very small selection of books, the store sold boxed stationery, diaries, journals, and high-end fountain and ballpoint-pen sets, as well as drafting and art supplies: brushes, rulers, compasses, slide rules, sketch pads, canvas, and tubes of paint. The shelves went up and up the walls, all the way to the high ceiling, and I remember wondering what was in the cardboard boxes so far beyond my reach. The same things that were on the shelves below? Other, undreamed-of wonders? Alvord and Smith was a store for people who—though I couldn't have articulated it at the time—had aspirations beyond life in a grungy mill town. It was never busy.
Because she worked all week, my mother and I ran our weekly errands on Saturday mornings, and Alvord and Smith was usually our first stop. There, I'd plop down on the floor in front of the bottom two shelves where the children's books were displayed: long, uniform phalanxes of the Hardy Boys and Nancy Drew mysteries as well as the lesser-known but, to my mind, far superior Ken Holt and Rick Brandt series. I can still remember the incomparable thrill of coming upon that elusive number eleven or seventeen in my favorite series, the one I'd been searching for for years, now magically there, where it hadn't been the week before, filling me with wonder at the way the world worked, how you had to wait to the point of almost unbearable longing for the good stuff in life. (It would take five decades and the emergence of Amazon.com, with its point-and-click, to vanquish that primal wonder.) Just as mysterious as the appearance of the books themselves was where the money to pay for them came from. My mother was forever reminding me that money didn't grow on trees, at least not on ours, and if I had my eye on some toy gun at Woolworth, she'd say that this was what my allowance, which I saved dutifully, was for. Otherwise, I'd have to wait for my birthday or Christmas. But if I was a dollar short for a book, she'd always find one in her purse (how? where?) so I wouldn't have to wait the extra week, during which time some other boy might buy it.
Coming out of Alvord and Smith, blinking in the bright sunlight, you could see all the way down Main Street, past the Four Corners, to South Main, where the gin mills and pool hall were. Outside these stood dusky, shiftless, idle men, flexing at the knees and whistling at the pretty women who passed by. Occasionally my father was among them. Much later, when I turned 18, legal drinking age in New York back then, I would join him in those same dives. Like the stationery store, they were cool and dark and mysterious, and for a while I preferred them, though I never really belonged. That's what I'd felt as a boy, sitting on the floor at Alvord and Smith, touching, lovingly, the spines of books: Here was a place I belonged.
Fast-forward twenty years. I'm now an assistant professor of English, married, with two small daughters, living in New Haven, Connecticut, teaching full-time and trying desperately to become a writer. My wife and I are nearly as poor as my mother and I had been back in Gloversville. We live in an apartment in a neighborhood where experience has taught me to put a sign in both the front and rear windows of our old beater, telling the neighborhood thieves the car is unlocked so they won't smash the windows. There is nothing of value inside, I write, the radio and speakers having been boosted long ago. But of course, that's a lie. A university professor, I forget books in the car all the time. Sometimes when I come out in the morning, it's clear that someone's been in the car, but the books are right where I left them. No takers.
Once a month or so, on a Saturday night, if we've managed to save up, my wife and I go down to Wooster Street and have an inexpensive—though expensive to us—meal in an Italian restaurant. On the way home we always stop at Atticus Bookstore, where, miraculously, the early-morning edition of the Sunday Times awaits us. How can this be? Tomorrow's newspaper, today. Atticus is a clean, well-lighted place, one of the first bookstores in the country to understand that books and good coffee go together. It's stretching our budget after splurging on a restaurant meal, but we buy coffees and find a tiny bistro table and take books down off nearby shelves to examine. Books. By this time I've published a few short stories, but nothing so grand as a book. From where we sit I can see the R's, the exact spot where my book will sit if I ever publish one. I may, one day, rub spines with Philip Roth. In a way, it's almost too much to contemplate. In another, well, I can't help feeling I belong here, just as I did on the floor of Alvord's in Gloversville.
Many people love good bookstores, but writers? We completely lose our heads over them. We tell each other stories about them. We form lifelong, irrational attachments to our favorites. We take every independent bookstore's failure personally. Surely there's something we might have done. We do not hate e-books purchased online—well, OK, some of us do—but we owe our careers, at least my generation of writers does, to the great independents, so many of them long gone now. Those that remain gamely continue to fight the good fight, even as customers increasingly use their stores as showrooms, their employees for their expertise, and their sales-tax dollars to fund their schools, but then go home and surrender to the online retailer's chilly embrace. They point and click, and in this simple act, without meaning to, undermine the future of the next generation of writers and the one after that. Because it's independent booksellers who always get the word out (as they did for me). With their help, if they're still around, great young writers you don't know about yet will take their place on shelves next to their heroes, from Margaret Atwood to Emile Zola, just as I have somehow managed to do. Without them, well, I shudder to think.
