Years ago, I stumbled across Helene Hanff’s 84, Charing Cross Road, a record of the correspondence between Helene, a snarky Manhattan writer, and Frank Doel, acquirer of rare editions at an antiquarian bookstore named Marks & Co., in England. I fell instantly in love: with Frank, Helene, and the dusty, jumbled bookstore, itself a tangible character in the story. The tale was later turned into a play and then a movie, starring Anne Bancroft and Anthony Hopkins, which is perfect to watch on a gray winter afternoon, under a cozy blanket with chocolate and coffee–and a cat or two.
Bookstores like that one, or the fictional Flourish and Blotts shop in the Harry Potter series, are now too often the settings in novels rather than addresses on a real map. I prefer old-school books with creaky spines and pages marked with notes in the margins over the shiny, precise Kindles and Nooks with pages that turn with an elegant swipe rather than a lick of the finger and a leftward toss. New is popular. Bookstores now have less tolerance for lingering over leathery used volumes. Covers must be eye-catching and colorful, the newest and freshest within a few steps of the entrance. After a few short weeks, the shelves are swept clean and their contents tossed onto the “clearance” pile, to make way for the even-newer to serve the waning attention span of the modern American.
The lure of the corner book store is irresistible. Whether it’s a cookie cutter chain store or a mysteries-only shop with a resident cat languidly posed across the Dick Francis shelf, the smell of print-on-page and the potential of all those uncracked spines is a siren’s call of temptation for people like me. The best bookstores have managed to maintain an atmosphere that caters to lovers of books, without too much peripheral merchandising. I’ve been in a few that I’d consider national treasures.
There’s the Tattered Cover in Denver, an enormous indie bookstore open for over 40 years. It has overstuffed chairs that beckon you to stay and read a chapter or two of a new or used volume. I discovered this piece of heaven in college. Sadly, they refused to let me use it as my dorm room.
I wandered for hours through Powell’s in Portland, Oregon, which takes up a city block and has a charming children’s section.
In my neck of the woods, co-owned by bestselling author Ann Patchett and publishing veteran Karen Hayes, Parnassus is nestled in a small corner in a bustling area of Nashville. It’s an independent jewel of a bookstore that hosts a steady stream of author events for its community of book lovers. Adding to its charm and personality, you likely will be greeted by one of many of the store’s shop dogs.
A friend recommended The Strand Bookstore on the corner of 12th and Broad in Manhattan. On a rainy day visit, I dashed inside and browsed clear through lunch, marveling at the rare titles and unique categories in the eclectic atmosphere. Good thing I had a subway ride back to the hotel, which limited the number of bags I could reasonably carry with me.
When we were first married, my husband and I haunted the famous Davis-Kidd Booksellers every weekend in Knoxville until it closed. It became our favorite date night. It was dangerously just down the street from our first apartment and it threatened to ruin us financially. Rent or books? Groceries or books? It’s not always as clear-cut as you might imagine!
The common denominator of these bookstore royalty is the personal connection they all strive for, whether they take up several stories on a city block, or they’re in a tight corner in an overlooked alleyway. It is so easy today to remain isolated, with books arriving at your doorstep via a credit card and mouse click. At bookstores like these, if you’re a regular, the staff knows your tastes and can recommend reads they know you’ll love. You can chat with other bibliophiles who rave about something they’ve just read because it’s just that good, not necessarily because it has the right ranking or the right reviewers. You can meet authors and tell them how their words changed you.
The antique booksellers at 84, Charing Cross Road have long gone, and the location has housed many things since; a wine shop, a restaurant, and currently a McDonald’s (blasphemy)! Fortunately, the truth of the story remains. The impact a simple bookstore and its gentle owners can have on a person runs deep, spanning decades and continents. In a letter to her friend in 1969, Helene wrote: “If you happen to pass by 84, Charing Cross Road, kiss it for me! I owe it that much.” I know the feeling.