Jessa Crispin on Dublin’s Winding Stair bookshop

While focusing on things other than blogging this month, I’ve been running a series on independent bookstores. Below Jessa Crispin of Bookslut, just back from Ireland, considers taking up residence in Dublin’s Winding Stair bookshop.

I would like to move into the Winding Stair bookshop in Dublin. I would be perfectly happy living among the leather seats, the collection of pulpy book cover art, the stacks of Penguin paperbacks from the 60s, popping my head out of the back occasionally to get another reading suggestion from the manager. As I couldn’t quite move in during this last visit, he just pressed into my hands Mia Gallagher’s Hellfire, published by Penguin Ireland, for my plane ride back to the States. I started reading it somewhere over Greenland and continued reading it at the baggage claim, in line for customs, and then waiting for a taxi.

The store itself has been revamped some in the last few years. It’s now less of a books-crammed-into-every-available-square-inch kind of store, and much more selective and easier for browsing. The front room is mostly new books, with secondhand, including a gorgeous version of The Anatomy of Melancholy I was drooling over, in the back.

It’s lost none of its charm in the redesign, and the customer seems less likely to die in an accidental bookslide.

Mark Snyder on NYC’s Drama Book Shop

While focusing on things other than blogging this month, I’ve been running a series on independent bookstores. Below Mark Snyder praises NYC’s Drama Book Shop, ground zero for playwrights and all manner of performing arts hopefuls.

We Who Love Books are spoiled in New York with its abundant (though always shrinking) number of quirky used bookstands and savvy independents standing tall beside the B&N monoliths, but the one space I will never take for granted has been a shrine for countless writers, actors, directors, and assorted theater folk for many years.

We always remember our first pilgrimage to the Drama Book Shop.

You’ll have to trudge through construction to its location on West 40th Street between Broadway and Eighth Avenue, where the two-story space houses the largest collection of theater-related books and such in the United States. If I find myself desperate to read that obscure William Inge play Kim Stanley did in the late 1960s (which I only discovered while reading the Stanley biography I also found here), it will be sitting on a shelf. If a friend is auditioning for a new production of Neil Simon’s “The Odd Couple,” he will find what he needs here. The DBS is not snobby when it comes to inventory – the store aims to be the spine of its reading community.

The shop itself is long and narrow, well-lit and organized. A table across from the checkout area displays new releases and new anthologies of plays by up-and-coming writers. There are tall wooden shelves along the sides with an old-fashioned sliding ladder to reach overstock above our heads. These shelves are devoted to books on acting, on directing, and to guides on how to examine plays critically and place them in a larger social context. Additional free-standing shelves house books on costume and set design. They’re full of beautiful images and solutions to the most-specific design challenges as well as sketches from the masters of the form: Boris Aronson, Eugene Lee, Florence Klotz, et al. Continue reading…

Jeffrey Frank on Ithaca’s Bookery I & II

While I focus on things other than blogging this month, I’m running a series on independent bookstores. Below novelist and New Yorker editor Jeffrey Frank (author most recently of Trudy Hopedale) praises The Bookery of Ithaca, New York.

The Bookery is actually two stores — Bookery I and Bookery II — a few steps in different wings of the Dewitt Mall in downtown Ithaca, New York. (The “mall” is one of America’s first successful building conversions, dating from the early 1970s; it was formerly DeWitt Junior High.)

The first Bookery was established in 1975 by Jack Goldman (he still owns and runs it), and it quickly became an exceptional antiquarian bookstore — with a terrific stock of fiction, philosophy, and New York history. In 1985, Goldman opened Bookery II, distinguished by its good taste and wide selection — particularly of fiction. (Wow, look at all those Trollopes!) As Ithaca’s other bookstores began to fail from natural causes — Amazon and the large chains chief among them — Bookery II also faltered. Goldman eventually sold the business to Gary Weissbrot, who has kept its spirit intact while promoting in-store events, such as author readings.

Ithaca is a college town (Cornell, Ithaca College, etc.) and books still have a visible place there. The twice-yearly Friends of the Library sale attracts dealers from all over, and there are good secondhand shops on the Commons. But even such conditions cannot guarantee that independent bookstores — those that reflect the personalities and obsessions of their owners — will prosper.

