The Memory, the Joy of Books

[Reviewing a few of The Blog Propellant prompts, I came across this post I wrote in response to “What’s the first bookstore you ever walked into?” Originally published May 2015]

indie bookstore day 2015Today is the first national Independent Bookstore Day!

[The] nationwide holiday stems from a program started last year by California indie bookstores. Now, more than 400 stores from Alaska to Maine are preparing for a full day of programs, entertainment and food to highlight their value. – The Washington Post, April 30, 2015

There are many bookstores I’ve patronized over the years. I can recall the first time I visited the famous Powell’s in Portland OR, and the first truly musty, dusty second-hand place jammed cheek-to-jowel and floor-to-rafters with what seemed like every book imaginable. But reaching back through my memories, I cannot put a finger on the first bookstore I ever walked into.

Big box-store-style outfits did not exist during my childhood, so the first bookstore I ever visited must have been some small place in whatever town we lived in at the time. I probably was with my mother. Maybe. Could have been with my father, though I doubt it. Like libraries and churches, bookstores are silent, reverent chapels meant for zen-like contemplation. A bookstore would not have been a place my mother or father would have taken any of us rug rats. I wish I could remember the first time a bookstore caught my attention, but truth is, I can’t.

I do have a vivid memory of an elementary school library; a bright, sunlit place with enormous windows at one end and rows and rows and rows of very low metal bookcases. In this memory, I don’t see books. I see on top of some of the bookcases jars of formaldehyde suspending the once-living forms of frogs, snakes, scorpions and various spiders. Obviously, the librarian thought it prudent to educate us as to what actual perils were out there in the tule grass besides the boogeyman. I also remember receiving our vaccinations in that library. Horrible experience, waiting in a slow moving line, having to keep quiet while you listened to the shrieks and hysterical tears of your classmates getting stuck in the arm, knowing that with each step forward you were going to be met with the same inescapable torture. It’s a wonder I didn’t swear off books entirely after that.

My neighborhood has a fantastic bookstore. They do things the old way. There’s a beat-up index card catalog on the front desk of every purchase of everyone who ever stepped foot in the place. The shop keeps are always up on the latest publications, as well as those that have been out of print for years. Got a favorite author or genre? They are always ready with a list of recommendations. Oh, sure, there’s a ton of internet algorithms that do the same thing if you are browsing through Amazon and the like, but you can’t carry on a conversation with an algorithm. A computer program will not spend time comparing and contrasting the merits of one book over another, or turn the conversation to current events, reviewing the latest news or gossip about the neighborhood, the city, the state, nation or the world. Nor will you hear about the recent trip to the convention in New York where they met all sorts of wonderful writers, agents, managers, publishers and fellow bookshop owners. No computer program can ever replace the convivial oasis our neighborhood bookshops are for the discovery of a new author, or for passing the time with good-humored souls you’ve known for so long they can almost be counted as family.

I think I’d have to say that my first memory of a bookstore—though it wasn’t a bookstore at all—would have to be my parent’s bookshelves. They were avid readers and had a pretty large collection. I have memories of culling through those shelves, looking primarily for anything with pictures. My bedtime stories were from James Thurber short story anthologies because I liked his cartoons (which is probably the reason I became a big fan of both short stories and New Yorker cartoons). After my folks died, we agonized for a long while over what to do with all their books. We kept a few very old, possible first editions that belonged to a great grandfather, and a few others that either rounded out our own bookcases, or were in some way sentimental to us. I kept my father’s entire Thurber collection. One sister took his E.B. White collection and the other sister kept all the books of my mother’s she remembered either discussing with her, or recommending to her. They were their own little book club, those two.

Anyway, the next time you are out and about, running errands, etc., take time to visit an independent bookshop. Thank them for persevering through our ever-changing times, and ask them about your favorite author, or what the latest gossip is around town. And, of course, purchase a book while you are at it.

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