When I was a kid in suburban Maryland in the 1970s and ‘80s, bookstores seemed ubiquitous. We had two independent bookstores at opposite ends of a single shopping center. The mall boasted one chain bookstore after another. Books were everywhere, and everybody in my family had a preferred store based on stock, layout, lighting, and staff personalities.
I wish I remembered the name of my favorite independent bookstore back then. Though I can’t recall it, I can tell you exactly what the store looked like. Glass-fronted on two sides, it had a mitered corner so as not to obstruct the view of the treasures inside. In fact, the first time my parents took me there, I learned the term “miter” from my dad, as I ran my pudgy index finger down the subtle seam that joined the windows.
Once they led me through the door, I completely forgot about the glass. All manner of books lay and stood before me. To my left, dozens of low, square platforms supported glossy coffee-table books with lush photographs and illustrations, neat columns of fiction and nonfiction hardbacks, and stacks of comic books arranged like ziggurats and epic Marvel-versus-DC mahjong games. To my right, mass-market paperbacks lined row upon row of free-standing shelves and, beyond these, rotating racks of still more pocket paperbacks.
Howard Carter’s first glimpse of King Tut’s tomb couldn’t have felt more momentous.
Every weekend, I contrived a pilgrimage to that bookstore. Toys "R" Us never saw another dime of my allowance.
Every weekend, I contrived a pilgrimage to that bookstore. Toys "R" Us never saw another dime of my allowance. From the checkout station near the door, a staff member always greeted us. Once they learned our tastes, they noted the newly arrived stock that would appeal to me and to whichever parent had the unenviable task of trying to limit my browsing and decision-making time. As if anything could be more important in their Saturday schedule than my evaluation of the relative merits of the latest Avengers and Justice League comics or competing titles that promised to unlock the secrets of Loch Ness, Project Blue Book, and the Bermuda Triangle.
In a way, I grew up in that bookstore. My interests expanded, and, guided by the always-helpful staff, I kept discovering new sections of the store I’d overlooked before. In my teen years, an allowance gave way to summer job money. A good thing, because the books that captivated me were more expensive. I learned to budget and save due to that bookstore. My first serious crushes were on the pretty cashier and several customers—which taught me how to deal with longing, rejection, and heartache.
I went off to college and, during spring break of my freshman year, I returned to find the store had closed, a victim of changing tastes and a sharp-toothed recession. This helped to teach me how to cope with loss.
Now, whenever I visit my local indie bookstore, I still get excited. Maybe I’ll discover something life-changing. I know exactly where on Earth I stood when I first felt that thrill of possibility.
George Weinstein is the author of six novels. His latest is the suspense thriller and 2019 Okra Pick Watch What You Say. George is also the once and current president of the 105-year-old Atlanta Writers Club and the creator and director of the nationally renowned Atlanta Writers Conference.