July 7, 2010KR BlogKR

Firsts and Flings and Broken Hearts and Back in the Bookstore Saddle

Anyone reading the blog of a literary magazine must know what it’s like to lose a favorite independent bookstore. I visited Madison, Wisconsin last weekend and thought, as I always do when walking along State Street, of Canterbury Books, the place where I first learned to follow bookseller-recommends tags like a groupie; where I read one winter in the much-coveted capacity of holiday ???live model,’ sitting in the store’s window, sipping almond-scented steamed milk and reading (to myself) in exchange for store credit; where I bought books for the English classes that would change my course completely.


I’m planning a visit to Ann Arbor, Michigan next week–my first time back since the beloved Shaman Drum Bookshop closed last summer. Oh, I hate to think of walking by its windows and not being drawn inside. I want to retrace my favorite browsing path! I even want to crouch in the crowded upstairs textbook rooms, angle for floor space among sweaty flip-flopped feet, leaf through books for classes I’ll never take. These bookstores, once shuttered, feel like the homes of childhood friends–the smell, the lighting, the mood–all of them stick around somewhere in the brain, capable of striking you unexpectedly with an outsized longing to be there, to just stand again in that room.

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Some of these rooms have new life. Jeremiah Chamberlin is writing a great series for Poets & Writers that reminds me of the resilience, tenacity, and (favorite word of nonprofits and booksellers alike) nimbleness of independent bookstores. The latest installment profiles Boswell Book Company, based in the old Harry W. Schwartz (the place I attended my first-ever author reading) location on Downer Street in Milwaukee. Chamberlin asks Daniel Goldin, owner of Boswell Book Company, “what has made [him] happiest about [his] first year of owning [his] own bookstore” and Goldin answers:

Danny Meyer, who is a restaurateur, once said, “It’s not about service, it’s about hospitality. I don’t want to be the best restaurant, I want to be the favorite.” My favorite thing about Boswell is the emotional connection people have with the store.

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When I strolled through Boswell Book Company last month, with its beautiful collection of old card catalogs, padded window seats, and smart displays, I thought, oh, I could fall in love with this place, too. I had this feeling in Seattle a few months back when I visited Elliott Bay Book Company (perhaps my greatest bookstore love, where I wrote staff-recommends cards of my own as a bookseller for nearly two years) in its new Capitol Hill location (pictured above). The store’s original Pioneer Square home is the mothership for bookstore-love, a place that inspired, by its sheer size and beauty and creaky-woody-splendor, people to throw out their arms upon entrance and shout I’m home. The new shop, with a brighter woody-splendor of its own, and a sunny gleam over everything (even in Seattle!) will surely have would-be squatters as well, and I felt, seeing it for the first time with a line out the door to get in and one nearly as long to check out, that love for this new location wouldn’t be just a rebound, but the real thing, once again. Ah, maybe I’m just an easy lay, falling in love with bookstores all over the place, pledging my allegiance to anyplace with a staff recommends wall and reusable tote bags. A bookstore in every port! Next week I move to Boston, and if you’ve spent any time there, I’d love to know the bookstores that have your heart.