By Luis Alberto Urrea
2:20 PM AKST, November 16, 2012
I didn't get to grow up with a local bookstore. But my daughter did. When I was a kid, there was not only no bookstore in the 'hood, but no library, either. It wasn't until we left the barrio close to the border and got to a little dull suburb that I found the joy of a regular bookstore.
It was one of those little storefront shops behind the supermarket. Down from the barbershop where the old barbers were ignored by the hippies and trimmed the same granddads' crew cuts every week. Next to the coin-op laundry.
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The bookstore was one of those shops with a cute name — Book Nook or Second Time Around or Sally's Re-Readers. It was chock-full of used paperbacks, and you could buy them for a few cents, or you could trade Sally two books for one unread one. Heaven! My mom unloaded so many unwanted paperbacks there that we had a card full of credit in the little plastic box. I discovered John D. MacDonald's Travis McGee books there, thank you very much. And Elmore Leonard.
Nothing fancy, but magic in every dusty sneeze-inducing coffee-stained moldy section. Sally even had a raggedy shelf of profoundly unwanted poems. Yevtushenko! I tell you, this was a revolution to have a Russian lurking around behind Von's market.
I moved to the Boston area in 1982, and it was an orgy of bookstores. I went from zero to 60 in four seconds flat. Bookstores in Cambridge, Somerville, Waltham, Boston. I went two hours on the Red Line and the Green Line just to get to a bookstore off the beaten track. I was making up for lost time, I guess.
No wonder, then, that I became a writer. Everything about books was sacred and fun and self-indulgent — and every book was a new addition to my own self-made Ph.D. I had a Ph.D. in basement shelves.
It came to pass that I published a bunch of books, and they ended up in other people's favorite bookstores. I went on tour, visiting these great shops all over the country. I realized even then, when some people in Indiana knew of this new book awesomeness called Borders, that it was the independent booksellers selling my work. These smaller stores in neighborhoods were the only way a guy like me could connect with readers who did not know me or care all that much about my subject matter. I learned this new phrase they used: "Hand-selling."
I got better at it. My original one-client or zero-client book signings started to generate, oh, six, seven, even eight rabid fans. Stampedes, I tell you! And the hand-sellers acted as if it was a great evening and gave me tea and sold me haiku books and weird European books about talking fish. But they always invited me back. We have come a long way, those of us who have survived these hard years. A lot of those cherished spaces are empty now, and I wish everybody had grown up in a book desert so they would have cared for their neighborhood stores better.
And then I moved to Chi-town. It wasn't part of my life plan. My family was like a fairy-tale gone sideways. I was trying to get us all back up to the Rockies, where I had lived among some sweet bookstores and sweeter mountains. But my attention was caught by the University of Illinois, which offered me tenure if I would bring my writin' ways to the city. Yowza! A job they can't fire me from? I'm there.
We gravitated to Naperville. Thirty miles closer to the Rockies. (I'm doing things more gradually now.) It's a little gem of a town — a river, as they say, runs through it. A fat wild turkey seems to think itself sheriff of our street and patrols the houses, scolding parked cars that irritate its pin-size mind. And downtown, that cool little downtown I never had, with old cowboy buildings and sparkling lights in the trees on the main street, there was this bookstore: Anderson's.
Went in. Loved it. Hung out there a lot. Was deeply proud when it won awards for general awesomeness. Hung out with Becky Anderson at various literary events around the country. Got to go to the thousands of book signings they sponsor and use my evil influence to go down to the basement to meet the literary heroes hiding down there before their readings. Thank you, Becky.
But this story is not about me. This story is about my daughter. She first entered Anderson's as a toddler. Can you imagine what that meant to me? My baby girl stumbling around, chewing on books and playing with the wooden train set they had in the front of the store.
It began at Anderson's. It didn't take long for our girl to turn from the huge stuffed animals and trains to the bright shelves. Books! She found books. She liked scary monster books, though she called them "cary mongers." And, at 18 months, she had the bug bad enough that she'd listen to us read the stories, memorize them and then hold the book and make believe she was reading them back to us. Out loud. Perfectly. Thank you, Becky.
Our daughter is now 12 years old. She has spent her entire childhood among the turkeys and the trees and the shelves of Anderson's. I can chart the seasons of her life by the section of shelves we enter. Cary monger books followed by "Mr. Putter" and pop-up and "Goodnight Moon" books. And first chapter books: that series about the nutty little girl in fourth grade who always gets in some jam. And the Wimpy Kid. And onward! Yes! Talking cats! "Goosebumps"! Fantasy stories! "Twilight"! The epic of Katniss. I can step to every section of the bookstore and see my child there, serious as a chemist, working those shelves to find the perfect combination of subject, cover art, heft, color. Making magic stairways that lead her upward.
You will forgive me a small tug of melancholy now, as we see her move to the adult shelves and give them tentative scans.
Do you know what we did this week? We went to Anderson's so our daughter could meet R.L. Stine. She was bouncing off the roof — it was like taking her to meet a rock star. She took her ruined favorite cary monger books with her. And they immediately fell into a discussion about the Tower of London and how creepy it was and how he'd put an element of it into one of her destroyed books and she shouted that she knew it, she just knew it! Then she told R.L. Stine exactly what part of the Tower he'd been thinking of.
I didn't have that when I was a child.
Thank you, Becky.
Luis Alberto Urrea is the author of, among other books, "The Devil's Highway," "The Hummingbird's Daughter" and "Into the Beautiful North."
Excerpted with permission of Black Dog & Leventhal from "My Bookstore." © 2012 by Luis Alberto Urrea.
Luis Alberto Urrea's appreciation of Anderson's Bookshop is one of more than 80 essays in "My Bookstore," a collection of authors' love letters to independent bookstores throughout the United States. The Book Stall at Chestnut Court is also featured.
Black Dog & Leventhal, 384 pages, $23.95