Jack and I arrived last night at Charles and Mary’s house, plopping down in their living room to catch up on the last ten years or so. We also plotted our gleeful invasion of Frankfort and Lexington’s bookstores the next morning.
A nice touch: when we went downstairs to their kitchen in search of coffee, fellow UVA Wise prof Brian McKnight’s book was lying on the table! He’d been at the KY Book Fair this year, which Mary and I will be doing 2012. Life is a glorious circle.
Charles and Mary are the kind of people who live simply but not slightly. They pay attention to the details in their calm, fulfilled lives. He’s a retired geologist, she still active as a storyteller (plus just finishing her new book of KY Folktales). They’re the kind of people who, making eggs for breakfast, picked out the dark Fiestaware plates so the yellow eggs (dotted with red peppers) would look nice on the blues and greens. Simple, but aware. Charles and Mary fully occupy their own lives.
So we looked forward to a great day with Charles as our guide. First up: Poor Richard’s Books, hooked in parternship but not ownership with Coffee Tree and Completely Kentucky. Now this, ladies and gentlemen, is cooperation; the businesses on either end (Richard’s and Kentucky) bought the shop between them and put in the coffee house, then sold it as a going concern some six years later. THAT’s planning and foresight and cooperation and I wish with all my being that we could foster them in our hometown.
These three shops also knocked door holes in their shared walls so you could walk between them. Since each has different opening hours, they have signs that announce, “If this door is closed, the shop you’re trying to get to through it is not open.”
So simple. So elegant. So cooperative. We tried to get a business down the street to do a joint event with us, and they wouldn’t return our phone calls. (Good thing we’re not bitter, eh?)
Poor Richard’s reminded one of the old law libraries with movable ladders and recessed wooden shelves. New books downstairs, used bestsellers in the Coffee Tree (but you pay for them in PR’s) and other used books upstairs. A nice arrangement.
A yuppie coffee and an Internet connection later, we headed to Georgetown, and the one bookshop Charles had not visited before. Of course, it had gone out of business last year. That makes seven we’ve found (or not, to be precise) that closed in the last year. Support your local bookseller, if you’re lucky enough to have one!!!
On to the next place, a new book retailer called Morris Books, this was a charming location with one of the nicest deco schemes we’d seen, huge signs on the wall showing where things are. Mary and I will each be working with them this coming year on book signings, and the women staffing the place were cheerful, laugh-a-minute types. It also turns out that the owner of Morris is good friends with the manager of Parnassus (that might be spelled wrong) in Nashville, the shop Ann Patchett recently backed. Partnerships are wonderful things when they’re equal. My agent’s assistant, Michelle, has already been in contact with Karen at Parnassus, so we’re looking forward to reconnecting with Morris as well.
From Morris we ambled to Glover’s, a rare and used book dealership with a resident Golden Retriever. “Thea” was the size of a small pony and gentler than a sleepy Quaker. She shared her toys with me and invited me to lower my blood pressure by petting her repeatedly as I browsed the shop. The owner, John Glover, said Half Price Books – cursed be they, the Wal-mart of used bookstores, based out of Texas–had cut his revenue so much that he was getting out of the used business to concentrate on rare: first editions, specialty titles, and the like. His shop sported several antique Bibles and other ancient editions of familiar titles. I only saw some of them because Thea had taken a real shine to me and required a lot of concentration.Thea enjoyed our visit at Glover’s Books, and an offering of unconditional love is rare enough in this world, so we both got what we needed from the relationship.
John owned his building and had been in business for some 30 years; his shop was dusty and covered in books–stacked along the stairs, sliding out of boxes, everywhere. Yet he, himself, reminded me of Larry, from the beautiful Reader’s Corner in Rolla, Missouri. Their shops could not have looked more different, and the books they stocked were wildly diverse, but their philosophies resembled one another: nobody, particularly not the town where you live, not the people who purport to be its biggest boosters, and certainly not the “commerce team” is going to help small entrepreneurs. But by golly, we know how to help ourselves, and to get on with our plans and create what we love, that other people will come to love, and that’s enough for a gracious, blessed life.
Up the localvores, kids, the real ones, not the politicos. And here’s to all of us who do what’s in front of us because it’s good, and makes us happy.
So I finally tore myself away from Thea, we said goodbye to John, and on to the next shop. We stopped briefly at Sqecial Media (no, that’s really how it’s spelled) but it was more gifts than books, so we moved on soon. (Nice place, just not what we were after.)
The last shop of the day held a pleasant surprise. We met our first African American bookseller. He owned Wild Fig Books, which until May of this year had been Morgan Adams Books, owned by the same woman who ran Squecial Media. Mr. Wilkinson had worked for her a few years, and when she decided to close up, he bought her inventory, closed for a month, and reopened as Wild Fig.
“It’s named after a metaphor Gail Johnson, an author here in town, uses a lot. My wife, Crystal Wilkinson, is a writer, and she really admires Gail, so that’s how the store got its name.”
Crystal Wilkinson’s name was familiar to Charles and me, and it turns out she was one of the founding Afralachian poets, along with Nikki Giovanni and Frank X. Walker. I promptly asked for and bought one of her books of short stories.
Again, turn a bookshop owner’s heart inside out, and that’s what the shelves will show. The shop, as he explained, stocked new books but was primarily used, and he’d only brought in the new books because most of the best books had left the shop in the closing out sale. He had a cracking art history section, and a lot of the used books featuring African American experiences or writers were displayed sideways on the shelves.
I explained about our bookshop, adding how we’d put our own inventory into it to get started.
He grinned. “Yep. All my beautiful art books, the things that really mattered to me, that I’d bought with my discount while working here, they all went back in. It hurt, but I did what had to be done.”
We shared the smile of Those Who Sacrifice To Make It Happen.
He got the details of my upcoming book and we wished each other well. Jack had offered to make his world famous vegetable curry for Charles and Mary, so we headed back to the house for a little down time before he started cooking.
There’s some old proverb that says a simple meal with friends is better than a feast in the palace of a king. And that is true, especially when it ends with the famous Charlesian Chocolate Brownies. Restful evenings are lovely things, and tomorrow, New Year’s Day, is the finale of our bookshop extravaganza, for we head back down the road toward home. I suppose I should pontificate here about New Years, New Plans, New Resolves. But I’m full of brownies and the living room is peaceful with friendship and music, so let that be a fitting end to this year.
Happy New Year and God Bless Us, Every One!