Wednesday, March 5, 2008

Memory Lane Lined with Bookstores

If you love books, then you love bookstores. It just stands to reason.

Maybe, like me, you’ve visited the Strand in New York City and bought so many $4 books that you’ve had to ship them home in boxes. Or perhaps you walked a few blocks north of the Strand and stood in wonder in Books of Wonder -- famously filled with nothing but children’s books. No matter where you live, you’ve probably waited in the long Borders checkout line at Christmas time, or shaken cookie crumbs out of books at Barnes and Noble. These kind of experiences unite us all as readers and collectors. But today I want to talk about five independent bookstores you may not know about...five bookstores that have played a part in my life and which I consider uniquely “mine” to share.

Hazel’s Bookstore

When I was growing up in Detroit, there were no bookstores in my neighborhood. There was a rack of adult paperbacks at the local drugstore and the Woolworth's had a handful -- literally, no more than ten -- of cheap children’s books in the TOY section. That was it. Thank goodness there was a public library twelve or fifteen blocks away -- and thank goodness for parents who would drive us to it.

Eventually I was old enough to go to the public library on my own -- either by Keds or by Schwinn -- and discovered there was a bookstore just across the (busy) street and down a couple blocks.

Hazel’s Bookstore had an exterior wall made of jagged, sharp rocks set in concrete; the people that worked there were just as rough. An elderly woman (Hazel?) sat on a stool behind the cash register. She never said much, but she glared a lot. A classmate once told me she was there when the elderly woman rang up a sale and the cash register drawer popped open, hit her in the stomach, and knocked her off the stool and onto the floor.

It was a fairly big store -- magazines along one wall, aisles of paperbacks (fiction, westerns, gothic romances), and one mysterious walled-off corner where you had to pay to get inside and look at the adult magazines. (If you bought something in there, your dollar came off the price of your purchase. If you didn’t buy anything, consider the dollar your cost for looking.) At the age of nine or ten, that section didn’t interest me and I was quite content to buy paperback copies of books like ACROSS FIVE APRILS, UP A ROAD SLOWLY and NO PROMISES IN THE WIND (all by Irene Hunt.) But the one Hazel’s purchase that stands out more than any other is Bel Kaufman’s UP THE DOWN STAIRCASE which I read over and over and over again. I still do. I now own a hardcover of UP THE DOWN STAIRCASE, but I’ve always hung onto my much-loved paperback with the cracked spine and loose pages just to remind me of Hazel’s, which I could walk to on my own and shop in all by myself -- the independent bookstore where I experienced my own first taste of independence.

The Open Book

Every time my family went to Wonderland Mall in Livonia, I’d make a beeline for The Open Book, a typical little mall bookstore with a couple shelves of hardcover bestsellers and a two aisles of popular paperbacks. When I first began visiting The Open Book, I was obsessed with “Yearling Books,” a series of paperbacks that reprinted CHARLOTTE’S WEB, STUART LITTLE, THE GOOD MASTER, 101 DALMATIANS, Judy Blume, Meindert DeJong, Robert Lawson...and every time I visited, there were new Yearling books on the spinning rack at the front of the store. As I got older, I began to “special order” hardcovers from them. Nowadays you can order a book from Amazon and have it delivered the next day. Back then, you “special-ordered” a book and waited three...four...sometimes SIX weeks until it finally arrived...usually on some wintry work night when your parents had no intention of going out, so you’d have to beg please-please-please for a quick ride to the mall with the promise that “I’ll just run in and get the book and won’t even stop to browse.”

I think the folks who worked at The Open Book got a kick out of a kid counting out folded dollar bills and loose change from his paper route in order to buy hardcover books; every year when the new copies of Books in Print arrived, they’d actually GIVE me their old copies and I’d take the multi-volume set (bound in red burlap and printed on tissue-thin paper) home and look up information in them all year round.

I still have a couple of the hardcovers I “special ordered” from The Open Book. As for the Yearling Books, I got rid of them, one by one, when I was able to replace those titles with hardcovers. How proud I was to add those first editions to my collection; how sorry I am, now, that I no longer have my Yearling copies too. I miss them. And (I’m sure every book collector can relate to this) I can see myself someday going on eBay and buying back those same Yearling books for my collection -- just for old times sake.

