This is not one of those stories where the supermodel tells you she was home alone with her cat on prom night. I did go to prom and I kissed a boy. But at the same time, for most of my childhood, I was the kid in the corner of the room curled up with a book, not the one joining organized sports teams or taping up teen idol posters. I can’t remember if the term “nerd” was alive in the early 70’s, but you get the picture. Drawing horses and reading were my two favorite past times. Let’s just say that doesn’t set you up for a membership in the Gossip Girl cool club.
Many childhood afternoons, I rode my bike to the Delmar Public library in upstate New York. The librarians and I were on a first name basis. They helped me select piles of books that introduced me to imaginary lives, mysteries, history and biography. Double bonus, Ellen Harris, the cool Mod Squad hippie-ish children’s librarian was also our occasional babysitter. Checking out books with my own library card had the grown up élan I associated with whipping out a credit card. And when I devoured those reads at home, I inhabited alternate universes, fed my head and stretched my vocabulary.
I married a man whose career took us to many different cities. In each one I acquired a succession of library cards to match my growing collection of state driver’s licenses. And eventually, as a mother, I would haunt the children’s sections of my town libraries once again, directing my kids toward timeless reads like the Babar series, the Wind in the Willows or The Lonely Doll, a childhood favorite.
And while we were regular patrons of our libraries, it was the local bookstores that became my personal sanctuaries, my mental watering holes. Back when mothering four children could feel like fighting against the undertow, I would have described a perfect day as “being alone in a bookstore.” I still would.
I am drawn to bookstores the way others migrate to clothing boutiques or shoe sales. Here’s what happens. The door opens, the bell tinkles and a beatific look overtakes my face. I love the absence of a shopping soundtrack. There is no migraine thumping bass in the Abercrombie dressing room, no “Nine Inch Nails” blasting away so as to quicken hand tremors and force premature surrender of the plastic as I plot my exit from mall girl hell.
Nope. This is bliss. The hushed interior, the shelved cache of rabbit holes into other worlds and other lives. Sometimes there is an espresso machine puffing in the back, a worn comfy chair, an invitation to sit and linger. And the books! All those crisp hardbacks lined up like soldiers, the distressed pine tables groaning with proven paperbacks, the old faithfuls in the back, arranged by category. And those colorful jackets! Oh, the books that catch my eye like stained glass. Even an artfully designed “so-so” read can seduce like a painted whore in soft light.
And then I’m jonesing like an addict entering a crack den. Books are my crystal meth. Friends and family members have had to literally tug me out of bookstores on occasion. I can get that gone.
Bookstore employees in the towns in which I’ve lived came to learn my tastes and recommend new or unfamiliar titles. We’d parse reviews like bookies at the track. There was small talk and gossip, the questions about each other’s children and families or a mutual friend. At some point in the conversation I’d feel like the party’s social climber, making polite conversation while scanning the crowd for bigger game. One eye was always running up and down the shelves looking for the latest read or a book I’d kept meaning to add to my list.
When I became a published author in 2007 with the release of In an Instant, I appreciated the value of libraries and bookstores from a different perspective than that of customer. On my first book tour I had the pleasure of meeting some of the owners at iconic independent stores like Powell’s in Portland, Andersons in Naperville, Politics & Prose in DC and Book Passage in Marin County. Numerous Barnes & Nobles welcomed me to the back office to sign stock, then un-stacked the chairs and invited people to come meet me on the PA system (always a slightly awkward moment to be a literary blue light special).
I learned to grow comfortable with popping unannounced in places like the Concord Bookshop outside of Boston or Bookshelf in Truckee, CA when visiting my brother-in-law, to introduce myself and sign their copies of my books. That was me, yesterday, in the airport bookstore, bedraggled and puffy-eyed, pointing at the glam-ish author photo in the inside flap to convince the clerk who I was while aggressively offering to “sign some stock.” Ahhh, the joys of self-promotion.
Our Indies are the conch-holders, the pulse-takers of their communities. They are a taproot for the book clubs, schools, the ladies groups and readers in their areas. They are the aggregators, event planners, gatekeepers and bulletin boards for the cultural happenings in their area.
Many bookstore proprietors have put their own personal touches on my tours, driving me to a venue, offering a cup of tea or allowing me to “pick a book for my girls” after a talk (thank you RJ Julia in Madison CT). How could I ever forget Viv and Roger at Rainy Day Books in Kansas City who demonstrated how they grease the folding table so we could slide and sign all 500 books with assembly line speed? I’ve kept up with many of these folks personally and I consider my relationships with them a great privilege. They are book people. That makes them my kind of people.
On September 11, Hyperion published my first work of fiction. I was over the moon when Those We Love Most made the New York Times Bestseller list and I was pleased, ok, totally pumped, to read the reviews. And then my publisher told me that I’d been selected as an “Indie Next Pick” for September. Reading that list and the insights into the titles continually reminds me why our hometown bookstores are gems, why they really matter. It’s because the owners and staff read the books, they delve deeper, they comment and discuss, they start and advance the conversation. They get excited. I like to hang out with people who get excited.
As I crisscross the country on a book tour schedule that pals have exclaimed “makes them tired just to read,” I’m gearing up to visit with old friends and add some new ones. I’m eager to meet readers and friends at Big Hat Books in Indianapolis, Common Good Books in St. Paul, Elm Street in New Canaan, and Tattered Cover in Denver, to name a few. I can’t wait to walk back through the door of the Book Stall in Winnetka, Illinois, the picturesque town in which we lived that formed the basis for the setting of my first novel, Those We Love Most.
In the spring I’m determined to get to Just One More Page in Arlington, VA, Brookline Booksmith in Boston, People of the Book in Austin or maybe Bookends in Ridgewood, New Jersey, if they have a spare night. And Ann Patchett, you Patron Saint of Bookstores and personal She-ro of mine — just say the word and I’ll use my frequent flyer miles to get to your beloved Parnassus Books in Nashville.
Arcade in Rye, New York is my hometown store. We try to buy most of our books from Patrick, who also happens to play in a jazz band. School-assigned reading, my personal picks, gifts for friends, books on tape all lead me and my family to Arcade. Shopping local is the only way we roll and the doors are open because many townsfolk feel the same. I hope you shop local too, those of you who are still lucky enough to have bricks and mortar bookstores in your hood.
These are scary times for bookstores. Scary times for library funding. Scary times for reading. All of us who love to hold books and turn a page, borrow them from the library or read them on tablets (it’s OK, really it is) we need to join hands and squeeze tighter. It’s more important than ever to be a patron or customer, to re-discover the magic of getting lost in the stacks, of finding an unexpected surprise at the suggestion of a bookstore employee or a librarian.
And here’s why: I believe books can do good. Lives are made richer by teachers and librarians, by bookstores and the people who love books, recommend reads and encourage reading. Reading itself may be a solitary endeavor and writing a solo enterprise, but stories have the power to connect us, sometimes in places we didn’t know we could. Stories move us. Poems and essays, art and conversations, all of it enhances and advances our world. They are as wonderful an elixir as a walk in the woods.
Books simply matter. And so with that, I’m off to pack my suitcase. Here’s hoping I see you on the road.