My three favorite bookstores
Peter is inching oh-so-close to learning to read, which I figure is pretty good for 3 1/2. He knows all his letters by heart and is constantly asking us to "read that story" and "tell me what that says," and the other day he sure seemed to be able to read some of his books (but he's got a very strong memory so not sure if he was just reeling it off by recall).
Proud papa is pretty darned happy because next to P and the wife, books have always been just about the most important thing in the world to me. Books are my crack, basically, and there's nothing quite like the smell of an old bookstore filled to the gills with mysterious old tomes. Given an afternoon to myself, there's nothing I like so much as browsing in bookstores, wild man that I have become.
I've been in bookstores from Australia to Alaska, from Montana to Mississippi, and here are three of my favorite bookstores. Just missing the list were stores like my "hometown shop" of Ames Bookstore, Grass Valley, Calif.,; Hard to Find Books right here in Auckland; City Lights Books in San Francisco; Burke's Books in Memphis, and probably a dozen more I'm forgetting.
The Strand, New York City
When I lived in Noo Yawk for three months in the summer of '94, I had little or no income, but that didn't stop me spending it on used books. The Strand boasts of itself as "18 miles of books," and it's a sprawling labryinth right outside the Village, the kind of store that wanders in and out of itself and you might find yourself in a strange alcove that hasn't been seen by other people in 10 years. Cluttered and dusty and cobwebby but full of glamourous Manhattanites, it's an ideal New York City bookstore. My poverty didn't stop me spending many a lazy Sunday there in my summer in New York. And get this – they rent books by the foot: "Interior decorators, film/television set decorators and homeowners, give us your specifications and we'll select just the right books to fit your shelf, all priced by linear foot." That's extremely New York, ain't it?
Powell's Bookstore, Portland, Oregon
If this list were numerical, Powell's would be crouched at the top, the mastodon of bookstores. It's the largest independent book store in the world – an entire Portland city block, or about seven or eight regular bookstores put together, not counting several annex stores around town. And it's justly world-famous. I remember my Dad went there in the 1980s and came back with fantastic tales of this unimaginably huge bookstore he'd been to; it took me more than a decade to make it up to Portland myself, and I was not let down. While it's not the cheapest bookstore in the world the selection is unfathomably huge (entire sections devoted to arcana like Arctic history, giant microbes, rock history or Lewis and Clark) and you can easily spend entire days browsing there until you get that glazed, what-was-I-looking-for-anyways expression on your face and have to stop for some coffee. A sure sign of its status is that this book store is one of Portland's biggest tourist attractions. Bring your wallet.
Square Books, Oxford, Mississippi
Not just a literary icon, but an honest-to-gosh center of the community, Oxford's Square Books is easily the best bookstore in the state, cozy and amiable, not gigantic, but perched right in the old-fashioned town square and with an amazing selection of Southern literature (and a used books annex right down the road when I lived there). Such a good bookstore that the owner recently became mayor of Oxford, which had to be connected; the kind of place you can recline on the balcony overlooking the town square with a cup of coffee and while the day away discussing Bukowski while you feed a secret crush on the comely girl behind the counter. Until she files a restraining order, anyway.