Bookstores in Pioneer Valley

Last week, Carol and I spent four days at a retreat center in Deerfield, Mass. We managed to visit four bookstores in those four days. Here are some notes about each bookstore:

World Eye Bookshop is quite small. As is often the case these days, about half the store is taken up with gifts, toys, art supplies, etc. But although the book selection is small, it’s well chosen. A number of interesting books on local history (I almost bought a book on the history of the Mass Central Railroad). If you’re in downtown Greenfield, it’s worth stopping in.

I was sad when Raven Used Books closed their Cambridge location, so I made Carol drive down to Northampton because I wanted to stop in at the store’s original location. Not what you’d call an expansive store, but they pack an enormous amount of books into their relatively small space. Fewer scholarly books than I remembered, but used scholarly books are hard to sell these days so the fact that they had any at all made it worth the thirty-minute drive.

Federal Street Books in Greenfield is an absolute delight. They have a good selection of both new and used books. Not many scholarly books, which is my always my main interest. But the selection of fantasy and science fiction books was especially good, and there were lots of quirky fun books, like the children’s book titled “Goodnight Krampus.” I like the fact that they require masks in the store — lately I’ve been forgetting to put on my mask when I go in stores, and I liked being reminded. This bookstore is worth a special trip.

The real find, though, was Roundabout Books in Greenfield. They’ve just re-opened in a new location. They’re still bringing in books, so the shelves looked a little bare when I walked in. But once I started looking around, I realized that there are actually a huge number of books; they’re just lost in the huge space. I was happy to find both new and used scholarly books mixed in among the more mainstream books. I found an excellent selection in most of the subject areas in which I tend to buy books, including religion, poetry, science fiction and fantasy, and nature and the environment.

Just to give you an idea of the range of the titles they stock, I bought a complete translation of the Ramayan; a trashy science fiction novel; three books of poetry, American, contemporary Chinese, and contemporary Greek; a field guide to the grasses of New England; and I Cannot Write My Life: Islam, Arabic, and Slavery in Omar Ibn Said’s America by Mbaye Lo and Carl W. Ernst.

Roundabout is so good, it’s worth a long drive to visit.

In our four day trip, I bought a dozen books. The only reason I purchased any of these books is when I leafed through them I realized they were exactly what I needed to read right now. It’s still important to be able to pore through dozens of books, brought into the store by someone who knows books, so you can find books that you didn’t know you wanted, though once you see them you know you need them. (The same principle holds true for libraries, by the way.) This is why Amazon can never replace real bookstores. And that’s why we need to buy our books at real bookstores; even if it costs a little more than Amazon, we need to make sure the real bookstores stay in business.

(And before you ask: No, we did not visit the Montague Bookmill. We’ve been there; you should go if you haven’t been before; but it isn’t a perfect match for us. This, by the way, is why we need a wide variety of bookstores: everyone should have access to a bookstore that’s a perfect match for them.)

Summer reading: books about bookstores

Climate change has changed summer reading. It used to be that you’d find a book to read while you sat in the sun on the beach. In this climate-changed world, now you might find a book to read while you sit inside hoping that your house doesn’t flood. So today, while rain pounded on the roof of our apartment, I finished reading two books about bookstores, and started reading another one.

(There are some spoilers below. If that bothers you, proceed no further.)

The three books sitting on a table.
L-R: Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore (found in a Little Free Library); Days at the Morisaki Bookshop (purchased from a local bookseller); Remainders of the Day (purchased from a local bookseller).
Friends don’t let friends buy from Amazon — support your local booksellers!
Continue reading “Summer reading: books about bookstores”

The bookstore that should not exist

This Twitter thread tells about one of my favorite bookstores anywhere: Renaissance Books in the Milwaukee International Airport (MKE). It’s unbelievable to find a used bookstore in an airport. On top of which, they stock a deeply eccentric collection of books, as noted by the author of the Twitter thread.

