Our Literary Lifeblood: Bookstores and Libraries
During my childhood in a fairly isolated rural environment, my best friends were books and dogs. My first school had a tiny one-room library but its walls were packed, floor to ceiling, with books and I was sure it had to be the most amazing chamber in all the world. Sometimes I had to be physically pulled away by my teacher to return to class. When school was out I was an avid patron of the weekly bookmobile, which struck me as something of a portable shrine. The basket on my bicycle would bend under the weight of my weekly haul.
The loss of bookstores and libraries in our communities wounds us all. For me these were always the calming center of a town, an oasis where you could take strength and hope in knowing those around you were also interested in learning and engaging more deeply with the human experience. We should cherish those that have survived and do all we can to keep them strong and vibrant.
Poisoned Pen – Phoenix, Arizona
During decades as a very frequent traveler to faraway places I would typically get acquainted with a new city by randomly walking, sometimes for hours. The only thing that would put a halt to my peripatetic wanderings was a bookstore. I could never pass up a bookstore. I was a pilgrim stumbling upon an unexpected shrine. Even if I was in a country whose language I could not read I would still browse and feel the energy of the lives, the wisdom and the adventure hibernating on the shelves, ready to be awakened at the touch of a human hand.
If you are lucky enough to live in the Phoenix area that same sense of excitement can be yours at The Poisoned Pen, Barbara Peters’ wonderful bookstore in Scottsdale. The Poison Pen is a gem of a store and its newsletter is a national treasure for the mystery/thriller community. If you aren’t in the area or can’t wait for restrictions to be lifted, they are adept at remotely fulfilling your reading aspirations.
Mysterious Galaxy – Redondo Beach, California
During my early years there were many months when I spent more on books than clothing. It seemed perfectly reasonable to patch a pair of jeans so I could buy the new Vonnegut, and the one consistent pleasure in my life was sitting in a quiet nook of a bookstore scouting our new acquisitions. It’s sad to consider how the demise of so many community bookstores has deprived new generations of the experience. They may be better dressed but they’ve lost that unique spark of bookstore enchantment.
Independent bookstores are on the rebound, however, and as quarantines permit you should seek them out. Discover yourself by communing with bookshelves. A perfect example of the type of store that lured me all those years ago is Mysterious Galaxy in Redondo Beach, California, which offers up what for me would be an irresistible cocktail of mystery, science fiction, and fantasy.
Once Upon a Crime – Minneapolis, MN
I can’t recall ever going into a bookstore and buying only one book. It would be like going to a gourmet restaurant and ordering a solitary serving of potatoes. There are always too many selections, too many worlds to be unlocked for me to limit myself to just one. A key ingredient in my bookstore feasts is randomness. I always go in with one or two titles in mind but always save some time to wander along other shelves and find new friends. I have always felt a particular thrill when I discover stacks of used books. Old books are the vintage wine of these banquets, their worn covers a testament to how they have been valued in other lives.
Go find a bookstore –we will soon reach the end of this quarantine tunnel—and make yourself a feast. For those of you in the Minneapolis region, Once Upon a Crime is a perfect place to exercise your appetite. If you can’t wait for the end of the stay-at-home orders, they will gladly deliver your selections to you. For those connoisseurs of older vintages they have thousands of used books in their Annex—go find some older new friends….
Anne’s Book Carnival – Orange, CA
In looking back on his rich and varied life Thomas Jefferson confessed how, while a junior diplomat for the fledgling United States, he would steal away on summer afternoons to explore the bookshops of Paris. There is a special bond between lovers of bookstores that can easily spark across centuries. When I first read that confession I knew that here too was someone who grasped that booksellers don’t run stores, they run laboratories of self-discovery. It doesn’t take a lot of imagination to hear the spring-loaded entry bell on the door of the 18th century shop and be greeted by timeless scents of ink, paper, old wood and dust. Stores may not be quite so musty today, but that magic is still lurking on the shelves, ready to transport you to other worlds. .
That special enchantment is nurtured at Anne’s Book Carnival in Orange, California. Its flame still burns during these quarantine times, tended by folks who know and love novels. Help them keep it ignited—they are ready to supply volumes of enlightenment, remotely or right at their front door.
Mystery Ink Bookstore – Huntington Beach, CA
My essential memory of my university experience is that the universities were clusters of buildings centered around a library and surrounded by bookstores. I have no doubt that I absorbed more in those bookstores than in the classrooms. Being forced to read a book is never the same as wanting to read a book. I always balanced the must-read book with a want-to-read obtained in a local bookstore. During a given week I could correlate how well I was doing in a course to the quality of the novel or history I was concurrently reading.
