Very early this morning, I was reading JT Ellison’s article on Murderati, entitled ‘The Value Of A Local Bookstore‘ and I realized my comments were definitely long enough to deserve a post of their own. Essentially, JT meditates on the message of the movie You’ve Got Mail (dir. Nora Ephron, 1998) and asks readers to talk about their favorite local bookstores, and perhaps what constitutes a ‘bookstore’ itself. So here I am! Blogging, again.
(If you do comment on JT’s article, you could win an Advance Review Copy of her upcoming gothic-style psychological suspense novel Where All The Dead Lie. Sounds like a riff on Daphne Du Maurier’s classic Rebecca — and we all know how I’m a JT Ellison fangirl, especially for her ability to take a cliché-sounding premise and transform it into brilliance. I’m kind of swooning already. So seriously now, you want to win this ARC, because no one wants to wait until it comes out on September 20th!)
So, without further ado…
I love reading, obviously, or I wouldn’t have this blog right here. But the thing is, I grew up a reader. And a big part of why is The Odyssey Bookshop of South Hadley, MA. Long before I wrote this post — actually I think it was one of my first actions upon creating this blog last year — I linked to the Odyssey on my website’s Blogroll page as an indie bookstore that I wholeheartedly endorsed and encouraged others to patronize (without them paying me to say so, of course). My Mom grew up in this area and getting cider donuts from Atkin’s Farms was always a traditional thing. One day, when I was along for the delicious journey (it’s a guaranteed foodgasm not to be missed if you ever find yourself in Western Mass) we stopped at the Odyssey on the way home. My Mom was part of that proactive camp of parents who read to their children before said children were even able to understand the meaning of the words themselves, so I was essentially a reader from birth. But the transition from being read to, to being the reader proper, was difficult for me. (I found out quite randomly in 5th grade that I had been dealing with undiagnosed dyslexia the whole time…but my voracious reading habit essentially worked to ‘cure’ me. So that’s pretty awesome right there. Thanks, Mom!)
The Odyssey was a transformative experience for me. First of all, it’s located across the street from Mount Holyoke College and it’s situated right on the green green grass of the town common. It’s literally the quaint New England stereotype come to life, in dazzling technicolor with the brightest sun you can imagine. Have you seen the town of Stars Hollow on the TV show ‘Gilmore Girls’? Yeah, like that. Only better because it isn’t fiction. Walking in, the air pulls on you like a vacuum and the resulting breeze envelops you with the scent of the current season. For my first time, it was spring and the scent of lilacs was intoxicating! *happy sighs* It was — and still kind of is — a bit dark when you first come in. Your eyes need a good 30 seconds to adjust to the black and the cool. When you’re a little kid, this is immediately intimidating because on top of it all you are thrust straight into the rows and rows of books taller than any bookcase you’ve ever seen in your life. (And by ‘in your life’, I clearly mean ‘in your house full of readers.’) My Mom sent me right off upstairs to the children’s book section. Whoever had the idea to put the kids up there was a genius because it harmonizes with the architecture perfectly. The windows are big and bright and all you can see are treetops; the bookshelves are shorter so all of the choices within reach without a grownup’s help; and the chairs are overstuffed and fluffy yet exactly the right size for your child-size rear end. The effect is that of a secret treehouse, the kind you never want to leave. Before you know it, you have a stack of ‘Mom you must buy these for me immediately’ books half your height next to you and you’re so engrossed in reading the first one in your dreamy secret treehouse comfort that you have no idea over 2 hours have passed and your Mom is tapping her foot at you that it’s time to go. Wait, what…?
When the Odyssey remodeled a few years ago and took over the lower floor and closed off my little treehouse, I was crushed. It’s the perfectly designed lure to get kids in the door and reading. Like shooting fish in a barrel. (Only please don’t actually use firearms on the tiny humans! — I write as I *sigh* to myself and lament the problems of school shootings.)
