I am in the midst of a major move–the kind of migration from state to state that requires the movers to act as caravan for my life’s detritus. After nearly five years in my current abode, I have accumulated a legion of books, staring down at me from their posts along ordered bookshelves. At one point, I had a collection that would have awed the Venerable Bede (who had the largest library in England 1200 years ago at 600 tomes). Yet in this age of the “tablet” and its ability to hold 10,000 books or more on a piece of smooth glass, what purpose does the old folio have? Can this simple device, the bound, printed word, in use for millennium, serve no purpose in the modern world?
I say yes it can. Reading a book is a near complete sensory experience. The eyes can read a screen sure enough, but what of the smell of paper and ink and binding glue? Or the feel of paper–from pulp to linen stock? Books transport us into another place with their words surely, but I find that those tactile and olfactory sensations to be equal partners. While some books, printed for popular consumption, could easily be read from the tablet reader, a quality book printed on fine paper in a limited run from a small publishing concern is more than a book. It is an experience.
However, people’s feet do the talking in this regard. In the past two decades, Americans watched Big Bookstore firms come and go, devouring everything in their path only to be consumed themselves by the Amazon leviathan. Borders? Waldenbooks? Who is next? (We all can guess, that certain peddler of ersatz kindle readers called nooks) Yet, despite the coming and going of the megabookstores, independent bookeries have survived in nearly every college town and urban center. They each do so in their own way. Some have no problem offering used books alongside new. Others are so well curated that they offer rare and out-of-print treats. And others have become destinations–a debating forum and town hall for their corner of America.
In my travels, I often seek out those last independent booksellers, taking in their coffee (over the Big Coffee firms), seeing who is giving a reading, and checking out what local pamphleteers have left on the counter. My checked luggage is always a pound or two heavier from the experience, and gladly so.
Here is a fairly good list of my favorite bookstores in America. I am sure to have missed a few.
Mere blocks from the University of Chicago, both Powell’s and 57th Street Books offer up professors’ screeds, dusty legends and anarchist books for the President’s Hyde Park set. Seminary Co-Op offers exhaustive stacks for those seeking all faiths and none. Sadly, the store moved from its basement location of 50 years on Woodlawn Drive to a nicer, but less quaint, locale. Nonetheless, if you are looking to stroll to the Midway Plaisaince to people watch, a book from these locations will help you pass your time in this picturesque corner of Chicago.
Washington, DC and its environs have been overrun with Barnes and Noble “bookstores”–a term I use loosely given their proclivities for children’s toys and notepads made from elephant dung. True denizens of the District turn to the town hall of Northwest Washington–Politics and Prose–for their book fix. Authors from regional newspapers, political beat reporters and local political celebrities hold court, giving readings of their latest. The two-story bookstore on Connecticut Ave has an admirable cafe in its basement, where this author has spent time pouring over his used and new book finds, with a bowl of latte at his fingertips on rainy days in the District.
It took me four trips to New York to finally discover Union Square. Just south of the famous park in lower Manhattan sits The Strand–notable for their “18 miles” of bookshelves–is an institution worthy of its place in the center of the universe. For me, no trip to NYC is finished without a stop in this cathedral to used, new, and rare books. The staff are direct, knowledgeable to a fault, and can find anything in those miles of shelves.
I once heard Rachel Maddow count this bookseller among her favorite independent bookeries, and for some of my readers, that might be a very qualified recommendation. Politics aside, The Tattered Cover is an anchor establishment in the LoDo end of Denver. Blocks from the Wynkoop Brewery, this little corner of Denver has never failed to leave my literal and figurative appetites satiated–from microbrew to the most eclectic of bookshelves.
Seattle is awash with excellent bookeries, but the king of them all is in the city’s Capitol Hill district. Elliot Bay Books is an essential hide out from the Pac-Northwest rainfall. While Elliot Bay is for this author a Seattle idyll, others may find joy at Pike Place Market’s Left Bank Books–the hub of socialist thinking in Seattle.
Lastly, Twice Sold Tales, in the neighborhood of Elliot Bay Books, offers up heaving shelves of once-loved tomes…and cats to keep you company whilst you peruse.
