Today is Independent Bookstore Day but I’m going to be honest with y’all here, I’ve never been a huge fan of independent book stores. It could be because my reading interests tended to lean towards popular fiction like romance and these types of bookstores aren’t too keen on that as my British friends might say. My favorite bookstores were either part of retail chains, or used bookstores that were like treasure chests, or one that closed down before I was even born.
The first bookstores I ever remember going to was when I was a kid living in a suburb of Houston. The store was Crown Books and part of a national chain at the time. It was in a shopping center in what I remember was a long narrow space with very tall shelves. Luckily the kids books were on the low shelves. I also remember going to a bigger Crown Books right by where my mom worked and that place had an amazing magazine selection. Then when they opened the mall right by the subdivision we lived in, there were two bookstores there, Waldenbooks and B. Dalton Books. So if you couldn’t find something in store you could usually find it in the other one.
When we moved back to San Antonio in 1988, my mom and dad and I discovered Book Stop. It was part of a chain but the location we went to was housed in what used to be a grocery store in a classic Art Deco building with curving lines and neon. And when they had a fresh shipment of books you could smell the warm paper and ink when you walked into the store. My mom used to take a deep breath when she stepped inside and people would kind of look at her funny, but it was a lovely smell. Also, the selection was amazing and incredibly diverse.
For all the years I lived at home, my favorite bookstore was the B. Dalton at Rolling Oaks Mall. It was right off the Food Court so it was in a prime location though the store itself was about as big an overstuffed closet. But on payday-Friday my mom, dad, and I would head over to the mall after dinner and go in through Dillard’s then to the Food Court where my dad would get a soft pretzel and my mom and I would get ice-cream cones because we had to fortify ourselves for our invasion of B. Dalton. The store was managed by two ladies who would light up when they saw us coming. They would have the books I’d ordered, my dad’s model airplane magazines, and new stuff to show my mom. All three of us would walk out with a bag of books and magazines then spend the weekend reading.
Then there was the time I took my parents to a Barnes and Noble superstore for the first time. They walk in with me and their eyes widened and I went, uh okay, let me get them a cup of coffee at the Starbucks there. They’d never been to a Starbucks either so I had to order for them then after we finished our coffees we agreed to meet back up in an hour and off we all went. I loved Barnes and Noble stores because they always a good cheap section and one bookseller I got to know recommended this book about a boy wizard to me one day called ‘Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone’.
Then my mom, dad, and I discovered the Half-Price Books on Broadway which is an old house where the floorboards creak and groan. My mom said it smelled like old books, which was a good smell along with the old creaky wood. My favorite Half-Price Books was the location in the Medical Center because there were two huge cats that lived there. They’d been born in the back of the store and one sat up on the counter and the other waddled around the store (yes, he waddled because he’d looked like he swallowed a basketball). Sadly, the cats weren’t allowed to move with the store when it was relocated (they were adopted out).
But the bookstore I always wanted to go to closed down before I was even born. The store was Marks and Co. in London, England. I learned of this bookshop from a movie I discovered one day on cable back in the 80’s called ’84 Charing Cross Road’ (the store’s address in London) . It’s about a twenty-year correspondence between an American woman, Helene Hanff, a writer based in New York City, and the book’s principle buyer, Frank Doel. Ms. Hanff started writing to the shop in 1949 looking for English books by English writers she couldn’t find in New York City and for twenty years she bought books from them, and sent food parcels in the years after the war when she heard about the post-war rationing in England. A friend of hers visited the shop in the early 1950’s and described it like something straight out of a Charles Dickens’ novel. It was old and her friend said the old oak was gray from all the dust it had absorbed over the years, the books were old and leather-bound and bit worn, and they had a table of old illustrated magazines. The store closed in 1970 after Mr. Doel passed on and the building was bought out to be re-developed though there is a plaque about the store and movie (and play, too).
My dream bookshop would then be old and creaky, yet with an amazing selection and serving good coffee. It would be a place welcome to any reader of any taste. There’d would be popular fiction, snooty literary fiction, vintage books not costing an arm and a leg, reference books out the kazoo, and magazines both old and new.
Sadly, I spend most of my reading time today with my Kindle because it’s easier on my eyes. But I can dream of a bookshop and a worn old book open on my lap.