Mystery Ink Bookstore in Huntington Beach, California, is exactly the kind of store that would lure me away from classes. Owner Debbie Mitsch is an avid cheerleader for the mystery genre and has mysterious ways to remotely connect readers to great novels should they have trouble getting to the store. Keep reading!
Mechanicsburg Mystery Book Shop – Mechanicsburg, PA
Knowing how much time I spent in bookstores, a friend once asked me if I wasn’t intimidated by being surrounded by all those books I would never read. I replied no, I was energized by them, by the power of all that experience and wisdom available on every shelf. I have always felt a certain thrill that all those books were offered to me, even if I didn’t engage with every single volume. I knew I could buy any one of them and possibly make a valued friend for life, or I could just leaf through another and make a passing acquaintance.
Bookstores still do, and always will, offer that age-old excitement. One of my favorites is an oasis in the Pennsylvania countryside, the Mechanicsburg Mystery Book Shop. Owner Debbie Beamer isn’t just a great advocate for mysteries. She is, in the noble tradition of booksellers, an ambassador of enlightenment. If you can’t visit her charming store she can always remotely fulfill your reading pleasures.
The Mysterious Bookshop – New York, NY
A skeptic of my bookish habits recently asked me what’s the point of going to a bookstore when you can sit at home with your computer and download almost anything you want to read. The difference, I said—borrowing shamelessly from Mark Twain—is the difference between lightning and a lightning bug. The bookstore is an instrument of civilization, the promised land for the inquiring mind. You can’t sit in a bookstore without feeling part of something bigger, and you can’t buy a book without causing your own little ripple in the ocean of human thought.
A classic example of such an oasis is America’s oldest mystery bookstore, The Mysterious Bookshop in Manhattan’s Tribeca neighborhood. I love how the stacks, stretching to the high ceiling, offer books that are tantalizingly out of reach. Proprietor Otto Penzler is an agent provocateur for all things mysterious. Otto is the driving force behind both The Mysterious Press, which has been publishing top quality mysteries for decades, and The Mysterious Press at Highbridge, which is producing audio editions of great mysteries. The shop hosts no less than seven different subgenre clubs, serving the kaleidoscopic tastes of mystery readers. Atlas Obscura was right on the money when it described the shop as a “temple to the noble mystery” and Otto as “most important figure in the history of mystery who’s never written a mystery story.”
Mystery Loves Company – Oxford, MD
I take great comfort in knowing there were bookstores in ancient times. There are records of Greek booksellers supplying readers over 2500 years ago. The existence of the massive library at Alexandria is testament to the robust trade in books at the time of its founding in 300 BC. Book dealers were active across the old Islamic caliphates, there are prints showing booksellers in 17th century Japan, and we know that books, many of them poetry, were widely available in Confucian China. Romans amassed large private libraries from booksellers, who listed their inventory on posts at their doorway, and of course the number of booksellers massively increased with the advent of movable type over five hundred years ago. There is something wonderfully timeless about the dynamic between bookseller and reader. I sometimes think of these ancient bibliophiles as friendly phantoms hovering over the shelves, and when entering a shop have felt a shiver of excitement from joining in that endless quest for expanding the human experience that booksellers personify.
Carrying on this destiny is Mystery Loves Company, a cozy bookstore in the three-hundred-fifty-year old Chesapeake town of Oxford, Maryland, which can boast that it is the only mystery-focused bookstore from New Jersey to Florida. The town’s patina of history is the perfect seasoning for the rich mélange of mysteries offered by the store, which can also supply novels remotely during these sheltering times. The store’s spirit of enrichment is a perfect fit for its building, a former bank—and its walk-in safe holds deposits of reading treasures!
Mystery Lovers Bookshop – Oakmont, PA
“Medicine for the Soul” was the inscription over the entrance to the ancient library of Thebes. It is thrilling to think of Egyptians with such reverence for books over three thousand years ago—who is constructing such buildings today? I sometimes think of that inscription when I enter bookstores, for within their walls can be found the salve for aching intellects. Booksellers offer an ethereal medicine unlike any other, made all the more potent by the fact that readers must decide on their own prescription through a process of self-discovery.
Oakmont, Pennsylvania, one of Pittsburgh’s grand old satellite communities, has a literary center of gravity that might make those citizens of Thebes envious. A short stretch of Allegheny River Boulevard is anchored at one end by a magnificent Andrew Carnegie library and at the other end by the wonderful Mystery Lovers Bookshop, two bright beacons in what sometimes feels like a dark time. Mystery Lovers is a treasure trove for the questing reader, and one of the few left in the country that have an emphasis on the ever-expanding mystery genre. The shop has all the virtues of the traditional bookseller plus it is also great at remote service for those who want to acquire their enlightenment at a distance.