Let’s hear it.
How much do you love your local bookstore? What’s it like there, when’s the best time to go, who’s your favorite book-nerd-behind-the-counter, what would you do if your bookstore closed down?
Inspired by this barely-glimpsed headline in the newspaper yesterday, and this homage to England’s threatened libraries, I’m giving a Valentine shout-out to my favorite independent booksellers. (This list is utterly, unapologetically biased and west-coast centric.)
Add your own, and then go and browse there this weekend. Leave a handmade valentine on the bookshelf altar of your favorite section. Maybe buy a stack of books if you have some room in your budget this month.
The Capitola Book Cafe
Growing up, I never like the sterility and bright lighting of Barnes & Noble– the only option in the strip mall deserts of suburban southern California where I grew up. If I had to buy a book, I got in and got out as soon as I could. I did most of my reading and lingering in the library. But as a college student in a town with three good bookstores, I learned to love the social aspect of bookstores– the comfy chairs, latest titles, visiting poets and reading groups. So I showed up at my favorite shop after graduation and asked for a job so many times, they finally gave in.
I worked at the Capitola Book Cafe for two years after college, hosting the author events and ringing up books at the front desk. This is where I first became aware of the particular challenges facing independent bookstores in what was then the era of Amazon and Borders. I made very little money, but the sheer pleasure of hanging out with books and book-people (okay, and the discount) more than made up for the minimum-wage life I learned to lead.
The Book Cafe is sort of on the map for authors doing the booktour circuit. It’s unassuming, small, and tucked into the corner of a strip mall, right beside a Rite Aid drugstore. It was founded by four women in 1980– all mothers and booklovers– who helped hand-sell many local books into national notoriety. These four women intimidated and inspired me. Each had a different and essential gift to bring to the project. Each had her way of running the front desk, dusting the window display, and keeping records. Each had her own taste in appropriate background music. This was both maddening (I ended up pissing off at least 3/4 of the management on any given day) and endearing.
I still love visiting whenever I’m in town, which is disappointingly infrequent nowadays. There’s a cafe in the back corner that fills the whole store with the smell of coffee, crispy cheese-encrusted quiche, and toasting bagels. It has the best selection of international periodicals and literary journals I have ever encountered, anywhere. And the kids’ section is crammed with hand-selected books at kid-level, so families can sprawl out on the carpet to read on rainy afternoons.
Neighboring Santa Cruz has its fair share of colorful personalities (Pink Man, helmet lady, and the cellphone conspiracy woman come to mind,) and the Book Cafe welcomed them as part of its eclectic cast of regulars. The relationship of reader and bookseller is a funny and intimate one. Through the soft lens of retrospect (which conveniently erases the many days of little patience when I had to plunge the ancient toilet again) I think this is what I loved most of all about working there, and what continues to bind my heart to independent bookstores wherever I go.
Bookshop Santa Cruz
Santa Cruz, CA
An institution and a haven.
The staff recommendation tags, the short story contest, book clubs, author events, family-owned friendliness, and the only free public restroom in all of downtown. My favorite thing? Their annual “The Reader Photographed” contest. (2009 winner above, Leslie and “Boy” by Youngblood Harris.) And gelato sundaes and thick hot chocolate from neighboring bistro Chocolat—the perfect post-bookfest foil to heady, intellectual conversation.
This is an unoriginal and pretentious choice, but I can’t help it. How can you not love this place and its story?
Travelers can still arrange to work here and sleep on the top floor for weeks at a time. There’s a weird little book and typewriter booth up there, and a wall of messages from people all over the world. It’s in the Latin Quarter, between the most beautiful chapel and the best falafels on the planet. I’ve been here twice, and each time I left a piece of my life behind. Someday I’m going back to pick them up.
I never knew the meaning of the word “swoon” until I stumbled into this bookstore, in the maritime town in Bretagne where I was teaching English as a foreign language. It is an absolute riot of books, an earthquake’s dream and a claustrophobic’s nightmare. Books, books, everywhere. Books in impossible stacks. Books tucked under tables and on top of precarious shelves. Books in the ladder rungs leading up to the second level, full of paintings and– more books. This is where I found Jean Grenier, philosopher and Albert Camus’ teacher and mentor when Camus was a student in Algeria. Grenier’s essay collection Les Îles kept me sane and calm during my stint as a teacher. This bookstore is tiny and yet extensive, a delightful paradox of order and confusion. Concluding language lesson: Librairie is French for bookstore, and bibliothèque is library. And discothèque is nightclub.
Back to the U.S., to one of the great American bookstores nestled in a certain town renowned for butter and eggs. Copperfield’s was a great escape for the interns on the natural-process farm where I lived for half a year. A short bike-ride into town, and you left all the mud and household bickering behind you, getting lost in the used stacks downstairs for hours. You could even afford a bread-making cookbook on your scrawny stipend, and bring it home for the next fight over whose turn it was to bake the bread. (It’s not what you’d think. Everyone wanted to bake bread, all the time, but we only had so much flour and oven space.)
Copperfield’s is your classic, well-kept, sprawling book establishment. Plenty of author events and the roomiest, most magical kid’s section I’ve yet seen.
These two probably need no introduction. They’re big little bookstores with several branches in two of my favorite cities. If you live nearby, you can and should spend several hours here. Regularly.
Los Angeles, CA
Who says Los Angelenos are mean, shallow, and unread? Here’s a great article with evidence to the contrary, and Book Soup is pudding-proof that all of the above assumptions are totally false. The aesthetics may be what you’d expect in a city with an appearance-driven economy (lovely and inviting), but the content is comprehensive and wide-ranging. The photography, film, and theater sections are especially worth browsing. The entire staff once pitched in to help me find a book whose title I could only partially recall.
I’m not saying Amazon isn’t useful. At the Book Cafe it served as an excellent reference site. And it’s not clear that it’s truly as much of a threat to independent stores as was once projected. Certainly, there have been too many Amazon-induced casualties. The article cited above says:
More than 1,000 bookstores closed from 2000 through 2007, leaving about 10,600, according to the latest federal statistics. More recent casualties have included venerable local institutions such as Davis-Kidd in Nashville and Cody’s in San Francisco.
But the article also suggests that the “buy local” movement is driving customers back through local booksellers’ doors. I love what the story’s featured bookseller has to say about that: “Bookstores help create community for people in the places where they live. People may think they can live online, but in reality they live in real towns and cities, and physical bookstores help to enrich those places.”
Have you hugged your bookseller today?