Good For Your Booklife: In Praise of Indie Bookstores

One thing about my recent five-week book tour behind Finch and Booklife that I particularly loved was getting to read in so many great independent bookstores. Indies are extremely important to the well-being of book culture and often serve as strongholds for author events. This month, Indiebound has listed Finch as one of its Indie Notables, something I’m very proud of.

You can find some longer descriptions of indies in my book tour reports for Omnivoracious, but below the cut I’ve written downpersonal impressions of the indie bookstores I visited during the tour–including some little-known facts about each. A huge thanks to each and every one of them.

I’m also rolling out the new Finch negative campaign ad video (see above). Friends and fans from all over the world contributed to the video. After some bugs in moviemaker, Matt Staggs stepped in to finish it, including doing the voice-over. If you like the book, please feel free to post the video and a link to Indiebound this month, along with your own praise of the indies. Thanks.

BETWEEN BOOKS (Claymont, DE) – Tucked away in a strip mall and run by Greg Shauer for the last 30 years, Between Books is the ultimate science fiction/fantasy bookstore. Greg doesn’t do returns, and so you can find all kinds of hidden treasures. I felt lucky I only had about half an hour to browse, because I could easily have spent a thousand dollars or more. The ambiance of the store is both inviting and wonderfully jam-packed with books—and Star Wars mobiles and all manner of other genre-related paraphernalia, including comic books. The place has the feel of a shrine as well as a bookstore, and the laidback, friendly Greg is a living reference text on genre fiction. In short, Between Books has substance and heft for hardcore fans while still being welcoming to a casual SF/fantasy reader. The place looks like it should smell musty, with weak sunlight penetrating and mixing with fluorescent lights to reveal floating golden dust, but it only resembles an old library. Little-known fact: The bookcase in the back left corner of Between Books conceals a passageway to a series of tunnels that lead to a uber-library deep beneath the earth. Over the years, the Claymont artist community has built a cultural bomb shelter in the space. If the end of art as we know it ever occurs, still there will be a safe place.

THE BOOK ESCAPE (Baltimore, MD) – More of a bookmine than a bookstore, this is one of those classic places that you feel will still be there in a hundred years. Looking through the store is a constant process of discovery and delight. It manages to be as comfortable as someone’s livingroom and as scholarly as a library. Here you do see the dust motes dancing and hear the creak of wooden planks under your feet. The area for readings has a similar sense of comfort, with the audience gathered around in a variety of wooden chairs. Little-known fact: Likenesses of ravens have been lightly carved into the underside of every bookshelf. But Poe’s body is not buried in the basement, despite local legend.

BOOK SOUP (Los Angeles, CA) – Cramped with overflowing plain wooden shelves and tables piled high with books, Book Soup on the Sunset Strip has an eclectic selection—just their music essays section is stunning and unique. Counterbalancing the bibliophile-pleasing clutter, Book Soup has an uncanny knack for placing, for example, a whole display of Europa Editions in front of those readers addicted to such pleasures. The staff is sharp and attentive. Book Soup has an underlying scent of sawdust that, were it to permeate the air above the sidewalk outside would tell passersby “bookstore” as readily as any sign. Little-known fact: When he wants some anonymity, former Vice-President Al Gore dons a cloak and a beret, attaches a Dali mustache, and flits through Book Soup to a room in the back specially reserved for celebrities in disguise. In this back room, Book Soup employees have set up a world-wide command-and-control, using as intelligence points other independent bookstores. While eating a peanut-butter-and-banana sandwich and sitting in a comfy chair, Gore monitors these “bookpoints”.

CHAPEL HILL COMICS Shop(Chapel Hill, NC) – Clean, crisp, and immaculate, with lots of open space and ringed by large stuffed animal monsters, Chapel Hill Comics dispels the usual image of a comics store as cramped and close. Owner Andrew Neal runs a tight ship, knows his stuff, and provides a whimsical and enjoyable browsing experience. The effect is a bit like walking into a world of visual delights. Neal knows modern comics buyers are a diverse group, and the store reflects that knowledge in both style and stock. Another store in which I could have spent a lot of money. Little-known fact: The stuffed animals that ring the store come to life afterhours, animated by the souls of those who in life disdained comic books. Fated to read throughout the dead hours of the night in the Chapel Hill Comics Shop, they find that this purgatory is unexpectedly enjoyable. In the morning, they stare down with envy at customers pawing pages.