Anyhow, I always wanted to come back to the Odyssey as I grew up. And I did. (Buying my Mount Holyoke College textbooks there was a surreal experience, let me tell you.) Back to the point! This local bookstore has been in business longer than my 24 years of life. It has survived the encroachment of big chain bookstores — like the Barnes & Noble with its built-in Starbucks Café and free wireless network over by the Holyoke Mall — and the boom of internet megastores like Amazon.Com, where no book is ever really out of stock. Any you know why? Because like me, the locals of Western Mass see that the Odyssey has value. It’s a real, physical bookstore. One where you can, quite literally, stumble upon a new book — and not because some magical little formula on the interwebs told you that it was your taste. One where the staff actually knows books. They all take turns writing out cards pointing out their favorite book on the shelf and the reasons why you should check it out…kind of like an Easter egg hunt, but for grownups too, and year round, with no chance of confusing bunny droppings for chocolate. When famous authors like Stephen King go out on book tours they regularly choose to appear at the Odyssey instead of the chain stores where they might have bigger expoure and higher sales, which shows how much they get it too. (It’s easy to forget that all authors start out as readers, as buyers of books just like you and me, before putting pen to paper and turning into sellers.)
Local bookstores have value, pure and simple. It’s just not something I could quantify with standard units of measure. It’s part of my heart and soul, as a reader. That’s all.
It’s a lovely slice of serendipity that this topic should come up now. With my back injury formally diagnosed as degenerative disk disease, they outlook is pretty bleak. And it’s been taking its toll on me in the past few months, as evidenced by my lack of posting as much. I was discussing the logistics of traveling to Cape Cod with my family for a week in July and I was dead set against going until my Mom brought up how I would be missing a chance to visit my two favorite indie bookstores out there, The Yellow Umbrella and Where The Sidewalk Ends. Now… I’m probably 90% sure I’ll be making the trip. It’s worth the effort.
As I was saying on Twitter earlier this morning, The Yellow Umbrella is super-small but it has the best selection of autographed books of any place I’ve ever seen (and if I’m in a new place I tend to track indie bookstores like a heat-seeking missile…one that ends up burning up her credit card rather than the store, of course). They seem to have great connections with not only writers who stop by on book tours but those that live, or at least vacation, around Cape Cod. In particular I’ve picked up a few books that had been autographed by Mary Higgins Clark there; and if you’ve been reading throughout her career you will recall several of her earlier books being set on Cape Cod. And of course, my newest discovery are the Martha’s Vineyard mysteries written by Cynthia Riggs starring the 90-something sleuth Victoria Trumbull. Her spot-on descriptions of the flora and fauna of the area are lush and detailed without overpowering the plot of the book, which is often a difficult balance to strike. In fact, one of the things I love about JT Ellison’s books are her descriptions of the Nashville scene. They make me want to visit but without weighing me down and distracting me from the rest of her novel.
The other shop I love is Where The Sidewalk Ends (named for both the lovely Shel Silverstein poetry collection and its actual physical location at the end of Chatham’s famous Main Street shopping district sidewalk). It’s a considerably larger operation than The Yellow Umbrella, but with the same attention to detail and quality that makes indie bookstores so beloved in the community. Many shops have a regional section, but here the attention to Cape Cod culture is perfection. There’s a tie-in to anything and everything you can imagine. Since this year is the 50th anniversary of President (and Massachusetts native!) John F. Kennedy designating the beachy Cape Cod coastline as a nationally protected environment — hence it’s name, the Cape Cod National Seashore — I would expect a fine array of nature books commemorating the event. The are the expected books on the history of the Pilgrims and whalers with their scrimshaw and the seashore homes’ classic architectural feature ‘the widow’s walk’ and gorgeous photo arrays on the native whales, etc. But then there are the unexpected items. If you’ve never been to Cape Cod, you might not know that it’s home to the Cape Cod Baseball League, the last summer college league to use wooden bats, and for that reason a huge draw for major league scouts. (In fact, my first season as a fan I watched future Red Sox shortstop and now-ESPN broadcaster Nomar Garciaparra play for the Orleans Cardinals, now called the Orleans Firebirds because the MLB decided to be jerks about liscensing when the league is run on endowments and donations., ex. it’s 100% free to attend games — no ticket necessary.) You also might not know that the Cape is a prime spot for birdwatchers because of it’s prime position within migratory patterns. Cute children’s books commemorating the first time a kid sees the ocean and such fill out the display. It’s really a wonder to behold. Maybe I also love Where The Sidewalk Ends for its secret treehouse-like upper floors…also where their main children’s section is. Coincidence? I’m telling you, this is how you hook in readers when they’re young’uns!
Crap. I guess I better start planning the logistics of getting my cripple butt out to the Cape. July is right around the corner.
Update 6/15/2011: I won!!! I never win things. Ever. This might be a sign of the Apocalypse but I’m too overjoyed to care! Like Christmas…in June!