The Joys of Independent Bookstores

Since I’m the only one in the general vicinity of this website who doesn’t think every book should contain “splash pages” and that dialogue should be contained in bubbles and consist mostly of exclamations and vapid expository pronouncements, I’ve been tapped to say a few words about National Independent Bookstore Day.

The short version is, I’m in favor of independent bookstores. Not only can you find all manner of superhero stories — intended to be disposable entertainment for children, but for some reason ending up being “boarded and bagged” like holy relics — you can also find that weird manga shit and probably some of those adult coloring books, too. So, go to an independent bookstore — today, if possible. Most of you need not read any further.

The long version, for those of you who like things that take longer than five minutes to read — the pleasure of independent bookstores lies in real books. Perusing an independent bookstore should be agenda-less. If you’re looking for something specific, well, that’s what Amazon is for. You should discover things at independent bookstores. Things you never knew you needed, but once seen, you cannot live without.

An independent bookstore will generally offer the latest bestsellers and whatever self-help claptrap Stephen R. Covey is troweling out these days, some may even offer a selection of crystals, unicorn figurines, and books about angels, but those in the know go to independent bookstores for the used books.

Copy of File_000The ideal independent bookstore is rambling affair in an old storefront, usually with creaky stairs going up to a second floor, or down to a basement, overstocked books stacked haphazardly against the banisters. The air is musty, the clientele hushed (unlike the pack of gibbering rubes traipsing through a typical Barnes & Noble, which actually turns into hell on earth a few days before Christmas). If you find an awesome book — and you will — you’ll see the completely arbitrary price penciled on the book’s inside cover in neat, spidery scrawl (every independent bookstore owner has the same handwriting, it seems), and it’s usually shockingly low.

Once you’ve made your selections, you take them to the clerk — either a grandmotherly type, or a cranky old guy in half-moon glasses, usually listening to squawky Ornette Coleman jams, who treats getting off his stool and ringing you up like it’s the greatest imposition on him since having to re-buy all his jazz and folk on CD back in the 80’s. Don’t take it personally; it’s all part of the atmosphere. There may be a small cash register and even a land-line credit card swiper, there may just be a cashbox, adding machine, and dog-eared sales tax chart. Give the store’s resident cat a pet on the way out.

If you cannot read all your books…fondle them—peer into them, let them fall open where they will, read from the first sentence that arrests the eye, set them back on the shelves with your own hands, arrange them on your own plan so that you at least know where they are. Let them be your friends; let them, at any rate, be your acquaintances. — Winston Churchill.

I acquire more books than I’ll ever read, but I have limited shelf space. My version of the “perfect” bookshelf will never be complete, and I re-organize and re-think their placement at least every few months. Some will stay forever, either because they’re essential reference guides — Mark Lewisohn’s The Complete Beatles Recording Sessions or the huge volume of annotated Monty Python scripts called All The Bits, for example — or I’m saving them for an early and well-deserved retirement. All three volumes of The Autobiography of Mark Twain? Burrows & Wallace’s epic 1236-page Gotham? (Calm down, nerds. It’s a history of New York City.) Someday I’ll get to those. Sadly, some of my books will languish unread until space concerns push them out, or I realize I’ve lost interest in them (and wonder what possessed me to buy them in the first place) and they go into a donation bin to start the cycle all over again with yet another owner.

Here’s some (fairly) recent recommended acquisitions from my favorite independent bookstores…

logosLogos Books (513 2nd St, Davis), here in my home town, yielded a deeply-discounted copy of the just-published SPQR: A History of Ancient Rome by Mary Beard. It’s been sitting on the end table for the past month or two, just waiting until I finish other things.

Green_Apple_Book_Store1Green Apple Books (506 Clement St, San Francisco) most matches the platonic ideal of the bookstore described above (but the staff are cheery and helpful). I don’t get there as often as I’d like, but the last time I was there I picked up a copy of Andrew Chaiken’s A Man On The Moon, the story of NASA’s Apollo program, combining human drama with lots of technical info simplified for the layman. The hardcover version also has enough heft to leave a nice mark if you use it to smack upside the head any idiot “moon landing was fake” conspiracy theorists who may be lurking among your acquaintances.

beersCloser to (my) home, Beers Books (915 S St, Sacramento) is a frequent haunt of mine. Last time I passed through, I picked up the supernatural-horror-on-Mt. Everest thriller The Abominable by Dan Simmons (The Terror, Drood), and the one of the best biographies I’ve ever read, “If They Move…Kill ‘Em!”: The Life and Times of Sam Peckinpah by David Weddle, detailing the brilliant highs and wasted lows of one of the great self-destructive, alcoholic film directors (The Wild Bunch, Bring Me The Head Of Alfredo Garcia). Self-destructive alcoholics make for the best biographies. I just about fell asleep reading the biography of Gregory Peck, because he was a nice man who didn’t drink and had no problems with anyone. Get fucked, Gregory Peck.

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Speaking of biographies, it’s near-criminal that there has been only one real biography of the 1940’s comedy duo Abbott & Costello, 1977’s long out-of-print Bud & Lou by Bob Thomas. I had been keeping an eye out for it for years, and lo and behold it turns up on a random table at The Book Collector (1008 24th St, Sacramento) for a quarter. These are the kind of serendipitous things that happen when you frequent independent bookstores.

I don’t get up to Chico too often anymore, but when I do, my first stop is the cleverly-named Bookstore (118 Main Street, Chico). Back in the previous century when I was a student at Chico State, The Bookstore is where I would go to kill time between classes (or, sometimes, where I would go instead of classes). It was at The Bookstore that I found a book that I’ve literally never seen anywhere else — Conversations with Tom Petty by Paul Zollo, one of the most detailed self-analyses by a musician ever. If you want to know Petty’s thoughts on “The Criminal Kind,” buried on side two of 1981’s Hard Promises album, this is where you’d turn.

And I couldn’t have been more pleased to have bought The Oxford Shakespeare: The Complete Works at Shakespeare Books & Antiques (163 E. Main St, Ashland, OR), located at the home of the Oregon Shakespeare Festival.

Alas, a lot of independent bookstores are on shaky ground, which is why we need a day like National Independent Bookstore Day. Many that once existed are now gone, and more are going away every year. I used to frequent a bookstore (name forgotten) in a random strip mall near where I worked — wedged between a LensCrafters and a vitamin/supplement retailer — where I once found A Rage To Live by Mary S. Lovell, a biography of Captain Sir Richard Francis Burton, who discovered the source of the Nile, translated the Kama Sutra, became the first non-Muslim to visit Mecca, was an early member of the British Secret Service, and had to have a special cart constructed to carry around his enormous brass balls. A great find. Then one day I go there hoping for further treasures, and the place no longer existed. Bare walls and dangling wires. And that wasn’t the first time I’d had that experience with a bookstore.

Copy of IMAG0824One last thing…Another bookstore that’s no longer with us, The Paperback Novel in Marysville, yielded the coolest find I’ve ever made: a full, matching set of vintage early 1960’s Signet paperbacks of the original Ian Fleming James Bond novels… fifty cents a pop.

So throw a little business toward your local independent bookstore, even if it’s just to pick up the latest copy of Super Radioactive Insect Humanoid or whatever.