I'm an old fart, of course, more at home with paper and print than touch screens, and yes, I agree with those who argue that in the end it's more about the message of books than the medium of their delivery. A good book read on an electronic device is better than a bad one between hard covers. But to me, bookstores, like my first one, remain places of genuine wonder. They fill me with both pride and humility when I come upon my own books in them. Bookstores, like libraries, are the physical manifestation of the wide world's longest, best, most thrilling conversation. The people who work in them will tell you who's saying what. If you ask, they'll tell you what Richard Russo's up to in his new one, but more important, they'll put in your hand something you just have to read, by someone you've never heard of, someone just now entering the conversation, who wants to talk to you about things that matter.
If you haven't been in a good bookstore in a while, the book you now hold in your hand will welcome you, lovingly, home.
Richard Russo, 2012
The Odyssey Bookshop, SOUTH HADLEY, MASSACHUSETTS
When I moved from Missouri to western Massachusetts in 1979, everyone I met had the same two recommendations: You have to try the carrot cake at Chanticleer's, and you have to open an account at the Odyssey Bookshop.
They were right. Chanticleer's carrot cake was delicious—just the right combination of sweet and spicy. I wish that unpretentious coffee shop was still around, but—like so many things—it dissolved into a procession of dull establishments whose names no one could remember.
But the Odyssey?
The Odyssey flourished.
The two-story white frame building is the heart and soul of South Hadley, Massachusetts, and a survivor to boot. Not only has the bookstore stood the test of time and marketplace, but it also persevered through two catastrophes that nearly killed it.
I came to western Massachusetts to study Emily Dickinson and attend graduate school in the region's lovely Pioneer Valley—home to Amherst, Smith, Hampshire, and Mount Holyoke colleges and the University of Massachusetts. I bought books at the Odyssey for my literature classes and found myself spending Saturday afternoons in the shop's lower level, sitting on the floor next to shelves of Victorian novels. Back then the Odyssey arranged its books by publisher—an eccentric system, but not unlike bookstores in the United Kingdom. Many of the books I was reading were published by Penguin—all in inexpensive editions with distinctive orange spines. As a marketing device, Penguin color-coded its editions: green for mystery, blue for biography, red for drama, orange for fiction. I loved the Odyssey's oddball organizing scheme. It made me feel like an insider when I cracked the code and descended into the lower level in pursuit of all those orange spines.
But nothing made a book lover feel more like an Odyssey insider than getting to know Romeo Grenier. Romeo, as everyone called him, was the bookshop's owner—a formal-looking gentleman who spoke in low, precise tones and wore a cravat. The book-organizing scheme was his idea and perhaps a nod to all things British. Romeo was an Anglophile through and through: He took tea at four o'clock and thought Middlemarch was the best book ever written. Some store patrons even mistakenly thought Romeo was British; he seemed so proper and—well—starched. But nothing could have been further from the truth.
Romeo came from a family of lumberjacks in the backwoods of Quebec. In 1923, he immigrated to the United States, settled in Holyoke, Massachusetts, and found a job cleaning out the cellar of a local pharmacist. Working for Simon Flynn was a stroke of luck. Over the years, Romeo moved up—literally from the cellar. He helped out in the store, learned the pharmacy trade, and studied for his license. He also took a liking to the boss's daughter. Ten days after Pearl Harbor, Betty Flynn and Romeo Grenier eloped and eventually bought Glesmann's pharmacy in nearby South Hadley. Romeo and Betty sold toothbrushes and shampoo and added a small shelf of books at the front of the store. Romeo couldn't help himself with the books; he already had a personal habit of buying a book a week. As Glessie's book space expanded, more shelves were added, and soon the copies of Thackeray overtook emery boards and Old Spice. Although a pharmacy by name, Glesmann's became the town's literary gathering place. Students and faculty from across the street at Mount Holyoke College congregated at the pharmacy's round table and booths for lively discussions about art, politics, and literature. The College community became so fond of Glessie's that at reunion time, students swung by as if to visit their favorite nook in the library. Romeo Grenier, one professor observed, "resolved to be the most cultivated apothecary since John Keats."