Almost to reassure myself, whenever I have a chance I make it a point to visit the DeWitt Mall, where, at least for now, the non-expanding Bookery “chain” is special and enduring — a place that, in ways communities like Ithaca are beginning to understand, is essential.

Images of Bookery I taken from this site. If you’d like to see your favorite bookstore mentioned, send email to bookstores [at] maudnewton [dot] com telling me about it. Please include a photo or a link to one.

Happy weekend from the banished father

I used to wonder why my mom stayed with my father for so long when they were so ferociously ill-matched, but she always said it was better to have an overbearing father than no father at all, and when I look at this photo, of her own dad, Robert, holding her as a baby, I think I understand the marriage better. Robert looks so shrunken and defeated to me here, and her own wave seems to match the sentiment. It wasn’t too long after this that my grandparents divorced.

As a child, Mom kept this picture glued in her scrapbook alongside almost all the other photos we have of him. I wonder how many times she leafed through it after he disappeared, when he was off marrying women and starting service stations and grocery stores and realty firms.

Robert Bruce must have executed the holographic will (below) leaving Mom all of his property around the time my grandmother decided to divorce him.

Justine Larbalestier on Buenos Aires’ El Ateneo

While I focus on things other than blogging this month, I’m running a series on independent bookstores. Below blockbuster YA author Justine Larbalestier praises the magnificent El Ateneo of Buenos Aires’ Barrio Norte.

The most beautiful bookshop I have ever seen is El Ateneo in Buenos Aires. It’s a refurbished grand theatre and as you can see from this photograph it’s jaw droppingly gorgeous.

My Spanish is not that good. The most I can manage to read are fairy tales for children and mostly only if I already know the stories. But at El Ateneo I found myself compulsively buying books that I would probably never read. Anything to prolong my time there.

Image taken from Proserpina. If you’d like to see your favorite bookstore mentioned, send email to bookstores [at] maudnewton [dot] com telling me about it. Please include a photo or a link to one.

Liz B. on Portland Maine’s Casco Bay Books

While I focus on things other than blogging this month, I’m running a series on independent bookstores. Below Liz B. praises Portland, Maine’s Casco Bay Books.

A few years ago, I moved from Portland, Maine, to the other Portland, you know, the one with Powell’s. I live in the city that houses one of the most amazing bookstores in the country, and yet I still long for Casco Bay Books.

Their selection is small, but perfectly curated– to the extent that I’ve never seen a book there that didn’t intrigue me. They have both used and new books, and a fantastic selection of small-press titles. Also, they couldn’t be nicer.

Image of random people swiped from the store’s website. If you’d like to see your favorite bookstore mentioned, send email to bookstores [at] maudnewton [dot] com telling me about it. Please include a photo or a link to one.

Update: Matthew Tiffany of Condalmo writes, “I agree wholeheartedly about CBB being a great store – sadly they closed for business a couple of months ago. There’s also Longfellow Books, though, and they’re dynamite.”

R.I.P. Grace Paley

An hour ago I would have said my week couldn’t get any worse. I would have been sorely mistaken.

Terrible news: The great Grace Paley, feminist, activist, and until today one of our best living short story writers, has died. She was 84. Leora Skolkin-Smith (whose fiction Paley created an imprint to publish) sent word in email. “The last thing Grace was working on was my own novels,” she says, “and I am dedicating the film of my novel Edges to her. I am just lucky, no one special, I just had that privilege of closeness with her at very end of her long amazing life.”

I met Grace Paley once. Twice, actually. Under the most embarrassing fangirl circumstances.

She was coming to Gainesville for a reading, and I’d been carrying around her book for weeks. The night before the event, she showed up with the local creative writing luminaries at the restaurant where I’d taken my boyfriend for a fancy dinner. Not being gifted in the art of timing, then or now, I hemmed and hawed about whether to go talk to her. We had ordered desserts and their table had started into appetizers before I made up my mind.

