Last night I gave my first “book talk” ever (this is, after all, my first book), for Phoenix Books in Burlington, Vermont, with Mike there as wingman and PowerPoint point person. We had a great time, and the audience seemed to enjoy the evening as well. They were wonderfully attentive, laughed at my quips—and many of them bought copies of Edward Hopper in Vermont. I even got to sit on the author’s side of the table (on the other side was a line of people, all holding books…be still my heart!), signing copies and chatting with my “fans.” One person took a photo of me signing a book for her daughter, who loves Hopper and used to live in South Royalton. Some of my Facebook and LinkedIn contacts came up and introduced themselves, virtual friends now become real. Pinch me, please! Is all of this really happening?
Yes, it is indeed, and another piece of good news is that this was more than a one-night stand for books in Burlington. The owners and staff of Phoenix Books have created a warm and welcoming oasis for authors and readers in the heart of the city. The store is attractive, spacious, and well-stocked. The staff are friendly and savvy, and they seem to genuinely like books and the people who buy them. And the store stays open until 10 p.m. on weekends!
When I first visited Phoenix Books a few weeks ago I was reminded of Borders in its heyday. In the mid-1990s, when Borders opened a three-story bookstore on Rittenhouse Square in Philadelphia, I practically lived there. John Ciardi was still alive and talking about words and poetry on NPR’s Morning Edition; if he read something I liked, I could pop into Borders on the way to work and buy a volume of poems to read on the bus. Browsing in Phoenix brought back the pleasure of simply being among Real Books—physically surrounded by them, not just scrolling through lists of titles—something I’d eschewed while being immersed in writing one of my own, lured by the time-saving convenience of shopping online while still in my pajamas.
I bought two books at Phoenix that day, one that I’d been wanting to read and another that simply caught my eye as I took a leisurely walk among the shelves—a luscious read that I never would have found other than serendipitously, in a Real Live Bookstore. At home, taking my purchases out of their sack, I re-discovered that irreplaceable, indescribable New Book Smell. It whets my appetite to read, read, read. And I think it disappears, somehow, from books stored in the warehouses of Amazon.com, traveling to us in the trucks of USPS, UPS, or FedEx.
Hence my Ode to Real Live Bookstores everywhere. Interestingly, while thinking about writing this paean, I found the Borders employees’ “Ode to a bookstore death” posted online in September. It’s an angry, disillustioned rant about customers, a sad testament to what Borders had become. What a happy contrast to see stores like Phoenix celebrating what bookstores are really ‘sposed to be about: Real Books, made of paper and cloth, and the people who read them.