What would my ideal bookshop look like? If I think about my favorite bookstores from each place I’ve lived, I come up with lots of different answers.
I grew up in Clarksville, Maryland, and my favorite book haunt was just over the county line in Montgomery County: the Wheaton Library booksale. Picture this: 5,000 square feet of floor space filled with hundreds of fresh ex-library donations a day. Price range: 50 cents to $1. (Extra-fancy hardbacks might go for $2.) I’d bring a $10 bill and leave with a grocery bag stuffed with childhood favorites, paperback classics, and the odd Spanish-Hebrew dictionary or esoteric book on dreams.
I moved to Baltimore for college and discovered The Book Thing (yes, that’s really what it’s called). Conveniently located just a few blocks from my neighborhood farmers market in Waverly, this converted garage-to-book-warehouse became part of my Saturday routine. The appeal of The Book Thing lies not in its aesthetics or decor (there’s barely a semblance of organization–children’s books are stacked in blue plastic tubs on the floor, magazines are crammed onto shelves, and nothing’s alphabetized). But everything at The Book Thing is completely, 100% free. Yep, FREE BOOKS. That includes outdated physics textbooks, stained cookbooks from the 1980s, and piles of torn paperbacks by local authors, but they’re all free. I could rant on and on about how The Book Thing is a symbol of grassroots potential for social change, hope for humanity, and–no, never mind. FREE BOOKS. That’s all I need to say.
I have to name a few other bookshops in Baltimore, because I lived there for five years. The Kelmscott Bookshop, while specializing mostly in “rare and fine books” (read: out of my budget), is your picture-perfect, armchair-stuffed, cat-filled biblio-business. Yes, I love Kelmscott for its authentic musty book-smell and its cats. Do you have a problem with that? Then stop reading my blog.
And while I’m all about independent booksellers, I do have to name the Barnes & Noble on St. Paul Street, because I lived in an apartment above it for two years, and being able to walk downstairs right into a bookstore where you can grab something off the shelf, order a cappuccino, and read/people-watch all morning until you have to go to class…well, if you’re not drooling, then we’re probably not friends.
When I spent a year living in Honesdale, Pennsylvania (pop. 5,000), I was shocked to discover that I was about 60 miles from any bookstore other than Main Street Books–which, though very cute, has a rather slim, outdated selection and no turnover. So I discovered other places to find books: the local library booksale, the back corners of thrift stores, basement church sales, and the “free books” shelf at work. Then came Moody Road Studios. A joint book-and-fine-art-print shop, run by a husband-wife artist-writer team, this space is just big enough for a handful of people at a time, and it stocks a selection of the owner’s hand-picked favorites. Walking into Moody Road Studios is like walking into an exceptionally well-read friend’s living room (with great art all over the walls) and asking for a recommendation. You can’t go wrong.
(And it’s the subject of owner Kelly McMasters’s wonderful “Notes from a Bookshop” series in the Paris Review Daily.)
In Washington, DC, Politics & Prose is not only my favorite bookstore, it’s my favorite hangout in the entire city. Besides the fact that their inventory always seems to be an exact copy of my current “must read” list, and the cafe in the basement, they host free readings and author signings every single day of the week. I’ve had the chance to see five of my all-time favorite authors, from widely different genres (Jeanette Winterson, Marion Winik, Leonard Marcus, Jon Scieszka, and Neil Gaiman), in the year I’ve lived here.
And my favorite bookstore to visit while traveling? Stone Soup Books in Camden, Maine. Because the owner recognizes us even though we only visit once or twice a year. Because the storefront looks like this:
And because it’s basically one room with an addendum (even the minuscule bathroom is crammed full of books), but it’s packed with more books than any one room I’ve ever seen, and every time I visit, I find more books I want to read than I can possibly carry out with me. Square footage doesn’t matter; selection is everything.
So it seems that my ideal bookstore would be: small, independent, in a great neighborhood, adjoining a cafe, home to a few cats, affordable, a venue for readings and literary events, probably painted red, and packed with my own hand-picked favorites. Who’s got some capital?