Two weeks ago, my position was eliminated at the university press where I worked for ten years as assistant director. I was caught by surprise that Friday afternoon when I got the news, but I'm now determined to move forward into whatever is next in life, and not look back. As I've shared my story, of course, I've discovered that many friends have experienced this event in their lives as well, and I suppose it's more and more common these days in a world of economic uncertainty.
I know readers step into the Reading Room every week expecting my thumbs up or thumbs down on recent — or classic — music books, or my interviews with authors or artists who share their reading habits with me. Yet, I share my story now because I've been struggling with the column this week; sure, there are some great books coming and just out — and I'll be writing about them in future columns — but this week I find myself staring into the infinite white space of this blank page.
I could head back into the archives to pull out a piece I wrote long before we started this column, and bring it up to date, but, inspired by Easy Ed's column last week, I decided I'd spend a little time celebrating the bookstores that have been my favorite haunts for books over the years. Many of us who buy records and books have mourned the loss of a favorite store in recent years, and we can recall fondly the afternoons we spent browsing among their bins and shelves.
In his memoir, Books, Larry McMurtry extols the pleasures of collecting books as well as mourning the closing of bookstores and the accumulation of computers in libraries that replace the books on shelves. “A bookman’s love of books is a love of books, not merely of the information in them,” he observes.
Though McMurtry bemoans the displacement of library books by computers, he might as well be writing about independent bookstores, many of which have closed over the past decade, for various reasons. The first challenge to independent, or trade, bookstores came from Borders and then Barnes & Noble. Once these chains started offering discounts on books, trade stores — especially smaller ones — couldn't match them and also couldn't carry stock in the same volume. Indeed, it was the huge volume and attractive discounts that drove customers to the chains.
Then came Amazon, which began to displace even the chain stores (Borders closed; Barnes & Noble is on life-support and will probably close in five years, if not sooner — it's already closed its flagship store in New York City), offering a deeper discount on titles and a much larger stock of books.
Yet, even if independent bookstores could not offer the discounts, they could offer deeper stock than the chains. You could find all of an author's in-print titles at an indie, where you'd find only the most recent, or best-selling title, at a chain. Amazon and online booksellers — even ABE, though it's a little better — offer no serendipity of browsing the aisles, looking for one title and then discovering a title or two you'd never expected to read or buy.
I'll admit that I have never used Amazon as a bookstore, partly for this reason and partly for others (though I have looked up information about a title there). If I am looking for books these days, I still head to my local bookseller. If I can’t find the book I'm searching for at my local independent, I’ll visit a used bookstore. If I can’t find it there, I’ll order it directly from the publisher or check it out from the library.
McMurtry’s comments, though, set me to thinking about my favorite bookstores. I’ve visited numerous stores over the years and have spent plenty of money in all of these stores. Sadly, some of them are now closed, but it's my fond memory of them that keeps them on this list.
The Strand, New York City
The advertisements for this renowned bookstore proclaim “eight miles of books,” and I often wonder if it’s really more like 12 miles. A book lover’s dream, The Strand offers the quintessential book-hunting experience. You can browse in the sidewalk bins for an hour before you even enter the store. Once you enter, you can literally spend an entire day among the towering shelves — the books are often double-shelved — loaded with fiction, art and art history, biographies, history, literary criticism, and science. In the front of the store, you can pick up bargains on new books; most of the books on the tables of new books are half price. In the newly remodeled store, you can visit the third floor to shop for rare books.
Once upon a time, not that long ago, you could spend several days at the bookstores that lined the streets and avenues below Union Square, between Broadway and Fourth Avenue. You can still shop at Fourth Avenue Books and Twelfth Street Books (which has a wonderful collection of art prints), in addition to The Strand. However, The Strand stands as the most powerful reminder of those halcyon days.
Over the past two years, the store has gotten cleaner and brighter, and they've moved some sections to other locations in the store — the music section, for example, is now in the basement — so it's a little easier to navigate these days. Nonetheless, if you go there, be sure to take a book list with you.
