There is something magical about a good bookstore—dusty shelves, quiet nooks, jazz on the stereo, sellers that are a blend of friendly and pedantic. It is a place of romance for an avid reader. Peace in a world of war. The last vestige of hope for those lost souls who yearn to write, to master the language and become the voices of their characters. I worry that independent bookstores, the writer’s cathedrals, may be nearing death. These are their troubled times. Some hang on, by the fingernails, but I worry. What will I do if the great ones disappear? I will be left with the memories of those I have visited and loved the most.
Scheltema in Amsterdam
Daedalus in Charlottesville, VA
Myopic in Chicago
Printer’s Row, also in Chicago
Books & Books in Coral Gables, Miami
The Strand in New York
Three Lives, also in New York
Powell’s in Portland, Oregon
Shakespeare & Co. in Paris
City Lights in San Francisco
City Lights I visited for the first time just last week during a trip, also my first, to California. I walked along Fisherman’s Wharf, laughed with the Sea Lions on Pier 39, ate food from Ferry Market, and bathed myself in garlic at The Stinking Rose. San Francisco, where the young kids still wear dirty clothes and beg for change, or drugs, or anything else that falls to the ground or in a cup. The cops arrest them for sleeping in their cars. Past Haight-Ashbury, down Columbus and up Broadway, I entered the glass door with the etching: City Lights.
Here, Ferlinghetti still roams the aisles and his poetry is framed on the walls beside pictures of Kerouac and Burroughs and Bukowski. It is the place where Ginsberg performed Howl and the hippies yelled and let down their hair. It is America, when America wants itself to change.
The soft wood floors, the first step up, tall ceilings and an office just out of view. There were people in every corner, not too many to make me run, just enough to make it feel like home. I found the fiction, and the poetry, the Latin Americans mixed with the North Africans. The shelves were short and strong, the books were paperback and hardcover, sometimes mixed together, sometimes separated. “Blue in Green” played softly overhead. I felt at home among the bookcases. I wandered past a sign that read: “Have A Seat – Read A Book.” I went upstairs and read some of Naked Lunch in a window. Laundry hung from the neighboring building: bras and T-shirts, the whites.
Another sign read: “More Books Downstairs,” with an arrow pointing down. “I Am A Door,” the door said to me, to anyone that passed and bothered to read the sign. “I am a reader obsessed with printed word,” I say to anyone that bothers to listen. I ran my fingers across the spines of photography books.
“No Public Restrooms,” so I return to the fiction section to hide and sulk and hold. There are people still there, reading, searching for answers. When I grab a book from the shelf, 2666 by Roberto Bolaño, everyone disappears. I’m alone with the book in my hands and Bill Evans in my ears. Taken to a different world. Listening in on other conversations. I read a sentence that is more than four pages long and starts and ends the same. Awestruck gaze at the page. Books move me to tears, and not because they are sad, but because they know me before I ever knew them.
I pay for the book and a postcard to use as a bookmark, a constant reminder of where the book came from. Sometimes I keep the receipts; this time I wanted a photo, a visual of City Lights, with people walking by. The activity of the day to day. I never breathe the same after being in a bookstore. Maybe it’s the dust. Maybe it’s the way it makes my heart palpitate. Sweating. Wishing I could have unrolled a mattress and slept near O. Henry, or O’Hara, or Nabokov, or Plimpton, or Vian.
City Lights was only the latest stop on my ongoing literary pilgrimage. What book-filled cathedrals do you favor? What are some of your experiences?