Topic: Bookstores — Do We Really Need ‘Em?

Let’s face it: every writer is, at heart, a reader. Because of that, every writer probably has a Bookstore Story. This is one of mine.

The summer after I graduated from college, way way  back in 1988,  I believed  I could best prep myself  for the looming future by:

1.   sitting on a ratty sofa on the front porch of a ratty duplex in Athens, GA, listening  to “Born to Run” at the highest volume possible.

and by

2.   holding a yard sale in the front yard of said ratty duplex to unload what thrift store possessions I could.

By that August, believing myself to now be adequately prepared for post-collegiate life, I loaded the possessions I had left into my car and headed west, destination Austin.

It had not occurred to me that Austin, being itself a college town, already had a whole slew of recent college graduates of its own to fill the sorts of jobs I imagined I’d apply for once I got there.  Or that all those graduates, with their local references and transcripts to boot, might have a leg up on me.

I arrived in Austin, found a junky duplex similar to the one I’d just said good-bye to (although this one was smaller, cost more and had an actual junkie living in the other half of it, because this was the Big City, after all). I unpacked my car and found the nearest grocery store.  As I stood in the check-out line, a well-meaning Good Samaritan warned me about the neighborhood’s serial rapist.  If nothing else, I should sleep with my windows shut at night.

The ratty duplex had no air-conditioning.  It was August.

I came home and unpacked my bag of groceries.  I promised myself that come Monday morning (it was Saturday), I’d knuckle down and find a job. But until then, I had to figure out a way to avoid thinking about what I might’ve gotten myself into.  I decided to spend the afternoon at Barton Springs, the renowned swimming hole that in some ways might be the truest heart of Austin.  And on my way there, I promised myself, I’d buy a paperback  to read, the greatest comfort —  and most indulgent luxury —  I could think of.

Way back in those dark ages, there was still an independent bookstore on the Drag, that street that borders UT campus (hard to believe it now, but there may have actually been two or three). After a coffee at the cafe next door, I pushed open the door of Garner and Smith Booksellers, which is of course long, long,  gone.

I remember Garner and Smith as long and narrow, wooden-floored, shelved floor-to-ceiling with books.  It was the first bookstore I’d been in that had a bookstore cat (he weighed close to 20 pounds and it was the most senior sales clerk’s job to feed him). It contained a large  Literary Theory section.  What was that?  I’d majored in Journalism;  I hadn’t the foggiest.  The fiction section was in an alcove at the very back of the store, where there was a wing-backed chair.

Money was tight; though I was not adult by any real definition of the word, I was still mature enough to realize I had very little business squandering any of the money I’d spent all summer earning and squirreling away on a book.  The one I picked had better be… the best one I could possibly find.

I must have been there for hours.  I studied every single book in the fiction section, methodically, walking from shelf to shelf. After much deliberation, I whittled down my selection.  First to three books, then to one.  (It was Braided Lives by Marge Piercy, which seems an odd choice to me now). I brought it to the front and set it carefully on the counter.

It felt like my life hung in the balance.  If I’d picked the wrong book, if it was unreadable, how on earth was I going to get through the weekend?  I knew no one.  I was going to have to sleep in that ratty duplex with the windows shut!  Within twelve hours the junkie next door was going to initiate his habit of knocking on my door wanting to use my phone!

The guy behind the counter was longhaired, goatee’d.  He looked like the sort of person  I imagined understood Literary Theory (I ‘d come to learn that he in fact did).  He rang up my purchase, pushed it back across the counter.

— Need a job? he asked.  We’re hiring.  

I could have kissed him.


So  in part that’s why I’ll be “hand-selling” books at Bound to Be Read Books on Saturday, November 3o, from 2:00 – 5:00 as part of Indies First and Small Business Saturday.

Because, like, I owe  them.

Thanks, indies!

If you’re in Atlanta this Saturday, come on down and say hi.

Reading Lists, Redux

This time last year, I was more than happy to take up blog-space (and bore my friends and relations) by documenting what books sat on the nightstand, hungry to be read*  — and my good intentions regarding them.

Resolutions are made to be broken.  Lists are made to be lost. I would say about a third of those books actually got read. I But lately I’ve been squirreling away a whole new stack as if I’m expecting some late-winter blizzard to keep me house-bound for months.  
But I shall read them all this year, each and every one of them, I swear:
The Feast of Love  Charles Baxter
Lark and Termite Jayne Anne Phillipps
Last Night at the Lobster Stewart O’Nan
The 351 Books of Irma Arcuri David Bajo
Jarhead Anthony Swofford
Operation Homecoming:
Iraq, Afghanistan and the Home 
Front, in the Words of U.S. 
Troops and Their Families Andrew Carroll, editor
Chemistry and 
Other Stories Ron Rash
Madeleine is Sleeping Sarah Bynum
Netherland Joseph O’Neill
*I was also happy to set the goal of finishing the draft of a novel by the end of 2008, and see how far that got me (uhhh, 50 pages in?). 

