This week’s topic, Bookstores, comes at an advantageous time for me, as I have recently had the pleasure of visiting two of Florida’s most well respected independent stores and had the distinct honor of meeting their owners and staff.
Bookstores have always been hallowed ground for me. Always the New Kid, the Bookworm, the Tomboy, all those childhood labels fell away as soon as I found a bookstore, the great equalizer, to get lost in.
No matter what new town I found myself in, the first thing I did, often before even unpacking, was to head out on foot or bicycle to find three things: the bookstore, the library, and the beach. They all held their own familiar scents, landscapes, and even people, and they were my true homes.
The bookstores of my Florida Gulfcoast childhood were musty, slanted wood-floor places, most often in what had once been a private home, with air conditioning units rattling in the windows and dust suspended in the sun-spoked, paper-rich air. Most had at least one twitchy-eared cat dozing on a stack of non-fiction, or a flag-tailed dog dreaming beneath a table piled high with used paperbacks.
I usually arrived hungry for words, barefoot, in cut-offs and a ratty tank or bathing suit top, without a dime in my pockets; just another freckle-faced beach-rat in a small, sandy town at first glance. But I didn’t look around for the soda machine and then leave. I stayed.
I stayed long enough to know where the floor dipped in front of the photography books, long enough to get a hand licked by the dog, a purr from the cat, long enough to find my favorite corner, where I could sit on the floor and read and not be in the way. Sometimes I stayed long enough that the owner forgot that I wasn’t a part of the store itself, a fixture as permanent as the worn shelves and painted shut windows. Sometimes they gave me small jobs, shelving books or tagging paperbacks, and they almost always had a Coke or NeHi for me.
I always wondered if they thought about me when I would inevitably move to a new town. I never said goodbye. Not for lack of remorse at leaving or lack of manners. It was simply the life we lived. We left. I packed my books and went to the next town, to find the next bookstore, the next book dog, the next reading corner. Did they wonder where the kid who loved books so much that she skipped school simply to be in their presence had disappeared to? Did they miss the extra pair of eager hands, the shy smile and bang-covered blue eyes of the New Kid, the Bookworm?
I’m still here. If I had to go to school I’d still skip it to find the bookstore. If I were independently wealthy I’d still shelve books for free. I will always stroke the book cat, will always notice the dip in the floor, the scent of fresh stories, and every other little detail that makes a bookstore unique and beloved. There is no place I would rather be. There are no other people I would rather talk to.
There are still kids like me, I know there are. They’re less likely to be barefoot and alone, and maybe they gravitate to Harry Potter instead of Trixie Belden, but these bookstores mean the world to them, as they still do to me.
I’d like to thank Mitchell Kaplan of Books & Books in Coral Gables for preserving those memories in his exquisite store, Chad Leonard for continuing the tradition of his parents at The Vero Beach Book Center, and Nancy Olson, whose renowned store in North Carolina, Quail Ridge Books & Music I’ve yet to visit, but whose unmistakable bookseller vibe enriched a recent weekend.