I’d had too much wine and, it being the 90s, was wearing a black lycra dress with thigh-high stockings that wouldn’t stay up unless I kept my legs pressed together. So I hobbled rather than walked over to lay on her the same general, uninspired I just love your work so much! that girls at college campuses the United States over must have bombarded her with every night.

The other people at the table studied their plates and napkins. Some of them knew me: I’d taken or dropped out of their classes. It was clear that, the minute I went away, they would turn to her and mutter some apology. Honestly, these hayseed students of ours. Please, have another glass of White Zinfandel.

But Paley smiled. She was wearing sneakers, a t-shirt, and some sort of pendant, and she looked fragile and luminous alongside the tanned Floridians. “Thank you,” she said. “Will I see you at the reading tomorrow?”

The next night, she not only remembered me, but asked if I wrote, and encouraged me to keep at it.

And this wasn’t a fluke. My friend Michelle met Paley a few years ago at a NOW anti-war protest, and she was just as kind, just as encouraging.

Now that I live in New York City, I realize how rare it is for a writer to be so genuinely warm to someone who has nothing to offer but enthusiasm. And with Grace Paley’s death, it’s more rare than ever.

Further reading, and more:

  • “All my habits are bad,” Paley once told Salon.
  • Amitava Kumar excerpts “Friends,” a Paley short story he can’t put out of his mind.
  • Past posts can be clicked through here.
  • There have been rumors for a year or two about a Paley documentary. Leora Skolkin-Smith may have details.


Recapping the Rupert Thomson discussion

Many, many thanks to everyone who came out in the rain last Friday night to hear Rupert Thomson read from and discuss his latest novel, Death of a Murderer, at McNally Robinson.

He was charming and smart, and we had a nice crowd, at least 15% of whom — or should that be which? — were bloggers. Beforehand I met Matt Cheney and Jessica Stockton for the first time; afterward I stayed for nearly an hour talking with friends and with people I’d previously met only in email. Special thanks to E., who turned up despite being pregnant with twins.

Most of the evening is a blur to me now, but the lovely Zan of A Cup of Tea and a Wheat Penny has a good recap. Sounds like she’s also suffering from Thomson fever. (I’ve been there, Zan. If you really want to wallow in the delicious obsessiveness of it all, I prescribe The Book of Revelation and an old mix of doomed-love songs.)

At the end of our talk, Rupert discussed a memoir he’s writing about family estrangement. When his father died in the mid-80s, Rupert lived with the rest of his family — including two brothers, and one brother’s wife and child — in one house, in Berlin, for a year.

The result of all this bonding? He hasn’t talked to his stepmother or youngest brother for more than two decades.

If you couldn’t make it out last week, listen to Leonard Lopate’s interview with Thomson. Thanks to Maximus Clarke for the snaps.

James Tata on Portland’s Powell’s Books

While I focus on things other than blogging this month, I’m running a series on independent bookstores. Below writer James Tata praises Powell’s Books of Portland, Oregon.

It’s not too much of a stretch to say that I live in Portland because Powell’s Books is here.

When I first visited Portland as a tourist in the early 90s, the Pearl District was still an industrial area of warehouses and auto body shops where visual artists had found cheap spaces for studios, apartments, and galleries. Powell’s occupied an entire city block on the district’s edge. At that time the bookstore’s immediate neighbor to the west was the Henry Weinhard Brewery — not a boutique brew pub, mind you, but an industrial brewery that made the whole area smell like cooking oatmeal. I still remember one of the books I bought on that trip — a copy of Samuel Beckett’s first and until then unpublished novel, Dream of Fair to Middling Women.

Of course it’s an old story, the grubby neighborhood discovered by artists and then gentrified by the city using “redevelopment funds,” and this is what has happened with the Pearl, now home to luxury “lofts,” expensive bars, and tony shops. The brewery is long gone, replaced by high rise apartments. Powell’s, however, remains. Still owned by the Powell family, the bookstore has survived into the era of Amazon and the ubiquitous chain store by developing its own internet presence and by not being afraid to expand into a local, Portland chain directly competing with the national chains. Much has been made of Powell’s early innovation of shelving new and used books together, but what continues to amaze me is the generous helping of remainders, which amounts to still a third category: recent hardbacks at paperback prices. For superlatives about the store’s massive size, you are well served by the store’s information page.