Book Culture, New York City
This bookstore, at 112th and Broadway, used to be called Labyrinth Books until the owners amicably went their separate ways. There are two other locations of Book Culture in the city — one on Broadway and 110th, the other on Columbus. Don’t be fooled when you walk into the store; it looks as if the book-laden room into which you’ve wandered is all there is. Go up the stairs to find a mile of shelves devoted to every subject.
Book Culture's philosophy section is one of the most complete in the city, and the fiction wraps around almost the entire second floor. Find your foreign language books here as well. You can find bargain books here, too, though most of the books in here are new.
I found Leon Edel’s classic five-volume biography of Henry James here in a paperback version for five dollars. I always make a trip here when I’m in the city. Over the past couple of years, though, the store has lost some of its charm and the aisles have grown crowded with textbooks from Columbia University. These now take up a substantial portion of the second floor. Despite that, Book Culture remains a great store to find that title for which you've been searching and been unable to find elsewhere.
Davis-Kidd Booksellers, Nashville, Tennessee
I always loved this store because they used to have a section devoted to Southern literature. There were always special events featuring local, regional, and national authors, and you’re were as likely to see Emmylou Harris shopping there as your next door neighbor. Regrettably, they did away with the Southern literature section when they moved to Green Hills Mall, and the store started to look more like a chain. (It was a small regional chain store, actually, but in its initial incarnation, Davis-Kidd was one of the South's best independent bookstores.)
Sadly, this is one of the stores that's closed now, and for a while the absence of Davis-Kidd meant that Nashville was without a great independent bookstore. Now, Parnassus Books — owned by author Anne Patchett and publishing veteran Karen Hayes — opened almost across the street from the mall and admirably fills that niche. Howlin' Books, on Eighth Avenue South, next to Grimey's Record Store, is a must-stop for any book lover.
The Happy Bookseller, Columbia, South Carolina
When I lived in Columbia, we did most of our shopping for books at the Belk’s department store downtown. Then, Richland Mall opened up and a little store called the Happy Bookseller opened its doors. Not long after, we moved from Columbia to Atlanta, where I soon discovered Oxford Books (now sadly departed).
The Happy Bookseller also had a section devoted to Southern authors, and I could count on browsing the section to discover writers with whom I was not already familiar. I picked up my first William Price Fox book (was it Ruby Red or Moonshine Light, Moonshine Bright?) there, and discovered Louis Rubin’s fiction (I already knew his critical work) there. The store moved from a mall to a standalone location where they were able to expand their wares. Regrettably, the Happy Bookseller has long since closed its doors.
Litchfield Books, Litchfield Beach, South Carolina
I've spent several vacations at Litchfield Beach, South Carolina, riding the waves and eating seafood. One of the pleasures of my time in that area was taking a midday excursion to this this charming little bookstore. The last time I was there, Litchfield Books could be found in a strip mall on Highway 17, just down from the Harris Teeter grocery store.
The great attraction of the store for me was its wealth of books on local lore. I picked up a copy of the history of Horry County — the county in which the store sits — and some collections of Low Country ghost tales, which brought back shivery memories from my own childhood in that section of South Carolina. The poet and novelist James Dickey (Deliverance) had a home in Litchfield, and one of the most memorable images of Dickey is of him sitting in his rocker, surrounded by stacks of books.
Westsider Books, New York City
One day, as I was ambling uptown to grab a cup of joe at Zabar’s, I stumbled upon this little hole-in-the-wall used bookstore. I found a shotgun-style room with shelves as high as the ceiling — reached by ladders, stuffed full of books. I grabbed a hardcover of Alfred Kazin’s Contemporaries on one of my first trips there. If you go, be sure to visit the second floor, where you’ll find old postcards and rare books. Westsider Books also has an extensive selection of vinyl, with some of the records going for as little as $1.00. I found a copy of Alvin Lee’s and Mylon Lefevre’s On the Road to Freedom, for which I’d been looking for 25 years.
I stop by Westsider Books at least once every time I’m in New York City — I live on the Upper West Side when I’m there, and the store is only eight blocks from my place — and last time I picked up a nice copy of Nikos Kazantzakis’ Symposium to add to my Kazantzakis collection.
