My love affair with books began at libraries. Before I could afford to buy books, I could sit around in libraries and read them, carry them home, come back and get more. But if you love books, eventually you need to own some. I was living in my car in New England and wasn’t making enough to move indoors, but I had the hatchback of my car set up with a sleeping bag, a pillow and along the sides my little row of science fiction. Arthur C. Clarke, Robert Heinlein, Carl Sagan and Ursula K. LeGuin. I felt very rich with all of my books. When I met my husband, we compared homeless notes. Where did you put your books in your car? How many did you have? We had both found a used bookstore and started a collection before we had a place of our own.
In college, I spent innumerable hours at Changing Hands Bookstore in Tempe. It was my third place. I worked and went to school, but on weekends, you could find me reading between bookshelves at Changing Hands, sometimes lying on the floor, and when I left, I’d always have a small stack of books.
When I moved to Los Angeles, I discovered the Dutton’s in North Hollywood, Skylight, Book Soup, Vroman’s, Sisterhood Bookstore. I was in graduate school, and I had time to read. I discovered Doris Lessing, T. C. Boyle, Toni Morrison and Carolyn See. Going to a bookstore was my own candy store.
When my kids started coming along, I took them to bookstores as well. My daughter hated shopping for clothes, so when nothing fit her, I would drag her to JC Penney with the bribe of books. “If we manage to get two shirts and two jeans,” I’d say, you can have four books. Her brothers wanted comic books and graphic novels. Tobi was ready for Harry Potter and then Tolkien and Dumas when she was in middle school. Books were her bribe of choice. She read literally hundreds of books. She read with a flashlight at night, on camping trips, at restaurants and at readings.
We started Red Hen Press when the kids were three and five, so there were lots of readings, mostly at bookstores. We wanted the kids to be quiet so they’d bribe us. Complete silence and no interruptions would cost us five books. Three or four books meant we might be interrupted once or twice. We loved that they loved books. We loved that our kids were surviving having no television and were instead reading, playing games, having conversations, thinking.
That’s what independent bookstores still do in the world. They function as a place where thinkers like to hang out. If I were dating online, and thank God I’m not, my first question would be, “What’s your favorite bookstore?” That’s how I would know where we would meet to think about our lives. My whole romance with my now husband happened at a bookstore called Book Grinders. I’d find him between rows of books, discovering a new Calvino book, uncovering treasures.
For independent publishers, independent bookstores are the place where the conversation starts. If you want your book to be a big deal, if you want everyone to be talking about it, you need to do a lot of bookstore readings at your favorite bookstores, the ones where you hang out, buy your books, attend friends’ readings. Independent booksellers are a kitchen for the life of the imagination.
This weekend we went to Warwicks and D.G Wills in La Jolla. My friend Lisa bought me King of the Wind which I read later that day, a book I haven’t seen since my childhood. I bought my husband an old copy of Kafka’s The Parables. We bought new books and used books.
Whenever my husband and I go to a new town, we find the bookstore, and when we walk in, we feel the town’s heart beat, stories happening like waves rushing in, like the universe being born. Every time you enter an independent bookstore, from The Strand in New York, to Elliot Bay and Powells in the Northwest, Vroman’s in Pasadena, Tattered Cover in Denver, BookWoman in Austin, you’re part of the world of ideas. Where do you find a story, the next big idea, a way up, a way out, a way to connect? Independent bookstores, which is where the intellect meets the imagination. No one is telling you what’s cool, what you should read, who you should be. You are a curious traveler, an explorer, and what you’re finding is stories and ideas, and if you are dating, here’s an idea. Start at a bookstore; wander around between the shelves. If you can’t have fun doing that, maybe you shouldn’t venture into a bar or a bedroom. The most exciting organ in your body is your brain. Go to a bookstore, find out what your prospective date is thinking.