Sam Weller’s bookstore has been around Salt Lake City since 1871, a Methuselah in the American bookseller trade. Some of the rare books in their upper loft are much older than that even. The Weller Book Works moved in to their new haunts on Trolley Square in 2011, after this author’s visit to the venerable location downtown, where the shop held court for 50 years. That old building had plenty of nooks to explore. Of particular interest to this out-of-towner was the vast repository of Mormon-related ephemera in its basement.
College Town Bookeries
What is a college town without a used bookshop? In my mind, it is simply not a college town without one. Bloomington, Indiana–home of Indiana University–sustains at last count seven bookstores for its local population of about 120,000 people. Caveat Emptor on the town square is strictly business–there are no latte sippers here. But what you get is that splendid sensation of finding an out-of-print book among the moldering collection, with the local NPR station droning through the air. And owners Janis Starcs and Donald R. Wilds are living factotums. Nothing escapes their knowledge, and no question goes without answering with smart commentary.
Harvard’s main bookstore sits across from Harvard Square, occupying several buildings along Massachusetts Avenue in Cambridge. The store has expanded to other locations around Boston, and serves other schools (MIT) as well. Like most official college bookeries, the store is also a front for fanwear, bric-a-brac and sweatshirts for the tourists. In this case, the tourist turned Ivy-never-will-be can don the Crimson and pretend. And in the past, I have spied the all-too-familiar green and white section signs of Barnes and Noble around the COOP. B&N got into the college book business some years ago, feasting below the surface of the host organism while pretending to be a college bookstore.
If Official Harvard is a turn-off, a bit farther along Mass. Ave will land you in the basement-level Raven Used Books. Here, I found a used bookstore relatively free of Malcolm Gladwell’s chin-scratching and his legion of NYT bestsellers and instead found real wisdom–from Oxford Dons like Bertrand Russell, Issac Deutscher, Isiah Berlin and Karl Popper. The good stuff, and cheap.
Mindfair is my childhood bookery. I used to head into Oberlin to spend whatever I earned in my high school and college jobs on real knowledge–the books that teachers can’t assign you because of obstinate school boards, Victorian-era prudishness and the dunces in confederacy. Located in the shell of an old Ben Franklin 5-and-Dime on the college’s Tappan Sqaure, Mindfair has a modest collection of used books that once sat on the shelves of the professors and students. In a town of 6000 souls, Mindfair survives on the town and gown, proving to me that even the smallest hamlet can sustain a bookstore if the population is willing.
St. Johns is the other college in Annapolis, the one overshadowed by the Naval Academy to the south. The College is very much Athens to the Navy’s Sparta. The two student bodies rarely cross paths officially, save for an annual croquet match between the schools. The Midshipman will play the game in their dress whites, and as counterpoint, the Johnny’s will dress in a theme. Recent years have seen the Middies square off against Where’s Waldo.
Students at St. John’s major in the “Great Books” tradition–a reader’s college devoted to primary source reading of the classics of philosophy, literature, math and science. Students share a common major, a true A.B. Some may believe that such a liberal arts education makes these poor kids unemployable. To the contrary, many of these students go on to Ph.D’s, law school and medical school. They are a bright bunch because of the Great Books curriculum that they consume.
And their bookstore carries those classics in an austere basement setting that is all about the knowledge. You will not find much by way of school sweatshirts and boozy bumper sticker slogans here. A simple basket of orange and black repp ties sits near the counter with some other modest “impulse buy” memorabilia–the only college spirit available. The bookstore is refreshing to me. It is either the last best hope for Western Civilization or the last twilight before the era of iPads swipes the book into oblivion.
Where is your favorite book nook? Will it survive another generation? Will you help them, and our culture, survive the digital death of books, keeping the bookstore culture alive?
Politics and Prose: http://claireindc.wordpress.com/
Harvard COOP Photo Credit: http://loveatfirstbook.com/2013/02/parkthecar/
Raven Used Books Photo Credit: http://emilycassel.wordpress.com/2012/02/13/flickr-assignment-an-afternoon-at-raven-used-books/
St. John’s College Sign Photo Credit: http://olivercromwellcase.wordpress.com/2012/12/01/st-johns-college/st-johns-college-sign/