Limepole Book Inn

What did that name mean? I’ve looked up the term “Limepole” on the internet and can’t find any reference to it -- not even as a last name. But throughout most of the seventies, this was the store where I spent countless hours. It was located on the same street as Hazel’s, but on the other side of the expressway, right across from a low-income housing project. It was a dangerous area, so I never rode my bike there for fear it would be stolen. This bookstore was owned by two couples -- a dapper old man and his cranky wife and a rather vague old man and his nice, much younger wife. Were they friends? Relatives? Why did they open up a bookstore in such a bad section of Detroit? Why did they name it Limepole? I was too shy to ask.

Going to Limepole, I passed Cody High School with its attached driver’s ed training track (and the forlorn signal light inside that changed from green to orange to red, 24 hours a day, 365 days a year) and then walked a tall bridge that spanned the expressway. Over the years, that journey changed from “I’ll be going to that high school someday” to “That’s my school!” to a time when I’d drive past (courtesy of driver’s ed class taught on that training track) and think, “That’s where I went to high school.”

I went to LImepole every Saturday after my paper route, buying kids’ books, young adult paperbacks (my first encounter with Robert Cormier’s brilliant CHOCOLATE WAR) and adult novels.I read everything back then. The store sustained my passion for mysteries by Agatha Christie and Doris Miles Disney, my obsession with Lloyd C. Douglas novels, a brief Edna Ferber phase, and a Charlotte Armstrong fixation -- one paperback at a time (that’s usually all I could afford) every Saturday for years and years.

Then came the ONE Saturday I didn’t go.

I spent November 1, 1975 helping a relative move. Late that night, I turned on the TV and heard a news report that there’d been a robbery at a local bookstore that afternoon. One of the owners was shot and killed.

Within weeks, the sign in front was taken down, the store was completely emptied, and a chain link gate pulled down in front of the door. I never knew which of the old men was killed -- the short dapper man or the big, mellow guy with the vague expression. Never knew which woman was widowed. Or why they named the store Limepole. And, for many years after that, every time I visited a bookstore and someone dropped a book, I thought it was a gunshot.

The Children’s Bookmark

Just a brief mention of this mall store in Dearborn since I bought so many books there over the couple years it lasted -- and many of those books still sit on my shelves.

One memory: A set of parents dragging a little girl past the store, while she sobbed and pointed at the sign, wailing, “But I NEED bookmarks.”

One observation: If a mall can sustain children’s clothing stores, toy stores, restaurants, etc., why can’t a children’s bookstore ever make a go of it? Children’s clothes are outgrown quickly, toys are broken in a month, meals are digested by the next morning, but a good children’s book will be treasured for a lifetime.

The Book Beat

Finally, my current favorite independent bookstore. Located in Oak Park, Michigan, I go there every Friday after work. With a huge children’s and young adult section and a staff expert in handselling, I always leave the Book Beat with a bag of books and a depleted charge card. They know books, they love books, and they love to share what they know. Plus they treat me like a friend.

I’m reminded of a comic strip I once saw. In the first panel, a little boy says to his father, “A psychic.” In the second panel, the father says, “What do you want to be when you grow up?”

(Think about it.)

That’s how I feel about the Book Beat. Almost every time I go there, they hand me a book and I’ll say “That’s exactly what I wanted!” before I’ve even asked for it. ...Sometimes before I even knew I wanted it.


Esperanza said...

Have you been to Powell's Books in Oregon? If not, start planning your trip.

Anonymous said...

Another great post in what is quickly becoming a must read blog for me. It's very cool to read about your wealth of knowledge and experiences in the children's lit realm. It's also great to hear from another Michigander! Well since I'm here, a quick plug for McLean & Eakin Booksellers in Petoskey, MI. Another great independent doin their thing.

Anonymous said...

Hi Peter -

I just came across your blog this week, and have been having a great time looking through all your posts! Your childhood reading experiences sound just like mine! I had to laugh about your Yearling books comment - I also had lots of them, including The Good Master. I also had a copy of Follow my Leader - Scholastic version, of course. I now mostly collect Newbery type books, and other chapter books I've loved as a kid. Looking forward to keeping up with your blog