Sunday, January 15, 2012

Book Shop in a Bathroom?

"I Need Some Privacy, I'm Reading"

I'm not even quite sure where to begin with this one. Not too long ago, I was visiting a local bookshop in my hometown, and went up to the second floor of the shop. The religion, philosophy, and biographies are held on the second floor. But there's also a section on science and history. I'd never paid much attention to the little old room at the end of the hall. Yet, for some reason, on one visit to the shop, I saw a sign that read "more books" with an arrow pointing down the hall. So I followed the sign. To my great surprise, I noticed that there was a sink and a shower in the room full of bookshelves. I guess I thought it was something simply out of use--a repurposed room. But then I realized, it was just plain quirky! When I went over to the sink, I noticed that there were personal effects on the counter around the sink, including a shaving brush, a razor, toothpaste, and a prescription mouthwash! It turns out that this was actually the bathroom of the owner--not in use during store hours, obviously!

The room adjacent to the bathroom with the shower and sink actually is a little toilet room. And you can see from the photos that it's a real toilet. I was tempted to flush it and see if it worked. I'm pretty sure it did. I mean, there were razors and toothpaste that seemed to be recently why not this toilet? I've seen some pretty interesting and creative uses of spaces in my day, but this is perhaps the most curious and ingenious (if you want to call it that!) It does prompt one to consider the boundaries of private and public, of the personalized home space and that of what your clients see. Though I find this to be a great little shop--O.U.R. it is called (as in "Old, Used, Rare")--I'm still scratching my head at the anomalous nature of this place, though. It has beautifully crafted shelves, and a broad and intelligent selection of books. But selling books in your bathroom? That's a wholly other level of thinking--one which I'm not sure I'm prepared to encounter! Imagine going to your bakery and having the table double as a bed? Or going into the hardware store and having a kitchen behind the shovel rack? I'll leave you with these delightful and magical photographs...for your bibliographic consumption!

Rural Book Shops: Johnstown, NY

Just Passing By (Buy?)

Every so often I'll be driving in some rural or far off locale and pass by something that seems a bit out of place. Now this isn't to say that rural-ness should mean a lack of books or bookstores, but that sometimes you just don't expect to see certain things. This was the experience I had a couple months ago, while I was driving out near Utica, NY--just to the north and east of there. I was in the little town of Johnstown, and as I drove through town, it became clear that this little place once had a fairly vibrant (if I can call it such) book-culture. Perhaps vibrant for a quiet locality in the southern foothills of the Adirondack mountains. It was unusual to find not one, but two book shops in such a small town. Sadly, though, this first little storefront was closed up. It had been called "Buythebook." The other shop, which was still open and only a block away was called "Mysteries on Main St." I'm glad to see that at least one book shop survives, especially in these hard economic times here.

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Book Shops on a Maine Highway--Route 1

"Book" is the new "Silk"

Of course we're all familiar with the famed and legendary "Silk Road," but perhaps less familiar with the not-so-famous or legendary "Book Road." Then again, this road may be famous inside the state of Maine, but not outside. Nonetheless, even if the locals have not officially named Route 1 along the state's coast "Book Road," I will give it that distinction. The interesting thing about this road is that it goes through some very pretty country, but is still in some parts rather rural. Yet, it has developed a book culture along its thoroughfares. Here is why this is interesting, and why I think some sociological speculation must come into play here for a few moments: in all of my travels around this country, I've rarely--if ever--seen a stretch of highway that boasted so many book shops or book sellers as Route 1. So what could be the reason?

Background: Once again, I was out driving back from a trip this summer, when I came through Bar Harbor. My schedule was tight and I was attempting to get back to NY within the course of one day (which, by the way, such a trip is a bit of a hike, and ended up taking me nearly 12 hours.) So pulling out of Bar Harbor and heading southwest on Route 1, I drove down the highway and passed through some lovely little old towns and villages. But every so often I would pass by a sign that read "books." And here is where the biggest irony or paradox came--here I am, the great book lover and searcher of off-the-beaten path book shops, and because of my crunched schedule, I couldn't stop at almost any! But it's no problem, because a) I can always go back, and in fact, make a trip of just that "book trail," and b) I have too many books as it is!--oh, and c) I'm a librarian for goodness sake!--what do I need more books for!?

Okay, so back onto Route 1: it's a splendid road, with some great views, especially the architecturally fabulous bridge near Fort Knox State Park, in Bucksport, ME. As I drive onward, with my nose and stomach fixed on finding "Maine's Biggest Lobster Role," which each successive road side shack and seafood restaurant was boasting, I began to realize that there weren't just "a few little bookshops" along Route 1--there were legions of them! Something wasn't quite right here...or maybe it was TOO right! I was both surprised and delighted to find this new "book highway" (perhaps the old fashioned version of the "information superhighway," except this was Route 1, and the houses and Queen-Anne's Lace were nicer than the internet.) This "bookway" then had me thinking--why on earth are there so many book shops here? Usually there'd be lots of antique shops, but book shops?

I then realized that the answer might just be found in looking at the demographics of the area--what is Maine, after all, especially in the summer and on the coast...but a tourist destination for New Englanders, especially Bostonians.

To explain this phenomenon a bit further, let me go back to some of my earlier bookish peregrinations. A few years ago, I was living in Chicago, and decided to visit Macinac Island (pronounced "MACK-in-aw") in northern Michigan. The distance between Chicago and northern Michigan is quite long--about 400 miles on the highways (one way!), and about 450 on the back roads, especially those along the western shores of the state overlooking Lake Michigan. Of course, on the way up, I took those back roads, mostly Route 31 north to Traverse City. The curious observation I made on this trip through Michigan, up to Macninac, was in the antique and book shops that I visited.