Tattered Cover, Denver, Colorado
Most every book lover has made or wants to make a trip to this fabled store in Denver. I had a chance to visit a few years ago when I stayed in town an extra day following a conference. Two colleagues — also book lovers — and I spent an afternoon browsing the shelves, sitting in the cozy nooks and crannies, reading, and eating in the store’s restaurant once we had made our purchases. I have to admit that I don’t recall what books I bought that day; I only remember how impressed I was by the store itself, its helpful employees, and its wide selection of new and used books. Any book lover visiting Denver must pay a visit to this shrine of independent bookselling.
Seminary Co-Op, Chicago, Illinois
Although the store moved from its venerable location in the basement of the Divinity School into a brighter, airier space just around the corner, it's retained its mammoth stock of books. I don’t know of any other store in the country with the vast selection of this store.
The Sem Co-op contains a wide range of mostly new books from university presses in every subject. The fiction section is unbelievable; once you’ve visited it, you’ll never want to return to a Barnes & Noble. You can find books here that you’ll not be able to find anywhere else, because the Co-Op keeps books on the shelves long after any other store would have shipped them back to the publisher. You can also find some terrific bargains at 57th Street Books, just down the street from the Seminary Co-Op.
Literary Book Post, Salisbury, North Carolina
On a trip back up I-85 from Atlanta, I stopped in Salisbury, North Carolina, to buy some Cheerwine — the South’s most glorious nectar — in bottles (the original recipe), since it’s bottled there in Salisbury. Imagine my delight when I discovered this store on the town’s main drag. I didn’t have high expectations when I approached ir. This was, after all, a small North Carolina town known mainly for its famous soft drink and its pain-relieving powder, Stan-Back. Imagine my surprise when I entered the store to find a wealth of Southern literature and thoughtful collection of fiction and nonfiction. The owner knew his stock like the back of his hand, and bookishness emanated from his very being. I left there with a clutch of back issues of Southern Culture, a journal about life and literature in the South.
The Book Exchange, Durham, North Carolina
This was such a glorious store, but it closed about five years ago. When I found out it was closing, I seriously contemplated driving from Chicago to Durham for the day.
Smack dab in downtown Durham, this old warehouse was the most complete used bookstore I’ve ever seen. You could spend an entire day in this huge store and never really see everything. All books — except the course books on the first floor — were arranged by publisher.
You'd walk up to the mezzanine to find miles and miles of Penguin Classics. You’d find several copies of individual titles, priced according to the age and condition of the book. I’ve never left here without an armload of books and spent most of my seminary years keeping the road between Wake Forest, North Carolina, and Durham hot as I traveled to and from this store.
There are still a number of other stores whose passing I continue to mourn, even though it’s been many years since they have closed their doors. In Atlanta, the Ardmore Book End — literally a corner, or end, store in a strip mall in suburban Sandy Springs. They had all the Vintage classics, and I bought my first copies of Camus, Faulkner, Thomas Mann, and a set of Dorothy Richardson’s Pilgrimage here.
Oxford Books in Atlanta was one of the South’s great independents, and I built my collection of literary criticism from its shelves.
In Princeton, New Jersey, Micawber Books (now Labyrinth Books) had both a used and new book section. They had a complete set of the Loeb Classical Library, and I picked up much of my collection there; they also had a very complete Penguin Classics, and I found editions there that I could not find anywhere else. I bought a used copy of W.D. Davies’ — a former author of mine — well-known book, The Sermon on the Mount, that had been owned by Ursula Niebuhr, the wife of the renowned theologian Reinhold Niebuhr, famous for his “Serenity Prayer.”
Almost everybody who knew it mourned when the Gotham Book Mart shut its doors several years ago; it was Woody Allen's favorite bookstore, though I never saw him there. Above its entrance hung the sign, “Wise Men Fish Here,” and you were always wiser when you left the store. Their fiction, poetry, theater, film, and music sections were unbeatable.
I spent many blissful days in Calliope Bookshop in Washington, DC, just a short walk from the National Zoo. It was a Daedalus bookstore, which is to say that it was one of the few physical outlets where you could buy books also found in the mail order Daedalus Books catalog.
Bookstores are magic places that can whisk you away to another world, and I hope you have your favorites that you continue to visit either in spirit or in the flesh.