Saturday, February 23, 2013

In Praise of Real Books and Real Bookstores

I’m currently reading a book called My Bookstore: Writers Celebrate Their Favorite Places to Browse, Read, and Shop. Published by Black Dog & Leventhal, edited by Richard Rice, and with an Introduction by Richard Russo, this fine book is a collection of essays by successful authors, all giving thanks to their favorite bookstores, while they celebrate real books (as opposed to ebooks), real bookstores (brick-and-mortar stores, not online bookstores; independent stores, not chains or superstores), owned and staffed by friendly, book-knowledgeable people. I recommend this book highly to anybody who can’t pass up any bookstore, and who loves the look, the feel, and the smell of books.

On the downside, I can’t help noticing that a fair percentage of the contributing writers are mainly concerned with bragging about their own careers. But authors tend to do that. But writers also tend to be original and entertaining, and there’s plenty of original entertainment in this collection, and plenty of story. Barry Moser gives us a love story. Les Standiford offers a noir detective spoof. Lisa See reveals fascinating history in the background of her Chinese immigrant ancestors. Tom Robbins is as goofy and funny as ever. Matt Weiland has contributed a long poem full of name-dropping rhymed couplets. Two bookstore owners, the wonderful Louise Erdrich and the wonderful Ann Patchett, generously brag up bookstores that are not their own. And so on. All these writers and dozens more show how much they love books and bookstores.

As do I. As do you too, I bet.

Between 1961 and 1983, I worked in eight different independent bookstores. My longest gig was from 1970 to 1977, while I worked as a clerk and for a while as buyer for Kepler’s Books in Menlo Park, California. I’ve blogged about that experience before:;postID=4197990702757511295

Kepler’s Books is back in my mind now, because it was the model for my fictional bookstore, Maxwell’s Books, the scene of my forthcoming novel Hooperman. Yes, I’m being a self-promoting author now. Following the cover illustration below, I’ve pasted the first couple of pages of Hooperman. I hope they whet your interest.…

Hooperman Johnson, a tall, skinny, bushy-bearded man of few words, lived that spring and summer of 1972 in a rented room with a bed, a chair, a table, and no phone over the ’At’s Amore Pizza Palace on University Avenue in Palo Alto, California. It was convenient. Hoop worked downstairs as a pizza cook, earning minimum wage and all the pizza he could eat, which got to be less and less as time went by.
So on Monday, July 10, three months into the job, he wrote a letter of resignation on an ’At’s Amore napkin, put it in his pocket, and walked across the street to Maxwell’s Books. He’d been eyeing the sign in the window for two days: HELP WANTED. They knew him at Maxwell’s. He was there every afternoon, usually straightening and reading his way through the poetry section. He even bought the occasional book.

“Hey, it’s Hooperman!” Lucinda said from the bull pen, a corral of counters where the staff could handle the register, greet customers, talk on the phone, and gossip with each other. Lucinda Baylor was a substantial brown woman with a generous smile and a topiary black hairdo. Like Hoop, she was about thirty years old. She was as tall as Hoop if you counted her Afro, and unlike Hoop, she was hefty. Not fat, zaftig. Tall and pillowy. “Haven’t seen you here since yesterday,” she said.
“The deh,deh,day’s young yet,” Hoop said. “How you dud, how you dud, how you duh,duh,dud…oing, Luce?”
“Day’s young yet. So far so good. You?”
“That sign in the window. You guh,guh,guh,guys guh,got a juh,dge…ob for sale?”
Lucinda shook her head. “Yes, but you wouldn’t want it.”
“Are you ki,ki,ki,kidding?”
“Not this job.”
“Who do I tuh,tuh,tut…alk—”
“Elmer,” she said. “He’s in his office. But really, Hoop, you’re not the type.”
“What does it teh,teh,teh,take to sell bub…bub…bub…b—”
Lucinda rolled her eyes heavenward. “Elmer doesn’t want a clerk, Hoop. Elmer wants to hire a cop. A pig.”
Hooperman grinned and said, on the first try, “Oink.”



  1. Hooperman sounds like a fun read, John. Yes, the bookstore tales we all could tell!
    It's been a few years now but I sorely miss the last indy store in my area. Run by a husband and wife who were friends to all area writers and sponsored many a reading/signing until driven to close their doors by increasing rent and competition from a nearby Waldenbooks (which is also now gone).

    1. Thanks, John. Waldenbooks, along with their competitor, B. Dalton, was the beginning of the end. THen along came Crown Books, stealing customers from independent stores all across the nation. Grrrr.

  2. I'm with you, John. I love books and I love bookstores. Your excerpt from "Hooperman" got my attention. Sounds like a great read!

  3. I love real bookstores, and it's terrible to see so many of them go the way of the dodo. I'm down to one favorite left anywhere near my area...:( Thanks for the post - it's nice to be reminded I'm not alone in this!

    1. The loss of independent bookstores has hurt neighborhoods all over America. Of course we've lost a lot of mom&pop industries the same way: hardware stores, drug stories, stationery stores... I think we have a right to feel sentimental and sad about this.

  4. Thanks for this, John. I just left A Page in the Sun here in Puerto Vallarta, where my son bought a few used books. The PV Writer´s Club meets here sometimes. So much talk about books at the PV conference (where I´ve had the pleasure of meeting and talking with Billie Johnson about my memoir)that I´m especially happy to tune in to this blog.

    1. Thanks, Eileen. Enjoy Puerta Vallarta, and give my fond regards to Billie

  5. I never worked at a bookstore, but I did work at a library, and loved it. Best job I ever had, other than writing. I love to browse through bookstores. And, I'm quite taken with the excerpt you posted. Can't wait to read Hooperman!
    Marja McGraw

    1. Thanks so much, Marja. And I look forward to the pleasure of reading your Bogey Man books. My TBR pile is high and my TBR list is long, but sometime soon...

  6. Over the years I've managed to find good used bookstores and of course leave with an armful of books! And I've found some good material at the former Borders. But with no bookstores within easy driving distance, I admit nowadays I'd been shopping online more and more. The local libraries are picking up the slack somewhat with some good in-house used bookstores (proceeds help support the libraries).

  7. Sally, there's nothing as much fun as a good used bookstore.