April 25 is Independent Bookstore Day. I am not a religious person, but if any day is my bibliophile equivalent of Easter it is today.
It got me thinking about one of my favorite bookstores. I have been to The Strand in New York. I have been to the dearly departed Dillons in London. I have hit up Shakespeare and Co. in Paris. And I cannot pass a small bookshop anywhere without popping in.
I have been known to shed a tear upon entering an independent bookstore — yeah, I’m a book nerd, it’s not like I don’t know.
When I moved back to Southeast Texas in 1988 after three years in England, I rather snobbishly assumed that there wouldn’t be a place I could just wander in and browse the shelves for a couple of hours — really, Barnes & Noble or Waldenbooks (remember them) doesn’t have the same vibe.
However, my friend, Laura Haynes, said, “Have you been to The Book Gallery?” I had not, but I quickly found the place. It was located in a house on the corner of 8th and North Streets in Beaumont’s Old Town.
When I got there, I knew I had found a spiritual home as the hardwood floorboards serenaded me with creaks and groans as I moved from shelf to shelf, from room to room.
I have a method to browsing a used bookstore. I think about an author, genre or book I want, but really, it’s only as a place to start. Once I find — or don’t find — that particular thing, then I branch out from there. So really, there’s no method at all, but one has to start somewhere.
Disclaimer. You probably do want not go to a bookstore with me. My daughters, who live in New York, are happy to visit bookstores with me — as long as there is a place nearby that they want to visit and they can come back to get me a couple of hours later. A bookstore is my happy place and I can get lost.
I don’t always buy a book (OK, that’s a lie). I don’t always buy all the books I want to buy. That’s not the point. The point is to look at all the books I want to buy — that I could buy if I had the money or the shelf space.
When I visit my daughters in New York, visit The Strand several times. There’s a great discount section tray in the art section. The books are all in there at random and one has to just flip through them looking for oddities. I move books to the back of the cheap bin, telling myself that if it’s still there later in the trip then I was supposed to have it. Then when I go back, I buy whatever is still there.
I didn’t have that problem at The Book Gallery. It was here in town and I could visit whenever I wanted. I could just pop in and surround myself with books.
The first book I bought there was a complete collection of Franz Kafka stories. I paid the gentleman at the counter. Being me, I probably engaged in some meaningless conversation while they rung it up and most likely said I was happy to discover the place.
The next time I visited The Book Gallery, George Anderson or Trent Jenkins, the owners (I didn’t know them well enough at the time to remember which of them it was) said, “I remember you bought the Kafka when you came in before. Have you read Thomas Mann?” I had not. I left there with a copy of Mann’s “Magic Mountain.” I had literally been there once before but that was enough for them.
Over the next years I came to value recommendations from George and Trent. They, or more crucially the shop, became a valued part of my life in Southeast Texas.
My absolute favorite story about the value of the independent bookstores involves a birthday gift for a friend. I was working at the Port Arthur News and I had an idea to get a book on the work of Amadeo Modigliani for her, as she reminded me of one of his paintings. I knew I wouldn’t make it to Beaumont before the weekend, so I called The Book Gallery. After a short discussion, I ordered a book on Modigliani for around $25 and hung up.
About 10 minutes later, George called me at work (this was pre-cell phone days) and said that there was another book, published by Thames & Hudson, that I would like better. And it was only $18.
So, he called to sell me a cheaper book because it was a better book (Thames & Hudson has the best range of low-cost art books). What kind of business does that? One that gets loyal customers, that’s what.
George and Trent retired in 2002 and The Book Gallery went away. But the shop’s paper bookmarks are still sprinkled throughout the books on my shelves.
That’s why I always support independent bookstores. Don’t get me wrong, I’ll buy a book from pretty much anywhere, from Amazon to Goodwill. But if you find a place with people who love books as much as you do, with people who want to share their love of books with you, then you hold on tight.
And remember, it’s not hoarding if it’s books.
Addendum: Online shopping does not necessarily kill bookstores. Go to bookfinder.com, abebooks.com or one of the other used book websites that are linked to independent bookshops around the globe. They are great places to find really obscure, out-of-print stuff.