I caught a tiny glimpse of heaven on State Street in Santa Barbara a few years back. It was the first bookstore I’d ever seen with a cozy reading area and comfortable chairs, and a little café selling banana bread and croissants to people reading magazines for free. I think it might have had a fireplace, but since it was a warm summer day, that part didn’t really register. Like a poem that hits right between the eyes, The Earthling expressed something perfect, something I’d always known but hadn’t thought of yet.
Last time I was in Santa Barbara, I headed straight for it. It so completely wasn’t there that I couldn’t even figure out where it had been. Sticky pages and coffee stains, or people reading for hours and not buying, were probably not what did it in. It’s gone now, most likely a victim of the crushing forces of online and megastore retailing. Just like so many other bookstores once part of my life.
I’m as guilty as anyone. Ordering books from the comfort of home is just so easy. And the chain stores have such a visible presence, often near somewhere I’m going anyway, that it’s become a habit to make my gotta-have-right-now book purchases as part of my other errands. Which is why, as I’ve made the rounds of local bookstores with advance copies of THE FOUR SEASONS, I’ve been giving the local bookstore scene more thought.
I love the mismatched chairs, the well-trampled area rugs, the glow of real wood and lamplight. I love the shelves with ethnic shawls and bangles, or packets of tea, or funny lapel buttons, or colorful yarn (as at the Grove Bookstore in San Diego), which say something about the personalities and interests of the owners. I love how the staff knows who among them the copy of THE FOUR SEASONS I left with them should go to first, and which regular customers will love it. I love that it will be on one of a few shelves of carefully selected fiction, not wedged among dozens of others written by authors whose last names start with “C.” I love their true caring about books, because I care about books too.
I can’t say my online days are over, or that I didn’t meet wonderful book lovers managing chain stores, but I feel a bit like I do at the end of a wonderful trip, when I say to myself that even though I could happily stay, it’s time to come home. I hope you feel the same.