1) The chain store in the mall
My first real job was at a chain bookstore in the suburban mall five miles from where I grew up. On the one hand, it was a cramped, overlit little box shoehorned between a McDonald’s and a card shop with few titles beyond the bestseller lists, lots of activity books I didn’t feel should count, and no one who could recommend the perfect book based on the last one you loved or point you towards anything other than what you had come in for in the first place. On the other hand, we had two such bookstores in our mall, bookstores to browse and kill time in while our parents shopped for boring stuff in other stores, bookstores to push us towards life out there in the rest of the world. Two. It’s been 25 years since that was true.
Everyone I knew worked at the mall. I felt very smug at how much better my after-school job was than working at Boardwalk Fries or Spencer Gifts. I got to work with books! While I stocked shelves, I could read their flaps and back covers, consider their obscure epigraphs and dedications, contemplate their titles, smell their pages. While I stocked shelves, I could fantasize about my own someday-book, the possibilities for its cover and title and scent, the high school employees who would be stocking (and maybe smelling) copies of it on bookstore shelves across the country. Plus I got a discount!
Soon I learned the peril of the bookstore discount. That job cost me a fortune.
2) Borders in the city
And that’s all I knew of bookstores. When we went into the city for the day, we went for museums or shows, not shopping. I hadn’t been to London yet. The Internet barely existed. Then a Borders opened about half an hour from me. It was bigger than my mall bookstore by a couple orders of magnitude. It had two floors. The breadth and variety of books available, the diversity, the sheer number of them, the gorgeous ways they were laid out, the intriguing logic to their shelving, the tables of new books I might be interested in (I was!), the tables of books I might have overlooked (I had!) thrilled me. The place became a pilgrimage. Farther than I was allowed to drive alone with my new license, I went rarely, but my mother liked the bakery next door, so it became a place I got to go when there was a special occasion for which a cake was required, and I came to associate it in my mind with the occasion itself — a shopping trip so special to a store so magical it warranted celebration.
3) Amazon on the Web and on the street
And then there was Amazon. In Amazon’s early days, it did not sell everything. It sold books. It billed itself as “Earth’s biggest bookstore.” Amazon had a warehouse 15 minutes away from where I was getting a graduate degree in literature. This somehow felt like fate. Once, when my mother was up visiting me, we found ourselves driving past the warehouse. We pulled over, our bookish imaginations already tripping through the splendor we’d been promised: the biggest bookstore on Earth. We parked and walked into a plain, uninspired lobby. A receptionist sat at a desk. There was not a single book in sight. Our faces fell. But surely…
Hi. Um. Do you have, like, a showroom or something?
[Long pause during which she looks at me like I am Earth’s biggest idiot
] You mean like a bookstore?
[Face lighting up
] Yes! Like a bookstore!
[Another long pause to give the magnitude of my stupidity time to sink in
] Have you tried… a bookstore?
(Side note to snotty receptionist: Haha, so the idea of Amazon also operating a showroom/bricks-and-mortar store didn’t prove that absurd after all, did it? Joke’s on you!) (Wait, no, me. Joke’s still on me. Dammit!)
Amazon used to send its software engineers to its book warehouses in December to work in-house during the holiday rush to do…whatever it is software engineers do in book warehouses. My husband-to-be was one of those warehouse-staffing software engineers, which is how we met. He was also a friend of some friends, so Amazon doesn’t get all the credit. But still.
4) Powell’s on Burnside
The first time I ever visited Powell’s, it felt like coming home. I wonder for how many millions of untold readers that is true. I had read in my guidebook that it was a large and wondrous bookstore, but I was not remotely prepared for what that meant: The rooms that spill into other rooms that spill into yet more rooms. The way all that wood conspires to hold all that paper, how the shelves are rough-hewn enough to remind you of the trees they lately were but worn smooth enough to offer up a book, also lately a tree. The way you must, but must, pick up and turn over and explore this one. No, this one. No, this. This too. This one as well. How you stagger around with more books than you can carry, more books than you can read anytime soon, certainly more than will fit in your luggage, and yet this room becomes another and you have to explore that one too. It felt, that first time, something like Narnia, like I’d opened a door into some kind of limitless, vast magic too big for even the enormous walls that encased it. My home, of course, is not some kind of limitless, vast magic, so the homecoming Powell’s conjured must have been a different sort, better.
It was the perfect bookstore. Except that it was across the country.
5) The many indie bookstores of Seattle (because I could not possibly pick just one and am blessed not to have to)
My first morning in Seattle, there to visit said aforementioned software engineer, we joined an hour-long waitlist for brunch and spent it wandering around the bookstore next door. A woman came up to me and said, “Where would you keep the Shakespeare?”
Where indeed? “Well that’s an interesting question.” I plunged in amiably. “Sometimes Shakespeare gets his own section, so there’s that possibility. You could keep him with the plays, though then the sonnets would have to go separately in poetry. You could put it in classics, of course, if there’s a classics section. Sometimes they call that ‘literature,’ though sometimes ‘literature’ just means ‘fiction,’ and sometimes ‘classics’ is code for much older texts that—”
“I’m sorry,” the woman interrupted, “do you work here?”
I clarified that I did not. She apologized for her mistake and I for mine (I’d assumed this was just the sort of thing that happened in bookstores this lovely, people asking idle literary questions of one another just to be friendly). The woman invited me and the software engineer to a party she was having on her houseboat at which she was planning to have her guests do plays. So I decided to move to Seattle, this magical city where there was a perfect quirky bookstore right next to where you were waiting for brunch anyway in which someone might well pose interesting Shakespearean queries, even by accident, and then invite you to a play-reading party on a boat.
I later learned that these wonderful indie bookstores — all sunlight and worn rugs and tucked-away reading chairs or else full of comfortable, dark corners with good lamps in which to sit and read and wait out the rain, stocked with exactly what you came in for plus a dozen wonderful books you didn’t know you needed but do, welcoming and lovingly curated by warm, kind, intelligent people I want to be around — are all over Seattle. And later still, I learned how rare and lucky that is.
Bookstores widened my suburban horizons, revealed to me my passion and my dream job, introduced me to my husband, showed me, over and over, my place in the world, and made that world a better place. Surely it is common among readers and writers to be able to trace so much of our lives through bookstores, and if only for that reason — though there are many, many others — it seems awfully important to keep them around.
÷ ÷ ÷
is the author of the novels This Is How It Always Is
, The Atlas of Love
, and Goodbye for Now
. She lives in Seattle with her family.