Love the One You’re With

When you’re in my business, you visit a lot of bookstores. Big. Small. New. Used. Also shelves in department stores, kiosks, stalls, and library clearances. I’ve been to the bi-coastal giants, the Strand in Lower Manhattan and Powell’s City of Books in Portland, Oregon. Liked them a lot. And also the decidedly non-gigantic Grolier Poetry Bookshop right off Harvard’s campus, where I once spent a bundle of money and flew out with much heavier baggage. I frequented Border’s when there was only one, in downtown Ann Arbor, and later visited various lesser relatives in sundry towns. I’ve also been to half a dozen different bookshops in AA over the years. There are lovely bookstores in Petoskey (where I once gave a talk at McLean and Eakin) and Traverse City (where I aspire to). And let’s not even start on those emporiums of textbooks, college bookstores, which I often seek out.

But we’re talking love here, and for me there was only one. When I moved to East Lansing in 1975, there was no serious source for books in town–hence the acquaintance with Border’s at that other school down the highway. And then something magical happened. A former English professor started Jocundry’s Books and changed the city. It didn’t hurt that it was virtually next door to the crumbling barn that housed the English department or that it was right across from my favorite lunch spots. They got the right books in and hired excellent people to advise readers when the need arose. They had events in-house and sponsored others out on the street. When tragedy struck and the owner and two employees were killed in a plane crash (coming home, if memory serves, from a booksellers’ conference), the mourning was widespread. When they moved to newer digs on the main drag, it was an event, although many of us wondered if the success would buoy them up above the higher rent. It didn’t, and a host of factors led to the closing down of a cherished spot.

The store was replaced by a Barnes & Noble, which was actually very nice for a chain store. I eventually forgave them for being one of that “host of factors” that led to Jocundry’s demise. But it, too, closed after a number of years, leaving downtown East Lansing a new bookstore desert (we do have an excellent used bookseller, Curious Books, which has outlived all competitors). There is a B&N on the far side of Lansing, but it’s in a Mall and can never really be my store. There are also two branches of Schuler Books, a Grand Rapids-based independent, in neighboring towns, and they are very nice. I have friends and even former students there, and I have learned to love them, even if I can’t get to them via an easy bike ride as I could to Joc’s. Over the last two decades, we have all seen many bookstores and chains go dark, which is always a cause for sadness. Still, one never quite gets over that first heartbreak anymore than over that first new love. If your town still has a bookstore, embrace it, support it, and love it for the small miracle that it is.


July 4 Ramblings

I’m a day late here, but some observations about the Fourth of July are in order, especially since this one ended in a zero (240, for those of you keeping score at home). One of the surprising coincidences of the date is that two of the early heroes of the republic, John Adams and Thomas Jefferson, died not only on Independence Day but on the same one, 1826, on the fiftieth anniversary. You really couldn’t make this stuff up. As it happens, they died on the 22nd birthday of Nathaniel Hawthorne, who really is an outstanding candidate to be born on the Fourth of July.

And under the heading of no coincidences here, Walt Whitman published first edition of his great hymn of liberty, Leaves of Grass, on the great day in 1855. If, long after we vanish, someone wants to know about the American character, the American voice (what he called his “barbaric yawp”), they could do no better than to ignore everything else and read that poem. Like the poet, it is vast; it contains multitudes. Whitman’s maneuverings to publish his poem on the holiday equal those of James Joyce to publish Ulysses on his fortieth birthday. And why not? It’s the perfect date for such an appearance.

Finally, twenty-eight years ago, National Public Radio began its own tradition of presenting the entire Declaration of Independence read by the anchors, reporters, and commentators. Those early years had great voices–Red Barber, John Ciardi, Kim Williams, along with Susan Stamberg and Bob Edwards, among others. Of those, only Stamberg appears on this year’s installment. The result is always incredibly moving; at least, it is to me. Here’s a link to the current model: At the end of those early readings, co-host Bob Edwards always noted that King George wrote in his diary that “Nothing of any importance happened today.” Feel free to insert your own response noises.