Sunday, September 6, 2009

Five of My Favorite Bookstores (in no particular order)

One of my favorite activities is going to used or independent bookstores. It is a different experience than going to a library or a chain, like Barnes and Noble. Although I love the library, I usually go there with a set agenda; to do some reading, writing, and research. So I mostly spend a lot of time looking up books on their computers and reading through them in a library carrel. Unfortunately, I don't roam the stacks that often (mostly of the way the books are organized). When I go to a big chain, like Barnes and Noble, it is usually to find a new release or a last-minute present. But going to a used or independent bookstore is very different.

I like going to used and independent bookstores because of all of the possibilities they bring. You never know what you are going to find, who you might end up talking to, or what books will catch your attention (because books are not organized like they are in the library). At used and independent bookstores you can spend hours combing through the stacks and finding books that you have always wanted and never purchased. Or you can find books that you never thought of buying but because they are affordable (mostly in used) you have decided to buy one or two. Also, despite being crammed full of books, most used and independent bookstores look and feel different (while most Barnes and Noble look the same and carry the same books). Some bookstores take on the personality of the community (like the Raven, which has a large communist/socialist section), while others feel like the bookstore owner's home. Below is a list of my favorite bookstores. Some of the stores carry a lot of books, while others are rather small. I think I like them so much because of the different experiences I have had with each of them.

The Book Barn
Location: Niantic, CT
Type: Used

I lived in Connecticut for two years (while I attended school at the University of Connecticut) and I can honestly say that I do not like the state of Connecticut. If you like to live in a place that does not have a lot of sidewalks, specializes in shopping plazas and corporate universities, and raises some of the snobbiest people that I have ever encountered – then you will love Connecticut. I am still baffled how Connecticut can be the richest state in the union and have a crappy capital and some of the worst schools I have ever seen. Nevertheless, there are a few good “things” in Connecticut: Pepe’s Pizzeria in New Haven (the Manchester one is not as good), the New Britain Rock Cats, and the Book Barn in Niantic.

The first time I went to the Book Barn was with my mentor from the University of Connecticut. I was feeling pretty depressed about my life. (I remember feeling particularly low about being in the History program at UConn and really rethinking the relationship I was in. I think I was considering making a major change in my life.) My mentor had thrown out the idea of going to the Book Barn. Although I love bookstores, I wasn't too keen on the idea. It was a long drive and a rainy day. I think that I thought I would rather mope around my apartment all day, watch bad television, get drunk, and make a bad decision. (I didn't necessarily want to be in a good mood.) Thankfully, he talked me into going. The drive ended up being pretty and the Book Barn was incredible. The Book Barn is actually what it sounds like. It has six barns or buildings filled with over 350,000 books. I spent hours looking through the fiction and Russian History section. My mentor and I had to make a trip to his car halfway through because I was carrying too many books. I remember that I had purchased the Selected Writings of Alexandra Kollontai, Vera Figner's Memoirs of a Revoluntionist, and Barbara Clements' Bolshevik Women. I returned to my apartment, in Willington, refreshed and ready to write about Louise Bryant.

Although one of the most attractive features of the Book Barn is the amount of books a bibliophile can find there; this place also has a great atmosphere -- there are kids roaming around with their parents, free coffee, kittens lounging around, and a staff who will chat with you about the books you are thinking about purchasing. I highly recommend taking the drive and spending an afternoon out there. It's even nice when you are not sad!

Strand Bookstore
Location: Multiple, NYC
Type: Independent (Used, Rare, and New)

While I attended Pace University in downtown New York, I lived on John Street. In order to get to my classes or the subway, I would walk by the Strand. I never walked in, though. In fact, even though I loved to read, I wasn’t into buying books at this time. I spent most of my Pace days drinking, sleeping, and occasionally working (and not on schoolwork but various part-time jobs). It wasn’t until after I dropped out of school that I wandered into the store looking for a new book to read on the subway. My first time in there I spent about three hours in the store and left with three Jane Austen books. I loved the store so much that I bought a tote, which eventually fell apart from wear and tear. Buying cheap books from the Strand made me realize that I did want to pursue a degree. So even though I have received a lot of flack for liking this family-owned chain store, I can’t help but love the Strand. It has been in business for 80 years for a reason!

Raven Used Books
Location: Northampton, MA
Type: Used

Although this bookstore is smaller than the Book Barn or Strand, it has one of the best book selections I have seen. It is located in Northampton and benefits from the five college community system in Western Massachusetts, therefore it is not a “scavenger hunt” or a “lucky find” to purchase academic and scholarly works. I have found works by Orlando Figes, Stephen Kotkin, and other prominent historians. I am always lingering in their communist/socialist literature section. They also have a great selection of poetry and other pieces of fiction. I cannot remember the first time I went into this store, I just know I always want to go there when I am in Northampton.

Another attractive part of going to the Raven is that it is not in a desolate location; you are surrounded by other bookstores, a variety of yummy foods, used CD stores, and lots of coffee houses.

St. Mark’s Bookshop
Location: New York, NY
Type: Independent

I have already written a little about St. Mark’s Bookshop. There are many reasons I have included it on this list: a great selection of books (including a section of authors whose works are repeatedly stolen), it is a nice space (it is not crammed with books, has high ceilings, good lighting, etc.), they are open until midnight, and it is located in one of my favorite places in New York. I still have to find the courage to go to one of their poetry readings!

Paul’s Bookstore
Location: Madison, WI
Type: Used
This place does not have a website.
I have no pictures of it either.

A couple of summers ago I spent five to six weeks in Madison, Wisconsin. I was living off my fellowship money, doing some research, and visiting a friend. It was the first summer (before now) that I did not work. I did, however, get up early everyday, take lots of walks, read at least one hundred pages, write for at least one hour, and hang out in Madison. It was one of my best summers. While walking around Madison I wondered into Paul’s Bookstore. This is a classic used bookstore; it smells like a used bookstore. I found some great selections of Margaret Atwood and a rare Agatha Christie that I had been searching for (hardcover!). The people working there are very friendly and love to talk to you about their store. If you are ever in the great city of Madison (and I am not kidding, Madison is one of my favorite cities and I would love to live there) then you should stop in.

Honorable Mention:

Troubadour Books in North Hatfield, MA
(no website)
This is an out-of-the-way place that looks like an abandoned gas station. I think I passed it twice the first time I was looking for it. The place is a mess; books are everywhere (crammed in every imaginable place on the shelves, piled on the floor, and some are left permanently packed in open boxes) so it is kind of a scavenger hunt. However, they really do have a great selection of books and the owner is really cool (and from what I can tell only listens to NPR). The owner will knock down the prices on your books once you are at the register. You don't have to haggle; it is just how he does business there.

These are the bookstores that I always return to and recommend. Each time I have gone, I have ended up leaving with books I never thought I would find. I have also had interesting conversations with either the owners, workers, or customers about books. As more and more bookstores close, I fear that we are loosing something that I cannot quite articulate but I know is valuable.