I particularly appreciate their wide selection of mid-twentieth century pulp novels. I was just in MKE a week and a half ago, and bought a 1960s paperback reprint of Ian Fleming’s thriller Casino Royale from 1953. Casino Royale, the first James Bond novel, is a wonderful example of mid-twentieth century pulp fiction: you simply can’t believe the amount of sexism and implicit racism, the plot creaks, and there are weird dominance and submission games going on throughout the novel. It reveals the strange paranoiac Zeitgeist of the 1950s better than any history book. But I digress.

Basically, it’s a bookstore that should not exist. So it kind of feels like Spider Robinson’s fictional Callahan’s Crosstime Saloon, except that it’s not a fictional place. Here are some key excerpts from the Twitter thread to explain:

“On my way home from Milwaukee yesterday I did a triple take when I saw an ancient used book store, IN THE AIRPORT!!! I felt like I walked through a portal to a world where everything was a little bit cooler. I was so enthralled I went up to the register and was like ‘hey, I’m fascinated by this place, can we chat?’ A man with an orange hat, orange glasses, and an orange shirt pushed aside his laptop and said ‘oh, heavens yes.’ His name is Orange Mike, and he’s worked here since 1979. Every employee of the shop, including Orange Mike, makes exactly ‘8.125 dollars’ an hour to keep this place going. They are also all in their 60s. Orange Mike himself comes from the local pen & paper community, and used to review games for Dragon magazine. The stock here is eclectic and weird and not remotely curated. Half of it is giant history books that have probably been here since the 80s….

“The store’s existence comes down to the airport taking bids from local bookstores to occupy the space, and accidentally including used bookstores in the list. The owner shrugged and submitted the high bid. The airport tried to stop it but after six months of legal spats failed…. This store just shouldn’t exist. The airport doesn’t want them there, it makes no revenue, they have a hard time moving product, and all of its underpaid employees are at retirement age. And yet it persists. AT A MAJOR AIRPORT. I am blown away by this place existing. If you’re ever at MKE, go check it out while you can. It seems like something way too good for this world, which means it may not be there next time if you skip it.”

I spent four hours at Renaissance Books one day last year, due to travel plan complications. That bookstore turned what was an otherwise unbearable trip into something almost enjoyable. I was so grateful that now every time I’m in MKE (which is not very often), I spend as much money there as I can (the limitation always being: How many books can I fit in my carry-on luggage?).

Hand holding a paperback book, with bookshelves visible in the background.
Me holding a reprint of a mid-twentieth century pulp classic in Renaissance Books. God, I love that place.


I wound up with a 7 hour layover in Chicago. The nice thing about train travel is that when you have a layover, you can leave the terminal. And when you have a layover in Chicago, you’re downtown, right in the Loop.

The Art Institute is closed on Tuesdays, so I went to Exile in Bookville, a bookstore on the second floor of the Fine Arts Building on Michigan Ave. The Fine Arts Building still retains much of its 1898 decor, and it even still has elevators that need to be operated by human beings. Exile in Bookville turned out to be an excellent small bookstore. I passed over William Cronon’s environmental history of Chicago and the midwest (too bulky to carry on the train) and instead bought The Future Is Disabled by Leah Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha. I also stopped at the DePaul University bookstore, which is run by Barnes and Noble.

By then it was half past four. Time to start walking slowly back to Union Station. I stopped to take a photo of part of a public art work on Quincy St. at South State St.

A semi-abstract sculpture that looks vaguely like a tree or a very large plant.
Public art, Quincy Street at South State Street, Chicago

As I continued walking, I looked for more public art….

Photomontage showing two statues of women, one symbolizing agriculture and one symbolizing industry.
Photomontage, Chicago Board of Trade statues symbolizing agriculture and industry, c. 1885
A large bright red abstract sculpture standing in a plaza surrounded by skyscrapers.
Alexander Calder, Flamingo, Klucynzski Federal Building, Chicago, 1973
A large sculpture, about 100 feet tall, that looks like a huge baseball bat.
Claes Oldenberg, Batcolumn, Social Security Administration Building, Chicago, 1977

It turned out to be a very pleasant layover in Chicago.

