Bookstores I Have Known


Henry L. Carrigan, Jr.

In his new memoir, Books, Larry McMurtry extols the pleasures of collecting books as well as mourning the closing of bookstores and the accumulation of computers in libraries that replace the books on shelves. “A bookman’s love of books is a love of books, not merely of the information in them,” he observes. He goes on, though, to point out: “Today the sight that discourages book people most is to walk into a public library and see computers where books used to be. In many cases not even the librarians want books to be there. What consumers want now is information, and information comes increasingly from computers . . .. Computers now literally drive out books from the place that should, by definition, be books’ own home: the library.”

Though McMurtry bemoans the displacement of library books by computers—I’ve witnessed this first-hand in my own work as a reference librarian; in the library where I worked, we started with six computers, but when we built a new addition to the library, we all of a sudden had twenty-five computers in a large room dedicated to the machines—much the same claims could be made about the demise of bookstores, especially independent bookstores. One of the greatest virtues about shopping in an independent bookstore is the pleasure you can derive from browsing from section to section and discovering books for which you’d never thought of looking. Computer “bookstores” rob us of that experience since you can’t “browse” them in any productive fashion. There’s certainly no serendipity in using Amazon or B&; you don’t direct your own search, but your search is directed for you by the site. (Those who bought this book also bought this book.) I don’t use these online booksellers, preferring to visit still my local bookseller to find books for which I’m searching. If I can’t find it at my local independent, I’ll visit a local used bookstore; if I can’t find it there, I’ll order it directly from the publisher or check it out from the library.

McMurtry’s comments set me to thinking about my favorite bookstores. I’ve visited numerous stores over the years and have spent plenty of money in all of these stores. I wanted to share a few of these stores with you so that perhaps if you’re ever in one of these cities, you might visit one of the stores and carry out an armload of books.

The Strand, New York City—The advertisements for this renowned bookstore proclaim “eighteen miles of books,” and I often wonder if it’s really more like fifty miles of books. A book lover’s dream, The Strand offers the quintessential book hunting experience. You can browse in the sidewalk bins for an hour before you even enter the store. Once you enter, you can literally spend an entire day among the towering shelves—the books are often double shelved on the shelves—loaded with fiction, art and art history, biographies, history, literary criticism, and science. In the front of the store, you can pick up bargains on new books; most of the books on the tables are half price. In the newly remodeled store, you can visit the third floor to shop for rare books. Once upon a time, not that long ago, you could spend several days at the bookstores that lined the streets and avenues below Union Square between Broadway and Fourth Avenue. You can still shop at Fourth Avenue books and Twelfth Street Books (which has a wonderful collection of art prints) in addition to The Strand. However, The Strand stands as the most powerful reminder of those halcyon days.

BookCulture, New York City—This bookstore, at 112th and Broadway, used to be called Labyrinth Books until the owners amicably went their separate ways. Don’t be fooled when you walk into the store; it looks as if the book-laden room into which you’ve wandered is all there is. Go up the stairs to find miles of shelves devoted to every subject. The philosophy section is one of the most complete in the city, and the fiction wraps around almost the entire second floor. Find your foreign language books here as well. You can find bargain books, too, though most of the books in here are new books. I did find Leon Edel’s classic five-volume biography of Henry James in a paperback version for five dollars. I always make a trip here when I’m in the city.

Davis-Kidd Booksellers, Nashville—I always loved this store because they used to have a section devoted to Southern literature. Regrettably, they’ve done away with that section in their move to a new and larger location; the Southern writers are now side-by-side with their international and their Yankee counterparts. Still, David-Kidd is a cozy bookseller where you can experience the reason for the existence of independent booksellers: knowledgeable book people and excitement about reading. There are always special events featuring local, regional and national authors, and you’re as likely to see Emmylou Harris shopping there as your next door neighbor. If you head to Davis-Kidd, be prepared to eat in the marvelous café (scrumptious red velvet cake) while leafing through your purchases.

The Happy Bookseller, Columbia, South Carolina—When I lived in Columbia, we did most of our shopping for books at the Belk’s department store downtown. Then, Richland Mall opened up and a little store called the Happy Bookseller opened its doors. Not long after, we moved from Columbia to Atlanta, where I soon discovered Oxford Books (now sadly departed). Yet, when I started dating a girl who attended the University of South Carolina, I made my way back to the Happy Bookseller on every trip. This store also had a section devoted to Southern authors, and I could count on browsing the section to discover writers with whom I was not already familiar. It was there I picked up my first William Price Fox book (was it Ruby Red or Moonshine Light, Moonshine Bright?), and discovered Louis Rubin’s fiction (I already knew his critical work). The store moved from a mall to a standalone location where they were able to expand their wares. Regrettably, it’s been about ten years since I’ve been in Columbia, and I’ve missed those happy days of browsing in that fine store.

Next week some more fond memories of bookstores I have known.

Henry Carrigan dreamed of being a rock ‘n roll star with a life of coast-to-coast tours and wild parties with Van Morrison and Joni Mitchell among others. But books intervened, and instead he went to Emory University to major in Religion and Literature. Later, teaching humanities in college, he took up writing about books—this time to avoid reading students’ papers. Henry soon became Library Journal's religion columnist, then religion book editor for Publishers Weekly. While working as editor-in-chief for Northwestern University Press and editing classic books for Paraclete Press, he still continues to write for LJ and PW, as well as the Washington Post Book World, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, the Cleveland Plain Dealer, the Charlotte Observer, ForeWord magazine—and now, BiblioBuffet. And he still enjoys playing his guitar. Contact Henry.



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