I have a personal geography of bookstores. It maps to urban space and to time.
Associations endure in this geography. Denver? Tattered Cover Book Store. Princeton, New Jersey? Labyrinth Books, formerly Micawber’s. Portland, Powell’s; Seattle, Elliott Bay Book Company; Greensboro, Scuppernong Books; Ojai, Bart’s Books, open to the elements; San Francisco, City Lights; Washington, Kramerbooks and Politics & Prose; Helsinki, Academic Bookstore. Yes, I have a favorite bookstore in Helsinki and I’ve been there twice.
If you know bookstores, I can name some and you will be able to supply the city: the Strand, Northshire Bookstore, The Bookstore (okay, there might be more than one of those, so I’m thinking of the one in Lenox, Massachusetts), Joseph-Beth Booksellers, Three Lives & Company, Faulkner House Books, Broadside Bookshop, Shakespeare and Co.
The temporal map is a map of loss. When I was 14, I bought my first copy of The Fellowship of the Ring at Kidd’s in Cincinnati. The memory is rich with sensory detail. The day was cloudy, and from a car radio outside the shop came the theme from The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly, which you could not escape at the time. When I came out of the shop with my first Tolkien, I stopped to gawk at the suits in the window of the adjacent House of Adam. They were tailored from fabrics you did not see on businessmen: the brightest yellow, lavender, red. I was told they were popular with musicians. Kidd’s has been gone for about as long as my childhood.
Also gone is a former destination in Chicago, Stuart Brent Books. When I took up life in Baltimore in 1990, I could not find a shop that suited me, so I would drive to White Flint, Maryland, to a standalone Borders that was the biggest bookstore I’d ever seen, back when the Borders brothers still ran things. Gone. Cody’s Books in Berkeley, California, gone. St. Marks Bookshop and Crawford Doyle Booksellers and Scribner’s in Manhattan, gone, along with the great Gotham Book Mart, where wise men fished. Ohio Book Company in Cincinnati and Bibelot in Baltimore and oh, I think I’ll stop there. Who wants to dwell on lost friends?
An illustrator named Bob Eckstein has gathered his paintings of 75 shops in a volume titled Footnotes from the World’s Greatest Bookstores. Some of the stores still exist, some do not. It pleases me that I’ve been to 17 of them, and counting. Eckstein collected stories about each store, and my favorite comes from Jacqueline Kellachan, owner of The Golden Notebook in Woodstock, New York (yes, I’ve been there):
Once, a customer came in looking for a book for his daughter. Our children’s buyer, Gaela Person, was busy trying to put together a cardboard book display. She told the man, “I would be happy to help you. In fact, I’ll give you 20 percent off your purchase if you help me put together this display.”
He said, “No, I don’t need a discount, but I’d be happy to help.”
Gaela said the man sat on the floor and assembled the display. The man bought a book and then left. Gaela’s daughter, working in the back of the store said, “You know who that was? Didn’t you notice his eyes were two different colors? That was David Bowie.”