Shelter in place

We got the shelter-in-place order from the San Mateo County Board of Health:

“Effective midnight tonight, the Health Officer of San Mateo County is requiring people to stay home except for essential needs. The intent of this order is to ensure the maximum number of people self-isolate in their places of residence to the maximum extent feasible. … This order is in effect until April 7. It may be extended depending on recommendations from public health officials.”

We’re allowed to go to the grocery store or the pharmacy, and we can go for walks outdoors if we stay away from other people, but that’s about it.

So Carol and I went up to the local grocery store at 5 p.m. We usually go shopping every day, but now we’d rather minimize our trips to the store, so we thought we’d pick up a few things. The store showed all the signs of panic buying — I call it panic buying because while there were no bags of rice on the shelves, there was plenty of bulk rice available. I also noticed that the only canned beans left on the shelf were good old B&M Baked Beans; Californians don’t really like New England style baked beans, not even when they’re panic-buying. In any case, we found plenty of food for our needs.

Then we went off so I could do my own panic buying. You see, the libraries closed a couple of days ago, and I’ve already finished the books I had taken out. I hate ebooks because they make my eyes tired. I hate Amazon. And if I don’t feed my reading addiction, things get ugly. So we went to our local Barnes and Noble, and I bought some books:

Yes, most of the books I got are junk — pulp fiction and cozy mysteries and science fiction magazines — but I got some serious books too. The book by Thomas Piketty should be dense enough to last me a while.

But … I don’t know … this may not be enough books … maybe I better rush down and buy more books before the bookstore closes….

Update, Friday, March 20: The Seminary Coop Bookstore in Chicago is offering free shipping to its book-deprived customers. Amazon doesn’t need your business right now! Feed your book addiction, and help keep one of the last independent coop bookstores in the U.S. alive. I just place an order with them, why don’t you? Below is an excerpt from the email they sent out:

Go to a bookstore

It’s the last day of Banned Books Week 2015. Local bookstores are often on the front lines of fighting local book bans. (And while I rely on the big behemoth booksellers, face-to-face bookstores can be centers of cultural resistance in a way that chain bookstores and online booksellers will never be.) With that in mind, I dug up some bookmarks from some of my favorite local bookstores:


Bookstores in the age of ebooks

According to this BBC feature article, best-selling author Ann Patchett believes it is still possible to have a successful bookstore. Six months ago she opened a bookstore in Nashville, Tennessee, and although she didn’t need to make a profit, in the interview she says “we’re doing really well.”

Patchett addresses the rise of ebooks. She does not denigrate ebooks, but points out that that many readers still appreciate a physical book. “Just because ebooks are becoming popular doesn’t mean that we should scoop all the other books into a pile and burn them,” she says. “And there is a spirit or attitude of, ‘Well, books are dead, it’s over, forget it.’ And it’s not over.”

Paying the bookstore tax

I went over to Berkeley to meet my friend Mike for lunch today. He told me about his forthcoming academic book. After we ate, we went to Dark Carnival, a bookstore in Oakland. As we were walking from the car to the bookstore, I told Mike that I now proudly claim my geekhood. “Geek pride,” I said. “I’m too f&$%ing old to be bothered hiding it any more.”

Claiming my geekhood means admitting — no, bragging about the fact that browsing in bookstores is one of my favorite activities. After a stressful week, I lower my blood pressure by going to bookstores. I probably read as much online as I read in books these days, but I still love going to bookstores. Bookstores are one of the few places where geeks and intellectuals still congregate in public, places where reading books is still a public and even social activity.

But bookstores are an endangered species, and I always make a point of paying the bookstore tax: you walk into a bookstore, you have to buy at least one book. Since I haven’t been to Dark Carnival in months, I bought four books, which was my way of paying back taxes. Despite the threat of the evil Amazombie, I want to be able to keep going to bookstores for a long, long time.