this piece originally appeared on Lunch Ticket (June 6. 2014), the literary magazine of Antioch's MFA program: http://lunchticket.org/bookstore/
My favorite Boston bookstore—my singular favorite in a city purportedly abounding with more bookstores per square mile than any other—is like a reversed Narnia wardrobe. When I think of it, there’s a wide glowing window display and thirty minutes disappearing faster than a J.P. Licks frappe. Those thirty minutes would be, of course, window-browsing moments. Step inside Harvard Book Storeand delightful minutes in the shop would translate to hours gone by in the outside world.
In my thirteen years as a Bostonian, I often bathed in the warm glow of the Boston Book Store display. Nothing fancy: no bells, whistles, or tourist traps splayed with the university logo. Just a series of windows along the Mass Ave. sidewalk set with new releases, best sellers, and staff picks. Curious portals to new worlds and ideas.
Despite the adage, I found cover art mattered. So did font. A book in the window with an interesting cover could pull me through the heavy front door into the stacks. If I didn’t have more than a few minutes on my slushy commute, I’d scrawl titles in my journal. Middlesex. Me Talk Pretty One Day. The Lovely Bones. Often, I did find minutes to spare for an inside browse around current titles. A jaunt downstairs to the used collection. I’d wander around a bit until a cozy section seduced me, and there loosen my scarf, unbutton my coat, let my bag fall to the floor. Sometimes I stood propped against a bookcase as my eyes scanned the spines. Many times I’d tuck away in a corner, fold myself small on the floor, limbs piled together, so other patrons could step over me while I travelled through narratives of other lives, other eras.
Time slipped by in those visits. In the face of books and stories, the universe felt endlessly expansive. But, eventually my stomach would rumble and my feet start begging to get out of those damn boots. In the last few minutes I’d stop at my touchstone, Fiction – W: every visit I was sure to check the Jeanette Winterson shelf. I don’t know why I did, but because of her I discovered other writers nearby: Sarah Waters. Alice Walker. Jeannette Walls. Ah, the beauty of a bookstore.
All over Cambridge and Boston were independent book and music shops alike, and cafes to sit and read. The streets were lined with shops offering respite from the cold. Shelves stacked with imagined worlds to warm the soul. It was a glorious place to live for a girl like me, amid a culture of people who loved books, music, and cafés.
Meanwhile, Starbucks had arrived. Up and down Mass Ave., independent cafes—along with their weekly open mics—began to close down. Napster showed up, and record shops shuttered. Even through this shift, bookstores remained, and I remained oblivious to the corporate restructuring of the book and music industries taking place across the rest of the country. Despite the intellectual colonization that was streamlining America’s interests, Boston’s book and literary culture thrived.
Sometime in the mid-aughties, I left New England. I had a combination of bitter cold weariness, dark days depression, and an itch for something new. Barely sure where Los Angeles was in the general scope of “southern California,” I headed west. On the way, my best friend called from San Francisco.
“I can’t wait to hear you tell me how much you love February,” she said.
Sure enough, two months into SoCal living, I texted her from Santa Monica. It was February. The sun was hot on my shoulders. I was barefoot on the beach. I was smitten with the Golden State.
I’ve been in Los Angeles for eight years now. I love this town, and I love February—I’ll shout it from the Hollywood Hills. (I probably have.) There’s inspiration tucked into every side alley. Songs and stories in every guest house. I could write through the endless summer about all the things I adore about this town. But oh, I do so miss those Boston bookstores.
Here in L.A. I understand why people leap to Amazon. I understand the one-stop-shop online easy-peasy lemon squeezy la-dee-da. It’s cheap. It’s fast. It’s practical.
One Friday evening last autumn I had a hankering for a particular book. I skipped out on a yoga class to hit the library before it closed, but I didn’t check the listed hours and ended up standing alone in the library parking lot staring at the locked entrance. That night I drove the streets of North Hollywood, Burbank, and Studio City, searching for a place to buy my book. The one shop I knew about was open, but on their Barnes & Noble shelves I couldn’t find what I wanted. To reclaim the fruitless evening, I called a friend and the night ended with margaritas. The next day I clicked to Amazon.
Now, to be fair, Los Angeles does have bookstores, and a few excellent ones at that. The problem is like good wine, which I try to stay away from it since I can’t afford to be ruined by good taste: Boston spoiled me. Bookstores were part of my daily commute. The city provided independently curated collections every half block. They seduced me even when I had no thought of books in mind.
Here in L.A., bookstores are destinations to drive to. Events for which I need to clear my calendar. In Los Angeles I never just happen upon a bookstore. I am never seduced.
I suppose this is a call to action. Bookstores in Los Angeles—and perhaps in your town as well—are not just going to set up shop on the broken sidewalk next to our parking meters. They’re coy. They sit in out-of-the-way spots and wait for us to find them.
But you remember, don’t you, the way time used to slip as your eyes scanned the spines? The way you stumbled upon new authors because you, like me, had a touchstone in Fiction – W. How you heard your name calling from the covers and the fonts laid out near the front entryway under the bold sign “New Releases”?
As it turns out, there is one bookstore near my house. I sometimes bike past The Illiad on my way to yoga. A few months ago, I climbed the ladders up to the top shelves, crooked my head to one side, and read every spine in search of the titles on my semester reading list. It is a used bookstore, and scented with that familiar mustiness of old pages. There are stacks in disarray at the front desk which is attended by delightfully unkempt introverts.
I’ve always been torn about buying used books and CDs: no payment for the writer, for the artist. And yet: it is a bookstore. Bookstore means unbuttoning my coat and laying down my bag. It means walking through the Narnia wardrobe and losing myself, unintended, in an ever-expanding universe. In this world of virtual shops and productive shopping, The Illiad is a heaven of exploration and hidden treasures.
In the end, I found all but five of the books on my list. For the rest I used the Amazon gift card I received over the holidays. This is the way I intend to do it for now on—local, independent bookstore first, even if it is inconvenient or a little out of the way; independent online retailer second—many brick and mortar stores, including the Harvard Book Store, are also online retailers; Amazon as a last resort.
After all, as writers and book lovers, it is not enough to have a stack of tomes next to the bed. We must support our literary culture, and at the very least, find and support one place of book lover refuge nearby. Because some nights are for margaritas. But some are for books.