Monday, July 07, 2008

Remembrances of Bookstores Past

I remember great bookstores like lost relatives. A recent entry on this blog reminded me of the lamentably-gone College Hill Bookstore in Providence, Rhode Island and that has led me to consider the loss of some other wonderful book stores.

Only this spring, Los Angeles saw the closing of Dutton's in Brentwood. Appalling. This was a lovely store with a courtyard and a coffee shop, thoroughly independent with a loyal following. Authors read from all sorts of works there. It was a place of literature, fantasy, argument, and strong coffee. A place where an eighteen-year old selling cappucino exhorted the virtues of a novel she was reading, and one saw other young people flipping through the latest Brick or scribbling furiously in journals. More than once, I encountered Dustin Hoffman roaming through the aisles. The first time I spotted him, he actually announced himself by carrying on a rather loud cell phone conversation as he moved through the store and out onto San Vicente Boulevard.
The store closed heavily in debt as rents have gone up all over Los Angeles and developers have eyed the property on which the store sat. Even so, the concensus is that this is a big loss to the neighborhood and the city.

I leave Los Angeles praying for the continued existence of Skylight Books in Los Feliz. I will miss few things about Los Angeles but browsing at Skylight is one of them. The book store was actually owned and operated by a cat who lived at the store and often curled up with people who sat down and read books there. (The cat passed away last year. It made the local news.) Skylight Books is also where I got to meet Jonathan Winters, a day I will not forget even if it was brief and even if Winters was a bit tired and cranky. (I have spoken with celebrities and political leaders, I have met cardinals and princes; with Jonathan Winters, I turned into a shy eight-year old.)

My original days as a book crawler were in Providence, which has been home to many fine book stores past and present. The College Hill Book Store was a wonderful independent shop sitting on Thayer Street, an east-side thoroughfare that used to be a bit funky. There were bars and independent businesses there. Two music stores, Tom's Tracks and In Your Ear, were iconic places in the 1980's. Sometimes there were fights on the street. If you were prowling late at night, you could get something to eat at the IHOP. There was also an art cinema, the Avon, and a few good places to eat. Much of these independent businesses held on for a long time but have succumbed to high rents, and Thayer Street is now a place of chain stores. Starbucks, the Gap, Johnny Rockets.

College Hill is a place where I browsed and ordered books. It is a place where, at sixteen or seventeen, I flirted hopelessly with a girl who worked the counter part-time. I watched for her and when she commented that she liked my beret (I wore a black beret in those days - oh dear, it is the truth) I bought her one of her own and left it for her as a present.

In the Fox Point neighborhood, I used to visit Seward's Folly, a lovely catastrophe of a book store on Meeting Street. The owner was an elderly bearded man who told me he briefly worked as a speechwriter for the Truman administration. He was erudite on any number of topics and was often engaged in political debate with someone when I visited. (I have a distinct memory of a local politician wrestling with him and being outgunned.) The books were not exactly in meticulous order, so it was a place for determined browsers. The place was packed in and positively reeked of booksmell - yellowing paper and bindings, literature going out of print and fading out of memory, gems waiting to appear in the middle of a stack.

Seward's Folly had to struggle for its existence a while with a nearby video store, which wanted to expand and was bidding hard for the Seward's shop. The video store, a local favorite, finally won and Seward's Folly was out.

Merlin's Closet was another Providence book store that is close to my heart. It changed neighborhoods a few times, but the location I remember best was on South Water Street, near the Rhode Island School of Design and the Providence River. The proprietor, Elliot Shorter, was best known as a folk singer who busked around Providence and often played a set at the Cable Car Cinema before the movie got started. (Imagine - live entertainment before your movie. ) Elliot is a large black man, a veteran, and a staunch Republican interested in the occult. He is still around but in failing health, an old friend of our family and a vivid part of my childhood (he sat in our home and sang songs to make me laugh - he showed me my first chords on a guitar.) He loved his books so much, he tended to overprice them so as not to part with them too quickly. This was terrible for business, but books were his family. I understand. Merlin's Closet was not a place I bought many books, but I could get lost there for hours admiring the strange collection he had assembled.

Thank goodness, some of Providence's great book shops remain. Cellar Stories is still on Mathewson Street (and online). Mike, the owner, opened the first bookstore cafe in Providence, near Wayland Square. Some time after Mike left that place behind, it became Myopic Books and Myopic still serves that neighborhood. Brown University still runs a decent book store on Thayer Street, and I was rather pleased with a recent arrival, Symposium Books on downtown's Westminster Street. Small, this one, not a place to sit down and read for a while, but it has an interesting selection, and a coffee shop conveniently opened on the corner.

