Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Small Bookstores

How many closings of independent bookstores can/will a society tolerate? Probably not a question pondered by those addicted to avitars and giant bookstores floating in cyberspace.

I don't loathe the mega stores on the Internet nor do I refuse the convenience of finding a long sought for book long out of print.

I subscribe to a handful of blogs written by people who read and suggest new or old books. My yellow pad of want to reads is full of their suggestions. These bloggers are the Internets’ independent bookstores.

My chagrin is with the winnowing down of the small-unaffiliated bookstores where books, conversations, suggestions and certain quirkiness existed side by side.

On August 1st Kate's Mystery Bookstore in Cambridge closes its door. Kate established her store on the bottom floor of an old house. Floor to ceiling bookcases with an idiosyncratic system of organizing books enhanced the experience. Once you understood book locations and you embraced the system you were a "Kate groupie".

Kate was often ensconced behind a small desk, often eating lunch and surrounded by bits of paper or answering the phone. Yes, she shipped books.

Over the years I'd ask Kate to suggest something.” Who do you like?" And then she'd make suggestions and even start telling me about the book—enough to whet my appetite. Her latest volunteer, Audrey, a retired engineer, knew the British authors and books of the war years (that's the first and second).

Going to Kates wasn't a ten-minute excursion—more like an hour or more. I never knew whom I'd talk to, who I'd see. Once I met a woman with a list of all of the seminal mysteries in the 19th century. We ended up talking about the criterion we'd use to create a list for the books of the last twenty years. "Of course," she said,” We’d have to have a cyber mystery category." I know you can google cyber mysteries and ....

But it's the personal contact, the conversations, the unexpected suggestions. The human quality.

I recall two other bookstores in houses. One was in Wellesley not too far from the college. I never really got a sense of the store because it closed shortly after my introduction. The other store occupied the bottom floor of a small house in Sudbury. The owner was an older woman who kept a metal cash box and wrote down each book she sold, date and I expect the purchaser and then some comment.

The entire store occupied the parlor, but her collection was hand picked --she carried "good books" and poetry. Over time I found out that she grew up in China, the daughter of missionaries.

She owned a house in New Hampshire where she entertained friends.

"We have beautiful hiking right out my front door. I do ask my guests to write of their experiences hiking in a journal I keep in the living room. Forty years of entries makes for a wonderful read."

At the time I met her I was teaching English and she suggested Peter Elbow's book Writing Without Teachers. In time I read all his books and used his ideas in my teaching.

I loved her license plate: Books2
As long as she lived she maintained the store.

"I don't have too many walk-ins, but there are long time friends who stop in and buy a book or order a book."

When she died the house was sold and became a dress shop. It's present incarnation—a real estate firm.

When small bookstores, run by passionate readers, close their doors there's a loss that is palpable. Huge mega chains with coffee bars attached like umbilical cords can't fill the void. Yes, they sell popular books and even the small sellers, but they may not include the incendiary book, or the book from a small press that can't afford to link in with a distributor.

I'll always miss the quirky bookstore where books and conversations and chance meetings and philosophical discussions all melded into part of the experience.

Someone referred to these bookstores as "old fashioned". Not everything that is old fashioned should be eradicated, nor is it old fashioned.

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Words Create Rituals

When the only way I connect to what happens on stage is by standing offstage eavesdropping, a passive onlooker to what is unfolding, then it's time to invent a role—and the mystical belief in the strength of the role.

Who has not promised to defeat, hold at bay, or alter a story by performing a ritual?

Wear a special hat, carry a good luck charm, don't step on cracks, repeat a mantra, and recite a psalm.

It's hard to be impotent.

It's hard to wait for what trickles into your vein to obliterate the cancer.

My words, my prayers, my rituals—all for you.