CLAYTON BOOKS(Clayton, CA), CA) – Inviting, bristling with books, Clayton is run ship-sharp by Joel Harris, with Vinitha Fredenburgh impressive re the depth of research on incoming authors. A great general bookstore committed to writer events, Clayton Books exudes professionalism and verve. The children’s section is particularly robust. A writer could get used to hanging out in this place. Little-known fact: Joel Harris has secretly made Clayton books not only mobile but amphibious. Should the strip mall in which the store is located ever fail, he will push a button and Clayton Books will lurch onto its foot-treads and make its way, by hill and by lake, to some new, pristine location.

COPPERFIELD’SPetaluma, CA) – Set like a jewel in the middle of Petaluma’s downtown shopping area, Copperfield’s has the space to offer a wide variety of selections, including a downstairs. Brightly lit and festive, the place is the quintessential large indie bookstore—with a knowledgeable staff, places to sit, and a sense of both history and a commitment to the future. Ray, one of the managers, is as savvy and cheerful as they come, with a special affinity for comics. In Copperfield’s you can find a great selection of graphic novels alongside a commitment to the best in literary mainstream fiction. Little-known fact: Ray has arranged the graphic novels section in such a way that it conveys a message in code to Alan Moore, or to any of the army of Alan Moore’s minions that have been sent out across the world to collect such messages. To the rest of us, it means nothing, alas.

FOUNTAIN BOOKSTORE (Richmond, VA) – Run by Kelly Justice, Fountain Bookstore features a crack staff and a handpicked selection of great fiction and nonfiction, in a snug but comfortable space smack dab in the middle of downtown Richmond. If you do a reading in Fountain and your book includes mushrooms or comes with a soundtrack, expect to see a shrine of mushrooms when you enter, and the soundtrack playing in the background. If you mention an arcane name like “Jodorowsky,” expect to hear strange movie titlesand stranger trivia. Little-known fact: Late at night, the Fountain Bookstore shifts from location to location around the world. Sometimes you can find it tucked away in a back alley in Buenos Aires. Other times, it turns up after dark in a crowded shopping boulevard in Berlin or even Istanbul. This is why you so frequently see the staff reading tourist guides and brushing up on their French and other languages. These travels are building toward some greater purpose involving the empty basement of the store, but Justice stays mute on the subject.

MALAPROPS BOOKSTORE (Asheville, NC) – Featuring a café and located in the middle of the cultural Mecca that is downtown Asheville, Malaprops crams an amazing number of books into a relatively small space while rarely seeming cramped, perhaps because the lighting provides few places for shadows to accumulate. The store aggressively promotes staff picks and author events, doing a good job of promoting local writers. Little-known fact: The owner of Malaprops has a strict rule regarding employee hires—they must be able to do ballroom dancing. Twice a year, each employee must enter the Asheville Ballroom Dancing Extravaganza for the greater glory of the bookstore. This fact, however, is the reason that so many employees in the store appear to be walking on air.

POWELL’S BOOKSTORE(Portland, OR) – Whether it’s the main location or the Cedar Hills outpost, Powell’s exudes indie cool. Powell’s Central is so big you can walk lonely as a ghost through its stacks, taking in by equal measure the smell of dust and must, the scent of coffee and cinnamon coming from the café, and the freshness of the cold that periodically blusters in during the winter from the front doors. There are four stories or more of books here, all carefully catalogued and shelved, with a great selection of local zines and authors tucked away in a corner. Wherever you go the stacks tower over you, and you know you are in the presence of both the hip and the venerable. Little-known fact: If you were to remove the roof from Powell’s and stare straight down from the air, you would discover that the positioning of the stacks creates the exact same symbol that figures so prominently in John Dee’s Ars Magica. Further, you would see that Powells’ owners have hidden their gold in compartments in the tops of the supporting walls.

UNIVERSITY BOOKSTORE (Seattle, WA) – The figurative and literal giant Duane Wilkins claims the University Bookstore as his kingdom, taking great care with and displaying great affection toward his selection of genre titles. You can find just about anything you want in the University Bookstore, but Duane’s made a special redoubt of the SF/fantasy section, stocking not just the usual suspects but indie press material. Chameleon-like, he’s got one eye on the history of the genre and one on the future. Here’s a bookstore, multi-leveled, in which you will find the unusual and the unexpected should you venture to other sections. Bright and crisp, yet still undeniably bohemian and indie, the University Bookstore belongs to that amazing strip of college stores, bars, and restaurants that makes this part of Seattle so attractive for an afternoon of browsing. Little-known fact: Sometimes Duane Wilkins is writing a hundred-year history of the genre based in part on the secret notebooks of H.P. Lovecraft and August Derleth. What he knows that others don’t fills him with a secret sense of satisfaction akin to glee that he tries hard to hide. Sometimes you’ll hear him muttering “L. Ron Hubbard was an arse,” but this is unrelated to his clandestine project.