The Pause that Refreshes

Given the status quo —  news feeds full of Ponzi schemes, bilked billions, punted auto industry bailouts, and thrown shoes; a midwinter sky the color of waxed paper, a personal, parental to-do list that’s grown insupportably long (don’t tell me you don’t have one!) —  I figure there’s no better way to start a Monday than with some escapism and a damn good story.  
There’s one right here.    
Yeah, I know I’ve sung the praises of Five Chapters before, but geez louise I’m impressed by their fiction — and this week’s serialization looks like an especially good one.  

Of Summer, and Of Reading

The end of the school year is in some ways such a celebratory conflagration: end-of-the-year picnics heaped upon final committee meetings heaped upon final school projects heaped upon recitals, all set alight by the frantic desire of a  mom who works at home during naps and spaces in the school day to get a few final things done.

This year, our May went up in a beautiful blaze, as quickly as dried wood and tinder, and then we hightailed it to the beach.  
It’s glorious to have such a clean break between a family’s “on” season and its “off,” to plunge into summer and its laborious applications of sunscreen and bug spray as quickly as you dash from the skillet-hot sand at the beach into the first slap of opaque salty water. 
The only drawback I can think of  is that if you have your week away at the beginning of the summer you’re longing for another by its end. 
But that is the most minor of complaints.  We’re back in Atlanta now, the gardenia bush rooted six years ago from a twig cut from the one that perfumes the front yard of the house where I grew up is a riotous overly-fragrant excess of blossoms, the pom-poms of the hydrangeas droop in the heat as big and round and blue as dinner plates.  
One of the things summer sometimes, happily gives me is some time for reading, and the day before we left for the beach I grabbed a novel I’d heard about from the new releases shelf at the library.  Called The Ten-Year Nap, by Meg Wolitzer, it takes as its territory the New York stomping-grounds of the urban mom; the “nap” the title refers to is one the protagonist is — maybe — waking up from after having spent ten years as a stay-at-home parent.
It’s a smooth read, perfect for summer.  Because it “has something to say” about the perennial stay-at-home/working parent  debate, its characters can at times feel like chess pieces moved around a board in service of the author’s larger game, but the observations about parenthood are so spot on it’s hard to mind that the author might be working toward a particular conclusion.  
A snippet, when a character realizes her husband has to work hard at listening as she recounts her day:  
He couldn’t help it that he was only partly compelled by the world she had fashioned over the past ten years since she had left work and Mason had been born.  That world could be absorbing yet was also pulled along by a current of tedium, and everybody knew it.  

Children had a lot to do with it; they were the most fascinating part of it all, but mostly only to their parents or, depending on the particular aspect, sometimes only to their mothers or only to their fathers.  You stayed around your children as long as you could, inhaling the ambient gold shavings of their childhood, and at the last minute you tried to see them off into life and hoped that the little piece of time you’d given them was enough to prevent them from one day feeling lonely and afraid and hopeless.  You wouldn’t know the outcome for a long time.

Reading Lists

Well, some of the things on the bedside table this past November got read (particularly the ones that had the name Maisie in the title, a la Maisie Goes Camping) but most of them did not, but rather than beat ourselves up about that, we’ve just collected a whole new stack:

Women’s Diaries of the Westward Journey

The Turn of the Screw

Restless Spirits, Ghost Stories by American Women
Lundie, ed.


The King in the Tree

The Light of the Home: an Intimate View of the Lives of Women in Victorian America

Haunting the House of Fiction: Feminist Perspectives on Ghost Stories by American Women

Women’s Voices from the Western Frontier

The Evolution of a State

Nothing like a list to make you feel like you’re getting things done, even if you aren’t. This almost looks like the reading list for a course, and maybe it is: let’s call it the-novel-I-SHALL-draft-by-the-end-of-2008 course and hope that sets a fire under me.

Right now, though, we’re in the weeds.* A “freelance job” for the next few weeks, a WHOLE Kindergarten class Birthday Party for a six-year-old, tomorrow; family in town.

I’ll keep you posted.

*I only worked one restaurant because of my huge fear of dropping loaded trays of food (instead I worked in libraries and as a house cleaner) but I love restaurant slang.

Readling Lists

What’s Currently on My Bedside Table:

Rise and shine : a novel
Quindlen, Anna.

The wild trees : a story of passion and daring
Preston, Richard, 1954-

Right livelihoods : three novellas
Moody, Rick.

Maisy goes to the library
Cousins, Lucy.

The uses of enchantment : a novel
Julavits, Heidi.

The encyclopedia of ghosts and spirits
Guiley, Rosemary.

A child’s garden : enchanting outdoor spaces for children and parents
Dannenmaier, Molly

The collector
Fowles, John, 1926-

Moby Dick

St. Lucy’s Home for Girls Raised by Wolves
Russell, Karen

Will any of these get read? Only the Shadow knows.