Shopping for books is an intensely personal act, at least for a bookish person. For all the blogs and reading groups and writing classes out there, reading and its close cousin writing remain intensely solitary activities, anachronistically so in extroverted, image-loving America, and the act of purchasing books retains more than a bit of the privacy surrounding their consumption. Even when Powell’s is crowded — and it gets crowded on those drizzly Pacific Northwest weekends — you can go to an upper floor and always find empty aisle after empty aisle with books stacked higher than you can reach. It’s the near comical abundance of the place that makes the store’s character so different from the charismatic nighttime bustle of far smaller urban independents like, say, Kramerbooks in Washington DC.

Which isn’t to say it’s all introversion at the store. It’s a sought-after venue for readings, and I’ve been lucky enough to listen to and ask questions of Susan Sontag, Martin Amis, Edmund White, Nathan Englander, Julie Orringer, and John Carey, to name a few. The ground-level cafe has plate glass windows looking out onto Burnside, Portland’s main drag and the gritty antithesis of the bordering Pearl. The cafe is a good place to sit with friends or eccentric weirdos who come in off the street. If it’s the latter, just pretend to be absorbed by your reading.

If you’d like to see your favorite bookstore mentioned, send email to bookstores [at] maudnewton [dot]com telling me about it. Please include a photo or a link to one.

Happy weekend from the woman scorned

Martha and Betty

In this, the final installment of the Love Triangle Letters, my beloved Texan grandmother drafts a note to the other woman’s husband. It’s exceedingly polite, which she wasn’t always.

“Regardless of what Christine has done I blame her no more than the man. I am a great believer in the ‘Single Standard,'” she begins. She urges him to take Christine back, as she herself has decided to give Robert another chance. “I believe … all the misery and inconvenience C has been put to in trying to keep it hid from everyone has made her a better finer, person for the experience.”

In her old age, Martha claimed to be a lifelong atheist, but in this letter (after the jump) she invokes God several times. (Larger images here and here.) I don’t know whether she ever mailed the letter.

Michael Gorra on Hamburg’s Bücherstube Stolterfoht

While I focus on things other than blogging this month, I’m running a series on independent bookstores.

Below Michael Gorra, a critic and Smith College English Lit professor, recalls visits to his favorite Hamburg bookshop, the Bücherstube Stolterfoht, where he yearned for every volume although (or maybe because) all but the children’s titles were beyond the reach of his German. (I haven’t found a photo for this store, so you’ll have to live with a link to its location and a random Hamburg photo. Please note that Gorra’s comments are excerpted from his The Bells in Their Silence: Travels Through Germany, published by Princeton University Press in 2004.)

My favorite bookstore in Hamburg was a place called the Bücherstube Stolterfoht, just up the street from our apartment, a small, free-standing building almost buried in the trees by the entrance to the local U-Bahn stop.

Building? A shack, really, its walls flimsy and its roof askew, a structure whose plate-glass front made the whole shop look perilously open to the city’s steady wind and rain. But the display behind that glass seemed always attractive: new biographies of Bismark and Che; stylish paperback editions of Robert Walser and Ingeborg Bachmann; a pictorial history of Ellis Island and a boxed set of Günter Grass, including the author’s own reading of The Tin Drum, on twenty three CDs.

Inside there were bookcases running around the room’s three solid sides, with most of the stock double-shelved and indecipherably arranged, while the floor was so jammed with high-piled tables and revolving racks for paperbacks that gridlock started at two customers and a dog. No cash register: just an adding machine and a drawer, with receipts written out by hand. And no computer books or self-help manuals or investment guides. Fiction, poetry, a little art and music, biography, the complete works of Theodor Adorno — it was the kind of store that made me wish I could read every volume it contained.

Except I can’t, can’t make it through anything more than the simpler of the children’s books that line the wall by the door. The shop’s dogeared furnishings were in themselves enough to make the place charming, but the fact that it reduced me to something close to illiteracy made it irresistible. Continue reading…