The first time I visited Powell's Books was in the mid-80's, at the end of a million mile drive. All road trips felt to me like water torture. This, no doubt, had something to do with the fact that my family's vacation conveyance was a malfunctioning beige minivan, containing six kids and two adults ? my mom, my brother, my sister and I usually vacationed with our best friends, another mom and her three daughters. This already heavy load combined with about seventy books (I was and still am paranoid about running out of reading material), a tape player for each child, but no headphones (hence cacophony and music-wars), all the clothing we could possibly imagine we might need for climates ranging from Siberia to Caribbean, and sometimes (ah, bliss!) a couple of small, nippy dogs.
In the back: anarchy. We turned the bench seats to face each other and spent the duration of the drive poking, kicking, biting, and singing repetitive songs. My brother was confined to a tortured two-inch corner, boy that he was. He was, for years, the only male in a car of seven fierce women. It says something about his strength that he has become an excellent and functional man. Given the awful conditions inside the car, my mom was always speeding, and we always got a ticket as we crossed from Idaho into Oregon. It was a tradition. This particular year, we were apprehended going 80 miles an hour, half a mile from our destination: the rest stop. I am quite sure the state trooper was not anticipating the desperate children bursting from the vehicle and sprinting down the highway. He was easy on my mom. She may have cried. She had good reason.
By the time we finally made it to Powell's, we were murderous, exhausted, and several of us were coming down with what later turned out to be whooping cough. Really. The fact that we continued driving says something about how badly my mom needed a vacation. It wasn't pretty. And we were on our way to the best bookstore in the universe. Lucky, lucky bookstore. We swarmed it, our infectious selves touching each and every book.
That Powell's forgives me for this (and for the fact that, shortly after I arrived in the store, I avalanched my way down a couple of aisles in search of Harriet the Spy, which I then stole three copies of, believing that the book was MINE and only mine) is testament to a great bookstore's understanding of the many visceral facets of book-appreciation. This moment was the beginning of a major love affair, one that predates my husband, my writing, and any other big love in my life. Books.
Now, it seems I owe some people an apology. For this: I love books too much. I love books so much that when I went to college, in NYC, I was dragging four, wheel-less suitcases full of them. Books are, to me, as good as the friends I've always had a hell of a time making. Books never get upset when you're flaky about calling. They never bite back. They let me paw them at any time of the day or night. They hang out on my shelves and give me joy. Sure, I don't like some of them, but there's something about the paper and the ink, the look of the words committed to print, that gets me going, no matter what the content of the book actually is. I love books. Unreservedly. I've never had a problem with my chosen love. Until now.
Since my memoir The Year of Yes came out, along with a lot of excellent emails telling Yes-stories, I've been getting some very angry messages. I was expecting people questioning my moral compass ? the book is about a year that I went out with everyone in NYC who asked me ? and yeah, there are some of those. Also a shocking number of complaints about my looks (or lack of looks, depending on the person complaining). A lot of my inbox, though, is full of people who are upset about the fact that the first chapter of my book has literary references in it. Apparently, you're allowed to love books, but only in secret. In a dark room with a flashlight. It's weird. Very weird. Being a reader, in these emails, is on par with being a serial killer, and my talking about it is like said serial killer publishing a book itemizing his conquests in graphic detail. This is a major bummer, in my opinion. There are so many wonderful books out there, and I haven't read nearly as many of them as I wish I had. Powell's alone has miles of aisles full of things I not only haven't read, I've never even heard of. I can think of no better way to spend the rest of forever. I wish I could invite all of the people who've been emailing. We could all pick our books, clear out a shelf, and curl up there for awhile. The wonderful thing about books ? even books you don't know, and didn't mean to meet ? is that they can change your life. It's the same deal with love, and given that that's the other thing The Year of Yes is about, for me, the two things are happily linked.
Powell's is still one of my favorite bookstores, which is saying something, given that I spend a good deal of my writing time procrastinating by lurking in various bookstore corners, grabbing up unwilling bookstore cats, sucking down double-boiled bookstore coffee, and browsing, browsing, browsing. Somehow, whenever I'm on deadline, I spend my time than in forsaken bookstore aisles, thumbing through...whatever. Out-of-print books about love affairs between writers long dead and little remembered. Books that teach you how to make mosaics out of beans. Novels I shouldn't have ever read, but did, because they fell off shelves into my hands.
Maybe I shouldn't say this, but if I could marry Powell's, I would. And maybe that's weird. Maybe it's a little creepy. But I bet a lot of people feel the same way about their bookstores. I'm thrilled that I live in a time where there are so many millions of books out there. Each one I read helps me understand my life a little bit more. And each one makes me fall deeper in love. I still have those stolen Harriet the Spy's. If they were taken from me, I might have to kill someone.
Tomorrow: Something shorter, lighter, and Valentine-ier...