Asking a true lover of books – not only the stories they carry but their smell and feel – to name a favorite bookstore is like asking a parent to identify their favorite child. It’s a loaded question.
I’m not talking about Barnes & Noble and amazon.com, though I trade with both of them frequently. I’m talking about those wonderful, tucked away little shops with enough character to be a book themselves. I’m talking about temples of reading, sanctuaries for readers. Usually with a few comfortable chairs that invite you to sit down and thumb through a book, new or used, which is as fine a therapy as I know. The best shops, to my way of thinking, are the ones where books sit haphazardly on tables, stair steps, in stacks on the floor, and bulge over the edges of shelves. And if there is a bookstore cat or two, curled up asleep among the merchandise or prancing regally though the disorder like the master of the house, then the shop is perfect.
It’s autumn now, a perfect season to visit bookshops that are old friends and find new ones. I’m interested in knowing what some of your favorites are.
Back in the days when I organized overseas trips for students and got my passage paid for the trouble I found little bookshops in England that I would aim my group toward. Oxford had a couple of truly good ones and there was one in Canterbury that offered not only books but hot tea to sip on as we wandered through the stacks. But my absolute favorite was Shakespeare & Company in Paris, which for almost a century has been the mecca for English speaking bibliophiles in that city. Situated across the Seine from the handsome flying buttresses of Notre Dame it is a cathedral itself, its countless volumes spilling out into carts and baskets in the little plaza outside. I always encouraged my students to buy a paperback copy of Hemingway’s memoir A Moveable Feast, about his years as a starving young writer in Paris, and get the title page stamped with the distinctive logo of the store, a portrait of Shakespeare circled by “Shakespeare & Company, Kilometer Zero, Paris”. One of Hemingway’s chapters is about the store and its original owner, who loaned him books when he couldn’t afford to buy them.
Closer to home I’m a frequent browser at several of the many Half Price Books locations. And I’m a big fan of Brazos Bookstore on Bissonnet in Houston and, for whodunits, Murder by the Book, which is just down the street. Galveston Bookshop, on the island on 23rd Street, is one of my favorites, as was Midsummer Books around the corner, before Hurricane Ike put an end to it.
I miss Bookends, in Lake Jackson, and I miss Becky Dorroh, who owned it before she moved away. Now that was a true bookshop, with shelves full of treasures, a comfortable couch and chairs, a knowledgeable friendly owner, and a couple of bookstore cats.
So, let me hear from you. What are your favorite bookstores?
The rest of us might want to visit them. It’s autumn, the best time to venture forth and find good reads to settle into by the fireplace this winter.
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Have yourself a fine October.