In 1963, the inevitable came to pass. The cough syrup lost and books won. At the urging of Mount Holyoke, Romeo opened the Odyssey Bookshop, a few doors down from Glesmann's. Students and faculty helped pack the pharmacy's stock of books and carry them down the sidewalk to the new shop. For two decades, Romeo, Betty, and the shop's dedicated and knowledgeable staff ran the Odyssey Bookshop, making it not only a popular bookstore but a tourist destination as well. Vacationers who stopped in nearby Amherst during foliage season or parents who visited children at the local colleges came by the Odyssey for a chat with Romeo. Customers loved it when staffers hand-selected books for them and explained why they thought the choice was a good fit. For a region that claimed Emily Dickinson, Robert Frost, and Richard Wilbur as locals, the Odyssey was the very embodiment of what residents valued: Literature was as important as breathing.
That's why it hurt so badly when the unthinkable happened.
In 1985, Joan Grenier, Romeo and Betty's daughter, was in the final months of finishing her degree in history at the University of Massachusetts. With graduate school in mind, Joan sat in an auditorium that December morning with hundreds of other students poring over entrance exams. She was so concentrated on her work that she jumped when an exam official called her name at the end of the testing session. There was an urgent message. A friend, who didn't want Joan to drive home alone past the store, waited at the door. The Odyssey was on fire.
For the next months, Joan worked alongside her 75-year-old father to reopen the bookshop near the spot of the original Glesmann's. The College pitched in too. The theater department offered their set-design talents to decorate the store. Students and faculty filled out stock cards for incoming books. Grateful customers found themselves using the phrase "phoenix rising" to praise the Odyssey's remarkable recovery. But five months later, just as the tulip trees were beginning to bud around campus, a second fire consumed the store and the shops around it. Romeo didn't think he could go through the ordeal of salvaging and reopening another bookstore. Joan stepped in. "I probably didn't know what I was getting into," she admitted. Graduate school went out the window, and over the next year, Joan, the shell-shocked Odyssey staff, and the Mount Holyoke community once again worked to reopen the shop, this time in the hall of the nearby South Hadley Congregational Church. Months later, when a new shopping complex rose from the ashes of the second fire, the Odyssey was the first business to open its doors in the Village Commons opposite the college.
Joan took advantage of the unenviable clean slate before her. She expanded the retail space to nearly 4,000 square feet, organized author readings, instituted a First Editions Club, a Shakespeare Club, and a children's book club. The Odyssey became the spot not only for new books, but also for used and bargain books, and for unique gifts for bibliophiles. When social media became a powerful force in business, the Odyssey created a full-service website for customers to order physical books and e-books. Now the largest independent bookstore in western Massachusetts, the Odyssey hosts over 120 literary and cultural events a year, from Rachel Maddow to Alexander McCall Smith and Stephen King to Rosalynn Carter.
Betty Grenier died in 1989, and Romeo, the "most cultivated apothecary," followed a decade later in 1997. Romeo's portrait hangs prominently on the Odyssey's wall, along with photographs of Glessie's and the store's two fires—a reminder of the indomitable shop's past.
As for me, I finally read all those orange-spined Penguin novels and got up off the Odyssey floor. Like my friend, Joan, my career took a turn that I wasn't quite expecting. After years of teaching at that college across the street, I turned to writing narrative nonfiction books. There's nothing I love more than spending time in archives or traveling to a town where I've never been and interviewing someone I've never met before. When my first book was published, The Mercury 13: The True Story of Thirteen Women and the Dream of Space Flight, Joan called me with ideas for the book launch. I'll never forget the night of my first reading. C-Span and my entire softball team showed up, a reader presented me with a baseball cap from Sally Ride's inaugural flight, and Joan introduced me, making friendly jokes about our mutual age and my peripatetic career from Emily Dickinson scholar to space chronicler.
Later that evening, after the wine and those wonderful pastries that always seem to show up at Odyssey events, Joan helped us load the car for the trip back home. It was nearly ten o'clock, practically everyone was long gone, and the Odyssey—still all lit up—looked like a beacon against the dark New England mountains. When I looked back at the store, I couldn't help thinking about Romeo's beloved books crowding out the Old Spice, and I couldn't help feeling grateful for how this wonderful shop has enriched my life. As Joan grabbed a box of party supplies and carried them to the curb, she yelled back at the lone shopper still browsing the new fiction shelves. "Could you watch the store for a minute?" she asked. As the former grad student who loved sitting among the Odyssey shelves, I relished the joy in the customer's reply. "I'd be happy to," she said. "I've been waiting my whole life to be surrounded by books."
MARTHA ACKMANN is a journalist and author who writes about women who've changed America. Her books include The Mercury 13 and Curveball: The Remarkable Story of Toni Stone, First Woman to Play Professional Baseball in the Negro League.
