My oldest retrievable memory of a bookstore, a synaptic circuit first formed 45 years ago, is set in a long-gone business named Kidd’s Books. It did its literary commerce in downtown Cincinnati, Ohio, and I remember it as having at least two, maybe three stories, with some kind of downward central staircase situated not that far inside the door. Do not put much stock in that architectural memory. What I am surest I recall accurately is the impression of so many, many books and my purchase there of The Fellowship of the Ring. I was around 14 years old and smitten—this was a place for me.
Reading first made sense one day at the breakfast table when I was 6. I knew how to read, but only in my first-grade classroom, in one of the little reading circles that, for some reason, we'd named after cars. (My group was the Oldsmobiles.) This particular morning, though, I stared at the cereal box before me and the words magically aligned themselves in meaning. It was as if until that moment, it had not occurred to me that reading was something I could outside of school. Now I had a profound insight: there were things for me to read everywhere, and I could read them anywhere. Too cool.
For my first seven or eight years of reading life, my books all came from school or the public library. I did not start buying books of my own until I was a middle-school kid. That volume of Tolkien could not have been my first purchased book, but it is the first I remember. There have been a lot since then. A lot of visits to bookstores.
I navigate urban landscapes and urban memory by booksellers. Gone from Cincinnati’s present-day streets are Kidd’s, Queen City Books, Erasmus Books, Drew’s. But they are not gone from my personal four-dimensional city topography. In the same way, the Chicago of my mind still has Stuart Brent’s. My midtown Manhattan still has Scribner’s and that great Doubleday Book Shop that used to be on…on…well, on Fifth Avenue, I think, up toward Central Park from Scribner’s, and it still has Rizzoli and Gotham Book Mart (“Wise Men Fish Here”). Berkeley, California still has Cody’s. Georgetown still has Osson’s with two Ss. Princeton, New Jersey still has Micawber Books.
I am one of those people who can get turned around in his own house and flub the morning commute that I have driven day after day for years. But drop me in downtown Helsinki and I will bet a week’s pay that I can find my way back to Akateeminen Kirjakauppa—Academic Bookstore—where twice I have spent lovely afternoons browsing the shelves. Twenty-eight years ago I had a single afternoon as a free man in Paris, and I devoted half of it to finding Shakespeare and Company, walking out with some travelogues I’d not been able to find in Ohio. Two years ago I spent time in a Tokyo bookstore that had, as far as I could tell, not one English title. Every cover, every bookspine, every display made as much sense to me as music to a dachshund, but I was happy.
On the digital maps displayed on our cell phones we drop pins to mark places. In my mind are pins in city after city, all of them marking booksellers: Baltimore — the Ivy Bookshop; New York — Crawford Doyle, McNally Jackson, St. Mark’s Books; Lenox, Massachusetts — The Bookstore; Cambridge, Massachusetts — Harvard Book Store; Princeton — Labyrinth, the worthy successor to Micawber; Manchester Center, Vermont — Northshire Bookstore; Denver — Tattered Cover; San Francisco — City Lights; Portland — Powell’s; Seattle — Elliott Bay Books.
I have heard tell of neighborhoods in London and towns in Ireland where you cannot walk more than four blocks without coming upon the beckoning sign and window of a bookstore. Someday I will verify this rumor. In Washington, where I spend much time wandering about as a flaneur, I can record 12,000 steps on my Fitbit and not cross paths with one bookstore.
Last Saturday was national Independent Bookstore Day, so late in the morning I set out for Politics & Prose, one of the two pins dropped on my mental map of DC. Fifteen minutes on the metro, fifteen minutes walking down Connecticut Avenue, entrance past balloons marking the special day. The place was packed, which was heartening. My people. We were looking a bit old and saggy, but I tallied an encouraging number of young’uns, with their funny shoes and their inked and pierced flesh. The number of unread volumes in my Baltimore house now numbers in the low three figures; dozens of them are Library of America editions that each contain three or four novels, which means I am not in desperate need of something to read. That didn't prevent me from swiping my credit card to buy Richard McGuire’s Here or the Spring 2015 issue of Lapham’s Quarterly, “Swindle & Fraud.” The only reason I walked emptyhanded out of my other DC stop, Kramerbooks in Dupont Circle, is that they did not have Iris Owens’ After Claude, which I have resolved to buy whenever I next come upon it.
Now back home in Baltimore, I will get to all those words one of these days. For now, I glance up from these words, cast my eyes on the packed bookcase that fills one wall of my writing room, think about how I can pull out so many of those books and recall the cities and stores where I bought them, and I am happy.