Going on book tour means a lot of time dropping by the mega-chains to sign stock, all of them a blur of sameness, cavernous spaces where books seem almost like afterthoughts to the business of selling lattes, magazines and movies we've already seen.
But I've also been to many independent stores, among them the legends like Book Soup in Los Angeles and the sweet upstarts, like the charming Queen Anne Books in Seattle. In these places, I explored rather than searched, and felt myself growing almost physically rounder as I did so, filling with possibilities for the mind.
Always, though, there were reminders of the realities of the business. I spent more than an hour in the magnificent children's section at Seattle's Elliott Bay Books, half listening to a grandmother reading books to her granddaughter. Based on their clothing and the woman's cell phone discussions of dinner reservations, they were far from a poor family. But as they were leaving, the girl asked if they could buy one of the books. "I'll get it somewhere else," the grandmother told her. "Somewhere cheaper." She's the kind of shopper who came to mind a few hours later when I heard that Cody's Books, one of the most important independent bookstores in the Bay Area ? where I live ? was closing its doors for good after 52 years in the business.
Visiting Powell's this morning was a welcome tonic, then. It's the granddaddy and grandson of them all in a way: a place so thriving and sprawling it seems it has to have a future. I joined throngs of happily dazed shoppers who looked as if they were touring a Louvre where they were allowed, for a small fee, to take home the art. While I browsed, I thought about a quote from Dorothy Sayers that I'd picked up somewhere in my travels, most likely at the sweetly pretentious hipster hotel where I am staying in Portland, a block away from Powell's:
"Books are like lobster shells, we surround ourselves with 'em, then we grow out of 'em and leave them behind, as evidence of our earlier stages of development."
Now, Lord Peter Wimsey was one of my first great crushes (Busman's Holiday, when he and Harriet get married? Fabulous), so far be it for me to disrespect Sayer. I know she's right about them representing the earlier stages of our development. In bookstores I often visit books I don't need as some people might visit old friends (which means I can report that Powell's has a dazzling array of Arthur Ransome's Swallow and Amazon series). But the leaving behind part, I'm not that good at. Does having boxes of them in your garage rather than your apartment count?
I looked for my own book, for its Tiffany blue cover, the one that I imagine the clever marketing team at HarperCollins thought would say 'Let me be tasteful and winning on your bedside table!' (I hope it at least bleats, 'Read me while you're at it.') I signed all the copies of Accidentally on Purpose Powell's had and wished it well. And then I went upstairs to see if I could find my dead father. If anyone had him, it would be Powell's.
Edward Pols was a philosopher, a professor at Bowdoin College in Maine. He wrote dense philosophical studies, toiling over them as if they'd have an audience of millions, rather than the perhaps hundreds who would actually be able to make heads or tails of them. (I cannot count myself among those hundreds.)
Under the shelves of Plato, Powell's had his book Radical Realism, published by Cornell University Press in 1992. Slim but daunting. Although I have this book at home in California, I still picked it up in Oregon and read the introduction, a recollection by my father of a simple moment from college that set him off on a course of thought that endured six decades later.
He was there on that page, a lobster shell still too big for me to crawl out of, and I wiped furtive tears from my face. But I was thrilled to know that he is at Powell's, waiting for someone. I understand what Sayers was saying about us growing out of books as individuals. I just hope her words will never be applied to us as a society. And I wish that that woman at Elliott Bay had bought her granddaughter a damn book. Wasn't the selection worth that extra $4 to her? The setting? The chair she occupied for close to an hour? It is a privilege to be in a great bookstore, either in print or in person.