Bookstores are up against enormous challenges - internet sales, climbing rents, rumors of declining readership (or even declining literacy) - yet people like them. Again, I remember lost book stores like members of family who have gone, and for comfort I look to the ones who remain, welcoming me and showing me new things.


Adam said...

Hey,don't forget Accident Or Design bookstore! It was one of the finest arts bookstores around, with lots of great books...

Algernon said...

I remember it fondly. There are others, as well, but the post is already a bit too long. I wonder what Frank Difficult is up to these days - and Joan, too...?

Kelly said...

I find bookstores of any type to be magical, even the big chain stores like Barnes & Noble (the closest of which is more than 100 miles away).

We do have one charming little independent store on our town square, but their prices just can't compete with the online stores. I've been an Amazon customer for more years than I can remember!

Darlene said...

good god(s) in heaven, dutton's is gone? oh algernon, is the world coming to an end?

you must visit old world books on the boardwalk before you leave la! and, have a margarita while you're there.

as for brown, they did not have ONE of the ken wilbur books i went in for. nope, not ONE. brown is not all that.

Adam said...

You missed a great bookstore in Providence that has since closed-- Atlas Books, which was near the Ben & Jerry's off of Thayer Street. It was an artist-run cool bookstore, but prices were a little high, and the rent was very high. The cool and tattoo factor

There's a new bookstore in Providence that I like very much run by a guy and his wife:

Ada Books--

He's got some great books, very laid back, and it's on Dean Street.

Lance Roger Axt said...

Hearing about what's become of Thayer Street, it makes me pine for Providence during the Trinity years. Don't know how I'd feel about it now.

But what's happening to Thayer, the indie bookstores, theatre companies (you did hear that Theatre de la Juene Lune is closing up shop) is just the tip of the iceberg as big business and gentrification and everything related is swept away by big business. I remember College Hill fondly - that's where I purchased my first Neil Gaiman novel.

Thankfully, there are a few stores left - Kepler's in Menlo Park, thank God - but Berkeley just lost the legendary Cody's, which was an institution in the 50's and the politically-charged Berserkely of the 60's. Here on the Central Coast, with the loss of the Thunderbird, all that's left is the Works in Pacific Grove.

Personally, I would rather deal with indie bookstores than big box chains. You can order the same stuff! And let us not forget that the chains like Barnes and Noble and Borders are themselves in trouble, and may go the way of indie bookstores down the road. The culprit? Amazon. "Big fish eats the little fish and the rabbit's on the run..."

quid said...

A delightful post. Come see mine someday:


Jimserac said...

Good old Seward's folly. I rerember Schuyler Seward and his wife well and visited their bookstore many many times.

Did not know he had been a speechwriter but both he and his wife were very smart and I had many interesting discussions with them. Great store. I often would stop there on a Friday afternoon after a tough week of writing software at a hectic pace.

Yes Providence had and still has some great bookstores and the old city has had a sort of revival with all the colleges know that the retail district is gone. Cellar Stories was another favorite - I can remember when they actually were in a cellar, you would go down a flight of stairs from street level to get to them. But unfortunately, the glory days of bookselling, and the cheap prices, are gone. In the 60's you could walk into Dick's Book shop on Richmond street and buy a copy of Davie's Geometry, or any number of other antiquarian books, for maybe a dollar, two at the most and be treated to Dick's first hand description of his personal acquaintance with HP Lovecraft. When you went to purchase the book, Dick would go to this giant ornate 1890's cash register to make the change, it was just so wonderful. Alas, he and his bookstore are long gone, but at that time I was a student at Roger Williams College and between classes we would walk downtown and take in the stores.

James Pannozzi said...

Oh, I forgot to mention the wonderful old Dana's Book Shop which was in the financial district of Providence just across the street from the Turk's head building. I would stop there now and then on my lunch hour in my first programming job at Providence Washington Insurance. Wonderful place, even met old Mr. Dana once or twice just before he passed away. The best part was I once got treated to a ride to their store room on the 3d or 4th floor of the ancient building they were in, and the elevator was one of the old 1910 era hydraulics with a rope running down the middle!! The elevator operator would pull on the ropes, without too much effort and we would go up or down as needed. This was around 1970 or so.

Nancy Green said...

thanks for remembering Seward's Folly.