Sunday, October 30, 2011

Ode to a Dead Bookstore

The proud name that once blazed in bold white lettering is now just a shade blacker -- with speckles of white -- than its slightly lighter black background. The street-level windows that once shouted the titles of mega sellers –- in row after seemingly endless row -- to anyone encountering the busy intersection of Lake and Harlem are now silent and draped in black. The entire street corner seems to be in mourning and with good reason: Borders, the mega chain that devoured indie bookstores for breakfast, has died.

I joined the hordes of book-loving scavengers during the Oak Park store’s final days and have retained a permanent mental impression of at least four visits: the everything-is-10%-off sale that seemed to draw in every book lover within a 10-mile radius all the way down to the last visit when the stairway to the basement was roped off and the only items remaining were a few scattered books, Christmas CDs, odd little gift packets, and mangled Father’s Day cards. On my way out the door with two CDs and a few history books, I whispered goodbye and nearly shed a tear. Because this particular store holds some personal memories for me.

In the Meg Ryan/Tom Hanks film, “You’ve Got Mail,” the Ryan character, Kathleen Kelly, owns an indie bookstore inherited from her late mother but is eventually forced out of business by Fox Books – a mega chain not unlike Borders. In one particularly touching scene, when Kelly is locking up her empty store for the last time, she has a memory, provided cinematically for the audience, of herself as a child and her mother dancing together in their book store. Kelly is heartbroken, not only because her business has failed but because for her the store is inexorably linked with memories of her beloved mother.

Although the book stores are reversed in my personal tale – it’s as if I’m mourning the loss of Fox Books – the Oak Park Borders was located only two miles from my house and had become an integral part of my family’s life. It became a frequent stop on day-long or after school outings with my kids. I’d grab a book then head down to the children’s section where my kids would poke around, read, point out to me a literary character puppet or two and have an all-around good time, all the while surrounded by vast stretches of books.

And that was the thrill of walking into the store, especially if I had a gift card in my hand, which I often did around the holidays (what will my students give me now, I wonder?). There were books absolutely everywhere, row upon row on every subject, pleading for my attention, begging me to take them home like so many adorable dogs or cats at an animal shelter. “Pick me! Pick me” their titles would scream as I’d walk by. I would soon narrow my search to one or two areas, knowing that the process was going to take a while. It always seemed impossible to squeeze all my bookish desires into a $20.00 limit but by the time I had finished sifting through the most promising candidates, I was usually very happy with my new books. What a phrase: a new book. The smell, the feel, the look of the pages all semi-stuck together and waiting for me to make it real by holding it in my hand and reading every page. I’d then proceed with the next task -- a difficult one -- of locating a vacant spot on one of my home shelves which usually meant relegating an older book into a carefully labeled box to be opened only in the unlikely event that I would ever get additional book shelf space.

As time went on my daughter, a chronic devourer of YA lit, became the only child who continued to accompany me to the store with any regularity. When Borders first showed signs of illness and the finance doctors prescribed emailed coupons for anyone who’d sign up, my daughter and I purchased a complete hardcover Harry Potter set, one book at a time, each one at least 30 percent off the discounted price. My eldest son, once an avid reader and now a thoughtful film critic in the making, used his coupons to build his video collection and also to buy gifts for the rest of the family. Firstborns have a tendency to do things like that.

Speaking of generosity, Oak Park’s main indie store, The Book Table, only a 90-second walk from Borders -- I think of it as The Book Store That Lived -- managed to do more that survive despite its unfortunate location: it flourished and I think I’m beginning to understand why. While Borders chose not to stock my recently published YA book on WWII heroines (except online), Jason, co-owner of The Book Table, not only stocked it but also volunteered to sell it at two local readings, a gesture that has made me ashamed that I cannot count myself as one of the reasons his store survived. In the wake of Borders’ demise, it’s obviously time for me to rethink my perception of what a book store is or what it ought to be. It should be something very similar to The Book Table, a store that makes its own decisions and that supports and is in turn supported by its local population. And although I am forced to admit feeling a pang every time I walk past the ghostly remains of the mega-store I once loved, I just keep walking until I find myself through the doors of The Book Table where the floor plan may be smaller but where the stock -- piled much higher -- is vastly more varied and its personal connection to the community unequaled.

Sunday, October 23, 2011

"Vet, be not Proud" by John Donne's Cat (from Henry Beard's Poetry for Cats)

Vet, be not proud, though thou canst make cats die
Thou livest but one life, while we live nine,
And if our lives were half as bleak as thine,
We would not seek from thy cold grasp to fly.
We do not slave our daily bread to buy;
Our eyes are blind to gold and silver's shine;
We owe no debt, we pay no tax or fine;
We tremble not when creditors draw nigh.
The sickest animal that thou dost treat
Is weller than a man; in peace we dwell
And know not guilt or sin, and fear not hell:
Poor vet, we live in heaven at thy feet.
But do not think that any cat will weep
When thee a higher vet doth put to sleep.

Saturday, October 22, 2011

Emily Dickinson CXII

I like to see it lap the miles
And lick the valleys up,
And stop to feed itself at tanks
And then, prodigious, step

Around a pile of mountains,
And, supercilious, peer
In shanties by the sides of roads;
And then a quarry pare

To fit its sides, and crawl between,
Complaining all the while
In horrid, hooting stanza;
Then chase itself down hill

And neigh like Boanerges;
Then, punctual as a star,
Stop -- docile and omnipotent --
At its own stable door.