Book Passage, CORTE MADERA, CALIFORNIA
I am old-fashioned. I believe that one should have a personal doctor, a dentist, a hairdresser, and, of course, a trusted bookstore. I wouldn't think of buying books at random, without my bookseller's recommendation, no matter how good the reviews may be. Fortunately, when I immigrated to the United States twenty-five years ago—because I fell in lust with a guy whom I eventually forced into marriage—I ended up living in Marin County, California. Almost immediately, I found the perfect bookstore. However, to find the proper doctor, dentist, and hairdresser took some time. Book Passage, an independent bookstore in Corte Madera, is only ten minutes away from my home, and it rapidly became my refuge and the extension of my office. The owners, Elaine and Bill Petrocelli, welcomed me with open arms; not because I was a writer, but because I was a neighbor.
Since l987 I've started the tours for each of my books at Book Passage, the favorite place for authors on tour because they get an enthusiastic audience and are treated like celebrities, even when they are not. I have had the opportunity to attend readings by great writers, politicians, scientists, stars, gurus, and many more whom I would never have met elsewhere. I have enjoyed fabulous meals at the Cooks with Books events organized by the store in classy restaurants. Due to the requirements of my job, I am a nomadic traveler. Before any journey I visit the store's great travel section, where I get maps and information, including, for example, where to buy beads in Morocco or where to get the best pasta in Florence.
Book Passage is much more than a store for me: It's the place where I meet friends, journalists, students, readers, and fellow writers; it's where I have my mailbox and an open account for me and my family to buy and to order all our books. As soon as my grandchildren learned to dial a phone they would call the store to order kids' books and then call again if they didn't get them the next day. For years, they were present every Sunday at story hour, and they were the first ones in line, wearing the appropriate outfits, for the fun midnight Harry Potter parties.
Willie Gordon, my husband (yes, the same guy I met a quarter of a century ago), retired as a lawyer and decided to become a writer. I couldn't believe that he intended to compete with me but he persisted. At Book Passage he attended the Annual Mystery Writers Conference and opted for crime novels as the most appropriate genre for him, not because he has a particularly mean streak, but because he knows a lot about law and forensics. He took writing classes and read the books suggested by the staff. To my dismay, Willie has written five novels in the last few years, translated into several languages. Nothing pleases Elaine Petrocelli so much as to see a student at her conferences return a couple of years later to teach as a published author. Willie is just one of many cases. Elaine is the first person to read Willie's manuscripts and review them. Bill helped Willie to publish in the States.
The buyer at Book Passage selects novels, audiobooks, and reader's copies for me. I don't even bother to choose my own reading material! She gave me The Kite Runner by Khaled Hosseini and The Madonnas of Leningrad by Debra Dean and Cutting for Stone by Abraham Verghese in manuscript, long before they were published. With the help of the store's knowledgeable staff I have researched sixteen books, including several historical novels and—go figure!—a treatise about aphrodisiacs. Before writing a trilogy for young adults I attended the store's Children's Writers Conference, and later, so that I could learn what kids really like to read, they organized a yearlong kids' book club.
This bookstore is the cultural soul of a large community. It's the place to take writing classes, learn languages, attend conferences, participate in book clubs and speakers' series, and, if you are a teenager, Twitter-talk (whatever that is). Elaine and Bill Petrocelli work with schools, community organizations, and restaurants, they do fund-raising for many causes, and they have a partnership with Dominican University so that students can receive credit for classes and conferences. Their clientele is so loyal that Amazon and the chains have not been able to put them out of business, and, let me tell you, they have tried.
The only place as comforting as a friendly bookstore is probably your grandmother's kitchen. The sight of shelves packed with books of all kinds, the smell of printed paper and coffee, and the secret rustle of the characters that live in the pages warm up any heart. I go to Book Passage to pass the time, to read, to gossip, and to lift my spirit. But I have also gone there to share my sorrow, as I did when I was grieving for my daughter's death. At the store, amidst all those books, many of which were painful memoirs, I realized that I had to write Paula's story, as others had written about their broken hearts before me. During that terrible year of mourning I spent many hours at Book Passage writing by hand, sipping tea, and wiping my tears, supported by my friends at the store who kept me company while respecting my privacy.
Sometimes, when I have a fight with Willie, or when I feel particularly nostalgic, I fantasize about going back to live in Chile, but I know it will never happen—because my dog can't travel so far, and I am not willing to lose Book Passage.
ISABEL ALLENDE is the best-selling author of nine novels including The House of the Spirits, Inés of My Soul, Portrait in Sepia, and Daughter of Fortune.
Politics & Prose Bookstore, WASHINGTON, D.C.