There were several antique shops, which I certainly found interesting, but also some curious book shops (one of the best was in a tool shed, off some side road, that I found while driving back to Chicago--and I bought a reasonably priced copy of Capote's "In Cold Blood" for ~$3). The thing I found odd about all of the book shops I visited in western Michigan was that a) the quality of books was rather low or average--and by "low or average," I mean the books were either romance novels or run-of-the-mill pulp, fiction and self-help books. Almost nothing in classic literature, no best sellers in non-fiction, or anything that gave a hint of the odd, the interesting, or even the foreign. There were no books in other languages or even translated from other languages. It was mostly bland fare. Now the other thing b) was that many of these books were way, way if the dealers and book shop owners thought their books (especially old books) had some intrinsic value based on their antiquity--even with mold and other things growing on them!

I would have thought this a fluke, to be seen at just one antique shop with its book stalls. But as the trip through Michigan went on, I consistently found that book stalls in antique shops and book stores were all pricing their books very, very high. I remember finding some grimy and stained old volumes of some Churchill histories running for near $30 a volume! And they weren't even close to half that in actual value. Perhaps the best part of the biblio-adventure was the discovery of a book sale at the public library located on the quaint and old fashioned, but rather well-to-do Mackinac Island. The residents, presumably of some means, as well as the visitors, some of whom shell out more than $600 a night to stay at the island's more posh hotels, would also have some interesting reading tastes, that might reflect their stations in life. Curiously, again, though there were some better books to be found in the Mackinac library--I bought McCullough's "Truman" (a beastly size, but good read) and Galsworthy's "Forsyte Saga" for mere change...probably a couple of dollars--the interesting thing was that the majority of the books I found were not exceptional or out-of-the-ordinary. It was more of a "Nora Roberts Library." Nothing against Nora Roberts, of course. I think the tone, though, was "power suits, in--Pickwick, out."

After that great Macinac trip, I thought for a long time about this: how come the quality of the books was so "average?" Perhaps the only other great find on that trip was at another library book sale. I don't remember the town that it was in, but I do remember that the best book at the sale--probably containing a few thousand books on its sale tables--was a Jane Smiley novel! (And I bought it!) Back to Maine, now. Driving down Route 1, and suddenly realizing the proliferation of book shops on this highway made me think back to that Michigan trip. But my thoughts about Michigan and about Route 1 in Maine were thoughts of contrast. Back in Michigan, the western shores of the state are, for many, a getaway from both Chicago and Detroit--and probably some other large midwestern cities. Many of those who go to these places are wealthy, or have to be, in order to afford some of the magnificent waterfront homes and condos that line the shores. In short, people come here to "chill out" and "relax," and not necessarily to read. But does that explain it completely?

Not really. I think it goes back to the locations of these places, and the culture of reading that exists in these two locales. Maine is and has traditionally been a place of refuge for New Englanders and Bostonians, groups who have a long history of intellectualism, historical memory, and family lineages. I'm sure there is more to it than simply these three things, but that academic culture seems to carry itself north in the summer. If you have droves of professors and university-level professionals running to the craggy banks of the Atlantic coast in Maine each year, they are bound to be carrying the newest, best, most classic texts with them, but also wanting to leave some behind, as well as find a few more books to read. And since Route 1 is "the" road of access to many of the greatest ocean vistas and summer rentals, it only makes sense that a culture of reading, books, book shops, and well-funded public libraries would emerge, grow, be fostered, and prosper in these hills leading to the sea.

The midwest's history is not as old in these fact New England has a good 200 year lead. And the culture is noticeably different when we look at book shops and libraries, what they carry, hold, sell... . These places are microcosms of the towns, states, and regions they are in. If you ever want to see if a place is a good fit for you to live, check out the libraries and book stores. I guarantee that you'll get a better sense of the place once you've visited one.

New Brunswick Library, Books--And the Longest Covered Bridge in the World

Books and a Really Long Bridge!

On a drive last summer through the wilds of New Brunswick, I happened to read a sign that said "World's Longest Covered Bridge." Of course, how could I resist this!? Finding my way through some small Canadian towns and back country roads, following signs that read "Bridge This Way!"...I eventually came down to a river crossing and the one-lane covered bridge, which spanned it.
The bridge is found in the town of Hartland, NB, and crosses the Saint John River. In order to cross the river (and go through/over the bridge!) you need to wait for a light, because it is only one lane. You must turn your lights on and cruise across the rickety structure for more than 1,200 feet! It is surely an experience not to be forgotten. On the opposite side, there is a visitor center, which is packed with regional information, moose, hockey, and maple leaf trinkets (like magnets, shot glasses, and bottle openers), and bottles of maple syrup. There are also lots of tourists...and a fair number of books for sale on regional interests--cooking, local history, and ghost stories. I bought a book on the history of the bridge and some books on New Brunswick place names and their origins.

On the opposite side of the road, just a few hundred yards from the tourist shop, there was a grand old building that had been turned into a library-- the Dr. Walter Chestnut Public Library. It wasn't open, but I did take a few photos of it. I'd say that this was a good find--out in search of the world's longest covered bridge, I was able to buy a few regional books (one of my favorite activities), stock up on surely needed maple sweets for the drive, and photograph a stately old building-turned-public library (which even had a clock in its tower!) What more could I have asked for?