Friday, December 13, 2013

Standing in the River

Once in awhile, you can miss something—or someone—for so long you almost forget, until one day you walk right into a reminder.

I’d forgotten how great it was to have book stores to hang out in. Pittsburgh isn’t a big city, but even in my little orbit, I had more than one “favorite”—Pinocchio in Shadyside and Tall Tales in Mount Lebanon, for children’s books; Mystery Lovers in Oakmont, for the obvious; and Borders in the South Hills, for its wonderful and knowledgeable staff, as well as a big selection and welcoming atmosphere. Sure, Borders was a chain store, but its staff knew and was passionate about books.

One by one, they folded, until only Mystery Lovers, under new ownership, survived. Yes, we do still have others, including a couple chains, a few used book shops, and college book stores. But it’s not the same. 

A recent long weekend took us to Manhattan for a family birthday, but it was book stores I was hungry for. There are so many to choose from, but our schedule only allowed time for two: The Strand and Argosy. Very different experiences, but in both cases, the moment as I walked through the door, explosions of quiet happiness were going off in my head.

Both are legacy book stores, still in business after generations. The Strand opened in 1927 on New York’s legendary Book Row, which makes it 86 years old in 2013, and still in the original family. Auspiciously named after London’s famous publisher’s row, the Strand was once just one of 48 bookstores on Book Row—I wish I could’ve been there! According to The Strand’s website, Book Row started in the 1890’s and once ran from Union Square to Astor Place, though today, the Strand is all that remains. 

Famed for its “18 miles of books,” The Strand sprawls over three floors, with a rare book room at the top, millions of new and used books and literary-themed items from the bottom up, and dollar carts outside. When you step inside, much of the joy comes from feeling how alive it is—the bustle of book-loving people all around you, the shelves and tables crowded with books and other delicious items.

Argosy is even older, dating back 88 years to 1925, and is also still family owned. It’s smaller, and cozier, and feels preserved in time. The first thing that struck me as I crossed the threshold—after tearing myself away from the dollar used books outside, with two in hand—was the aroma. Argosy smells wonderful. It smells of old paper and real leather bindings. 

The lighting is more muted than at The Strand, and it gleams back softly from old wood paneling and a pressed-tin ceiling. In the center aisle, library tables with green-glass-shaded lamps invite you to sit and read. I spent a long time here, and climbed the ladders in the basement, where everything was fifty percent off, to make sure I didn’t miss a treasure.

Argosy's main room (Argosy website)
Between The Strand and Argosy, I filled two heavy bags with books. But the best part of my day was just being there—surrounded for a few hours by books and book people. As a writer, being there in that world of books again—of words and ideas—connected me to what Madeleine L’Engle referred to as “the river.” It reminded me, in a way I hadn’t felt for a while, that I needed to be writing. 

I need to keep adding my small trickle of words to the river, in the same way the smallest creek along the way feeds the great Mississippi. It occurs to me I might also be feeding the “Amazon.” But as much as I love buying books online, it will never provide that sense of community I feel in a real bookstore.  It’s a unique community that includes toddlers and mommies sitting at the tiny tables with their colorful picture books, as well as the long-dead—but still-living—giants of the written word, like Dostoevsky and Dickens. For a little while, it was good to stand knee deep in the river again—a reader and a writer—and let it rush over me.

No comments:

Post a Comment