Say! I like this intriguing book!
I do! I like it, take a look!
And I would read books in a boat.
And I would read them with a goat…
And I will read them, in the rain.
And in the dark. And on a train.
And in a car. And in a tree.
They are so good, so good, you see!
So I will read them in a box.
And I will read them with a fox.
And I will read them in a house.
And I will read them with a mouse.
And I will read them here and there.
Say! I will read them anywhere!
I do so like to read good books!
Join me, join me, take a look.
(With apologies to Dr. Seuss)
It’s lucky for me that someone had the idea to give herself the online moniker ‘book slut’ before I thought of it. It wouldn’t fit my teacherly imagine. But it’s a pretty good description. Better, though, that I imagine myself a character from Dr, Seuss, one who, when he finds out how great something is, he just can’t keep himself from it.
Books are that addiction for me. And because of this, I’m no purist about where I find them. If I have a sudden desire to have a book
immediately, I order it on Amazon. If I am shopping in a mall—a very rare occurrence as there’s little that I hate so much as shopping—I stop by the Barnes and Noble and pick up a book in order to make the trip worthwhile. I was a teacher librarian for over two decades, and it was convenient to put books on hold and have them come to me. I’m a big fan of audiobooks because I walk, sometimes for hours a day, and think that’s as good a time as any to be ‘reading.’ I like the narrators’ interpretations of the works. I like listening to poetry read by the author, an experience that I might not otherwise have had. So I have an Audible account.
But when it comes to finding a good book, landing my imagination in unmapped territory, my favorite place to buy is at an independent bookstore. The fact that I have to go out of my way to find one makes the experience feel purposeful, an anticipated pleasure. So I was saddened to read recently that a bookstore I have often gone out of my way to visit—Cellar Door Books in Riverside—had a children’s program disrupted by people who didn’t think it should have been taking place.
Independent bookstore visits can culminate in connections. I have two friends that live in Northern California, and we meet up once or twice a year. Often, we end up in Santa Cruz because—well, who doesn’t want to be in Santa Cruz? Before beginning our adventure, we always stop first at Bookshop Santa Cruz. I once had a wonderful conversation there with a stranger. I had just finished reading Haruki Murakami’s 1Q84 and was recommending it to my friend. She was deciding whether she should get the 900-page book in a single volume, or go for the box set of three paperback sections. (She got the box of paperback sections.) While I was telling her what a strange and wonderful book it was, a woman standing near us excused herself and said she had overheard our conversation. Did I like Murakami? Other than 1Q84, I had only read the much shorter Norwegian Wood. However, I knew he was famous for another very long work, The Wind-up Bird Chronicle. The woman pulled the book from the shelf. “If you liked 1Q84, you have to read it too.” She talked about her own experience with Wind-up Bird. I don’t remember what she said. It was her palpable passion for the work that made me add it to my purchases. An online recommendation for the tome wouldn’t have made me put it in my shopping cart.
I’m sorry that there’s no independent bookstore close to me. My sons are
grown and when they are visiting, we frequent the wonderful Claremont Forum Bookstore, which sells used books to raise money for the Prison Library Project. Since it’s located next to a number of restaurants, we always go book shopping there while we wait to be seated for dinner on busy evenings. And we always find something to buy. I usually try to find books that are out of print or whose author is deceased. Because, while I love supporting a good cause like the Prison Library Project, I also love supporting living authors—who almost never make a living wage from their writing. So buying their books new matters.
The independent bookstore I have the chance to visit most frequently these days—one where I can purchase new books and support their authors—is Cellar Door Books. I can’t really call it local. It’s thirty miles away and, on weekdays, the traffic between me and it is horrendous. But I find myself in Riverside periodically because I volunteer with the Inlandia Institute, a nonprofit that supports and promotes literary activity in the Inland Empire area of Southern California.
When I am nearby, I go over to Cellar Door to get a book. I’m not personally known to the staff. But every time I have been there, someone has helped me to find a worthwhile read. I’ve talked about the sort of books I like, about what I’ve read lately to give the bookseller an idea of my reading tastes. Sometimes they recommend something I’ve read, an experience that tells me they’re listening, that they are homing in on what I’m looking for. When I tell them why I liked the particular book they are recommending, the next recommendation is usually the one I go home with.
The recent tragic murder of eleven people in a synagogue in Pittsburgh brought to mind books I’d purchased last spring at a ‘think tank’ event I attended at Cellar Door. Authors Jo Scott Coe and Larry Behrendt were there in conversation about their books, respectively Mass: A Sniper, a Father, and A Priest and Sacred Dissonance.
Mass is about the 1966 University of Texas (Austin) mass murder, including the story of the murderer’s history of domestic abuse and Catholic upbringing. As a Catholic who left the church for the final time (it was a long, complex breakup) over the sexual abuse coverup, I wanted to hear the authors converse about it. I arrived early and bought Mass. The event began, and as the evening continued, I heard more about Sacred Dissonance. Behrendt wrote it with co-author Anthony Le Donne as a series of back and forth essays discussing the religious identities and cultural boundaries of Jews and Christians. The goal of the two authors was to provide a model for addressing the past and challenging the present. I realized I needed to purchase it as well.
Having the opportunity to thoughtfully engage with the ‘other’ is a way through thinking of people as just that. So it’s a shame that the event recently disrupted by a few community members was a drag queen story hour for children. (Here’s a quick report on what took place.) These are popular across the country, in both bookshops and libraries.
Before I was a teacher librarian, defending the right to stock edgy YA fiction, I was a high school English teacher. Every once in awhile, a parent would object to a class reading assignment. I had no problem with that as parents do make decisions for their children. I reasoned that it wasn’t the end of the world if a teen didn’t get to read The Catcher in the Rye. It was pretty much a good YA novel before YA was a thing, and so it appealed to teens. I wasn’t even big into making students read something like Fahrenheit 451 if their parents objected to a book—that was a bit too smug for me. Instead, I’d talk to the librarian about a similar book with no foul language (innocent days, those!).
What did surprise me, however, is that parents always objected to content they hadn’t read. My son can’t read The Crucible because it encourages witchcraft. My daughter can’t read [the Washington Irving short story] “The Devil and Tom Walker” because it’s Satanic.
Yeah—promoting Satan in the classroom is what got me up and out the door on those early mornings.
I often wondered if they might have had another opinion if they had perused
the work before making a judgment. When I heard about the disruption of the drag queen story hour, I wondered what the protesters would have thought if they had just sat down to quietly and respectfully listen.
Maybe they wouldn’t have changed their minds. To them, it was a moral issue. And like store owner Linda Sherman-Nurick, I agree that if they do object, they don’t have to come. It was the same with parents of my students—I didn’t mind if they wanted another book for their own child; it was when they started thinking that they could usurp the authority of other parents to raise their children and choose their books and experiences that we’d get into it.
So from experience, I know that books and discussions about them are worth fighting for, as is working to understand people in all their variety. Independent bookstores are integral to these experiences. I’m glad that Cellar Door will continue to have drag queen story hour. My kids are grown, but I might have to show up anyway.
Don’t go to an independent bookstore just because it’s a good thing to do. Go to treat yourself, to indulge more completely in your bibliophilia. Check the schedule and attend a special event, be a part of the community of literary conversation. If there is an independent bookstore close enough to you—lucky, lucky you!—join one of their book clubs and connect with other readers in deep discussion.
Yes, I’d read a book anywhere and with anyone—fox, goat, mouse, acquaintances, best friends, colleagues, drag queens. If a drag queen happens to enjoy the same book I do, that’s exactly the person I want to sit down and discuss it with.