Two small bookstores that have a big place in my heart
Though hard economic times have led to lots of restaurant, café, and clothing store closures, it's rare that a Parisian bookstore fails. On the other hand, I’ve read with sadness and horror about the closings of many US bookshops – be they chain stores like Borders, or smaller locales.
I'm glad that two of my favorite independent bookstores in the US are still around to enjoy and visit today.
When I was a teenager, my dad and I took a trip to several spots in eastern Pennsylvania. We don’t have a lot in common, and our destinations showed our disparate tastes: a microbrewery and Independence Hall for him; Philadelphia's Edgar Allan Poe House and the Museum of Art for me. But my dad had also come up with a surprise pit-stop near West Chester: Baldwin’s Book Barn, an early 19th century barn that's been converted into a bookshop.
I was touched by my dad’s thoughtfulness; Baldwin’s Book Barn was like heaven for me. Five stories of crammed bookshelves and cozy corners. The books were antiques – a rarity in my life at the time. I ended up coming home with a boxful. I still have most of them; some I even brought with me to France.
Published in 1886, A Tramp Trip: How to See Europe on Fifty Cents a Day by Lee Meriwether fueled my travel hopes and dreams (though of course I knew it would cost me more than 50 cents a day to see Europe). It's still one of my most cherished books.
On the other hand, I have to admit that I bought this one, The Rise and Fall of the Mustache, mostly for its title, which always makes me chuckle.
Previous owners have written their names in both books, but what I found especially intriguing is the person who scrawled "Bought for the Good of the People" onto an opening page of The Rise and Fall of the Mustache.
I don't know if I would have done this today, but at the time when I bought these books, I felt so touched by the traces left by their previous owners, that I added the date and place I bought them, in very contemporary ballpoint pen.
Though Baldwin's Book Barn’s website presents it as a convivial gathering place for bibliophiles and writers, when I was there, I paid no attention whatsoever to the people or activities going on around me. All I remember is the old floors and ceilings, and between them, shelves upon shelves of glorious old tomes. Utter bliss.
In a completely different setting, the Housing Works Bookstore Cafe, at 126 Crosby Street, New York, New York is another small bookshop I love.
One day, while exploring Soho, I came upon this warmly lit place. In a high-ceilinged cream-colored interior, books are elegantly arranged on wood-panelled shelves on the main floor and on the narrow balconies of a second floor, which is accessible by a charming spiral staircase. While many of the books are full price, there are discounted ones as well; I’ve found some great bargains here. On one wall of the bookstore is a café area where snacks and drinks are sold, and there are tables where you can sit and savor them while taking in your surroundings...or pouring over the pages of a book.
The Housing Works Bookstore Cafe is such a pleasant place to browse and pick up a book or two. Every time I visit New York, I make a stop here, and I always leave wishing I could live out the remainder of my life in a little corner of it. Apparently I’m not the only one who’s fallen for the site; the space can be rented for catered events – including wedding receptions, giving me another idea for my dream wedding.
Me on the second floor of the Housing Works Bookstore Cafe
The best thing of all is that the money you spend here goes to Housing Works, an HIV/AIDS charity. So not only do you get to eat, drink, and read (and possibly get married) in a wonderful environment; you’re helping others all the while.
I understand completely why bookstore chains exist, and I freely and unashamedly admit to sometimes spending money at Amazon.com and Amazon.fr, and chains like the FNAC and Gibert Joseph here in France. But nothing can beat the experience of entering an independent bookstore and feeling that special sensation, as if the books are closer to you somehow, a living presence. Without these places, the world would lose some of its magic.