Sometimes in our lives habit becomes ritual, and ritual then becomes superstition. For me, such a transmutation began in October 1988, when I typed the last line to my first book, a group portrait of the U.S. Military Academy class of 1966. The final scene is set in the West Point cemetery, where so many of those killed in Vietnam are buried, and the book ends with the academy chaplain reflecting: I loved these men. I loved these men with all my heart.
Now what? I asked myself. What do authors do when they complete a manuscript? I pushed away from my writing desk, tugged on a pair of sneakers, and headed down Utah Street before turning right on Nebraska Avenue to cross Connecticut Avenue. There in a drab retail building was a hole-in-the-wall shop that showed promise of becoming a neighborhood institution in Washington, D.C.—Politics & Prose Bookstore. This, I thought, is what writers should do when they finish writing: They should seek the company of other writers, at least through the books they have written. And what extraordinary new writings could be found at Politics & Prose that fall—Gabriel García Marquéz's Love in the Time of Cholera, Stephen W. Hawking's A Brief History of Time, Tom Wolfe's The Bonfire of the Vanities.
I would repeat that homely routine by trotting down to Politics & Prose upon finishing my second book in the fall of 1992. Then, fearful of jinxing myself by deviating from the ritual, I did it again, in 2000, and in 2003, and in 2006, and, most recently, on February 3, 2012. For me, a book feels incomplete without that capstone visit to the bookstore. Browsing among the shelves is the equivalent of typing The End on the last page, and less trite.
My family and I had moved into Washington's Chevy Chase neighborhood not long after Politics & Prose arrived. A remarkable woman named Carla Cohen opened the shop in the fall of 1984, selling the season's big books—Robert Ludlum's The Aquitaine Progression and an eponymously titled memoir by automobile executive Lee Iacocca—but also Barbara W. Tuchman's The March of Folly, Eudora Welty's One Writer's Beginnings, and a curious biography by local author Bob Woodward titled Wired: The Short Life & Fast Times of John Belushi. A Baltimore native who had worked as a city planner and a federal housing official, Carla was savvy, gregarious, and forceful, with avowed ambitions of running "the sort of bookstore in which I liked to spend time." Another local writer and store patron, Ron Suskind, later observed, "There are hundreds of writers who imagined Carla as their ideal reader. She is a tribal leader, like Abraham."
Carla had placed a newspaper ad for a store manager and instead found a business partner in Barbara Meade, who had returned to Washington after several years on the West Coast. Barbara knew books, and she knew retail. The two women, both voracious reading mothers soon to turn 50, complemented one another perfectly: the effusive, opinionated Cohen and the reserved, meticulous Meade. Barbara later described their collaboration: "I, the cat, walk unobtrusively into a room and sit quietly on the periphery, intently watching everything that is going on. Carla, the dog, joyfully bounds in and jumps on everyone." Among their few business disagreements was the name of the store, conceived by Carla as somehow emblematic of Washington. "I think that's a terrible mistake," Barbara told her, but the name stuck.
For the first few months, the staff consisted of the two owners and a part-time clerk. Within a year, a second sales associate was added, and by 1989 Politics & Prose had a half-dozen employees. That summer the store moved across the street to more spacious digs with a wider show window. A policeman tamed the traffic on Connecticut Avenue as neighbors mustered to carry 15,000 books from the old shop to the new. I was among them, hauling cartons of that season's big sellers: Salman Rushdie's The Satanic Verses, John Irving's A Prayer for Owen Meany, David Halberstam's Summer of '49, A. Scott Berg's Goldwyn, Simon Schama's Citizens. For many of us, the experience of lugging best sellers and backlist titles, obscure poetry anthologies and must-read classics that somehow we'd never read, embodied the store's slogan, printed on tote bags and T-shirts: "So many books, so little time."
This is more than just a celebration, more than just a compendium of bookstore kudos. This is like each of your favorite writers (84 of them!) penning a love letter to their favorite bookstore. Names you may recognize include Dave Eggers, Louise Erdrich, Francine Prose, Lisa See, and Simon Winchester. Editor Rice, a publishing professional, has recruited new pieces that illuminate the quirks and many intangibles that make a great bookstore. From the owner who will trek across town to help out at a library signing, to the fierceness with which some owners protect their customers' privacy, to the overall comfort of stepping into a world that you just know is full of compatriots, the beautiful stories in these pages tell of those things that make any neighborhood bookstore great.
VERDICT: There are other collections that focus on bookstores... but this one is a personal peek into the hearts of the contributing writers as well as into the bookstores they love. Sure to please any bibliophile, even if borrowed from the library!
- On Sale
- Nov 13, 2012
- Page Count
- 392 pages
- Black Dog & Leventhal