Tuesday, August 05, 2003

Bookstores We Have Loved

I was in Columbus yesterday, and so that meant one thing simply had to be worked into the schedule: at least a 90-minute wander around the city's best indy bookshop, the Book Loft in the splendid German Village section of town. Off the top of my head, I can't think of a more appealing bookstore in the entire state of Ohio (and trust me, the bricks & mortars are quite a bit more appealing than their terrible website). It's in a century-plus converted home, with perhaps 20 rooms, stuffed floor to ceiling with books. The only minor negative: there's no room to put a sofa or even a chair.

Coffee shops and similar places for gathering, thinking and composing one's thoughts are of course key components of any area's writing and literary life, but for my money bookstores are even more important. In the last decade, Borders and then Barnes & Noble have obviously ravaged the pool of independents, as the twin superchains marched through the country like General Sherman bearing down on Atlanta.

In Cleveland, a handful of independent shops have somehow survived, but each is relatively small and thus highly niched, and therefore unequipped to take the role once occupied by, say, Booksellers before its demise about six years ago. Appletree Books on Cedar Hill in Cleveland Heights is perhaps the tiniest, and its owner is about 80. The Learned Owl in Hudson is a pretty nice experience, but it closes before dinner most nights. The shop on W. 25th probably has the best selection of local stuff, new and used. Suzanne Degatano's Mac's Backs in Coventry, adjoining Tommy's, is easily the most serious about supporting writers and writing, hosting frequent booksignings and writers' meetings. Its owner serves as a board member/advisor/champion of everything from the Poets & Writers League to the new publication Urban Dialect. And cozy Fireside Bookshop in Chagrin Falls actually has some reasonable space for books, and it seems to take seriously its role as a literary center for the prosperous Chagrin Valley. The newest regional entrant is also in many ways the most interesting: Joseph-Beth. The jury is still out about these folks: the first Cleveland-area location has some of the feel of the old Booksellers while also somehow retaining at least a bit of a feel of the chain store. And we'll see if the Shaker Square location long survives the rocky retailing environment of its neighborhood, especially after it opens a new store in October in Lyndhurst's new Legacy Village, just a half hour walk (oh, joy) from my house.

Still, ever since some of us watched in horror as an unsmiling liquidator presided over a going-out-of-business sale at Booksellers in Beachwood, with owner Joan Hulbert off somewhere else as they closed down her baby, once a mecca for book enthusiasts, the sad reality is that this has been a second-rate book town. Don't even get older book lovers started about the demise of the hallowed downtown stores. They'll yack in your ear for hours.

And so hardened bookshop afficianados are left with occasional visits to our favorite out-of-town places. And for me, only one renowned destination remains unvisited: Denver's vaunted Tattered Cover. I've read about it, and pulled more detail from friends who have lived or visited there. And yet I've somehow never yet made it there myself. But thank god we have some family in Portland, Oregon. That's given me the chance to visit the even more revered Powell's City of Books a handful of times, including last year. While lots of well-known bookstores go for the upscale feel, Powell's has taken a contrary approach, with its city-block-square main location having the feel of a giant book warehouse. The star here is books, it seems to say, not spiffy furnishings and interiors.

Boston, for all its reputation as the Athens of America (for its thick concentration of colleges and universities) lost its best bookstore a few years ago, the impossibly appealing Harvard Bookstore on Newbury Street. It's yet to replace it with anything as interesting, in my opinion. Chicago, where we lived for a time, still has the venerable Barbara's Bookstore, on North Wells, about halfway between the Loop and Lincoln Park. While reasonably compact, it's worth browsing for hours. Unfortunately, in '95 my favorite (and even more venerable) Windy City bookshop, Stuart Brent Books, closed due to the retirement of its owner of the same name. But my guess is that the escalating rents along the booming Magnificent Mile didn't help any. It was a miracle of old-world bookishness, adorned with dozens of reminders of legendary Chicago authors like Saul Bellow who frequented the joint and its predecessor, Seven Stairs. The perfect place for a book lover to while the hours while a spouse visits more prosaic places such as Water Tower Place nearby.

But Washington, D.C., where I lived for a few years in the '80s, probably still has the best concentration of indy bookstores anywhere outside of Manhattan (which itself has been ravaged by chains, losing the likes of such neighborhood institutions as Shakespeare & Co.). Kramer Books at Dupont Circle is a bit cramped, but a Friday-night institution. Olsson Books & Records in Georgetown is a Saturday-afternoon-wanderer's delight, its owner having adapted to the realities of chain competition by holding his nose and selling Beany Babies. And perhaps best of all is Politics & Prose in upper Northwest, which to my regret opened just down the street from where we once lived, after we moved away. In any event, I couldn't pass within a hundred miles of that shop--no, make that I couldn't pass through the mid-Atlantic region--without making sure the itinerary somehow includes at least a brief stop there.

Having set the stage with this admittedly impressionistic roundup of bookstores in various cities, tomorrow I'll bring you word of a new study on America's most literate cities, which is considerably less impressionistic, full of actual research. Stop back to see where Cleveland ranks...

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