GABST: What a long strange trip it’s been…

photo (64)Well, this is it. As I write this post, I’m looking over at my packed luggage, a rolling suitcase I’ll have to both check and probably pay an additional weight fee for — as it’s about 75% full of books — and a duffel bag I bought in SLC to house the remainder of my belongings, silly things like “clothes” and “my laptop.” I may not be going home a better person, but definitely one with more stuff.

In some ways I can’t believe that the Great American Bookstore Tour is over. I’ve been planning and talking about it for so long that I wonder how I’ll convince people I’m an interesting person who does interesting things after this. But in other ways, it feels like I’ve been gone forever, and looking back I almost can’t believe that Seattle was two weeks ago, not two months, or that I took my gorgeous trip to Alcatraz last Friday, not last year. I think I ultimately wound up with an ideal vacation — one that included plenty of opportunities for kicking back — but I also packed my days with interviews, eating, sightseeing and bookstore visits, and it’ll be hard to top my 4-mile-a-day walking average once I get back to New York (even though it’s New York).

Now, let’s get misty-eyed. I knew going into this trip that I was going to meet some amazing people, people who have dedicated their lives to an industry with decades (centuries?) of historical tumult, people who have spent 10, 20, even 30 years in a retail business with low profit margins and limited salary potential. And indeed, I met people who came to book-selling from department stores, from banking, from food service. I met people who have been in the book business for most of their lives, and people who can’t foresee a time when they won’t be. I saw stores that have revitalized neighborhoods, brought communities together, and fought for free speech. And that’s all before you consider their workaday mission: disseminating knowledge and ideas, expanding minds, and convincing people of all ages and backgrounds to spend their hard-earned money on books, not because (or not simply because) it’s necessary for the stores’ bottom line, but because these people want to exist in a world where everyone reads, where everyone is as enthralled by the written word as they are. Independent booksellers are like your friend who just saw a movie they loved; “you have to see it,” they tell you, not because of what’s in it for them, but because they want for you that experience, that excitement, that love of something truly great.

photo (65)
The final haul, divided by city.

For me, bookstores have always been places of comfort, caverns of potential escape, avenues into new worlds or refreshing glimpses into worlds we already know. I love their ordered clutter, their smell, their promise of possibility. And so to go on this trip was a privilege; to set foot into these spaces, carefully curated by people all over the country, was an honor. That most of said people were not only willing but eager to speak with me was incredible, and their enthusiasm only exacerbated mine. Rather than facing bookstore fatigue, I’m overjoyed to think that I have merely scratched the surface here, that I could do this once a year probably for the rest of my life. Perhaps I have already, in the corners of my mind not discouraged by things like “cost” and “vacation time,” begun ruminating on a GABST Part Deux.

But from this inaugural journey, I feel that there are two takeaways I want to impart (there are actually many, but two that I can wrap my mind around on a Friday morning). The first is that book-selling, and specifically independent book-selling, is hard work. I saw owners and CEOs out on the floor, talking to customers and ringing up purchases, not because (or not simply because) they enjoy doing it, but because they must, because they all wear a thousand hats and do a thousand things, because no task is too small, because delegating isn’t always an option.

More challenging still, booksellers’ product changes constantly, to the tune of 200,000+ new models a year (in the U.S. alone) and they are expected by their customers to keep up, to stay knowledgable and helpful and to know where to look when they don’t know the answer. Unlike a hardware or grocery store, whose staff isn’t expected to get you excited about hammers or eggs, bookstore employees are supposed to be infectious; they’re supposed to love reading and make you love it too. For some of them, for many of them, this comes naturally. But the bar is set high, and the countless people I encountered who are meeting it impressed me every single time.

The second takeaway is this: Reading is not dead. Yes, we love our iPhones and iPads and televisions. Yes, we think and work in shorter bursts, and our attention is frequently divided, and reading — especially long, focused reading — is an easy thing to lose along the way. But there’s a strong streak of optimism running through the independent bookstore community, and it’s not fueled by ignorance or denial. These stores have loyal customers; they’re in the black. They create and enhance communities of existing readers, and they help develop the readers of tomorrow. One need look no further than the explosion in young-adult literature to realize that, as Paul Yamazaki of City Lights told me, this is not an “either/or” situation, but an “and/and” one. We can tweet and text and watch TV and play Bewejeled and we can read. Many of us — not everyone, but many — already are.

Finally, even though this is just a silly personal blog, and even though there’s no need on silly personal blogs to include acknowledgments, I feel that I must thank people. People like Peter Aaron at Elliott Bay, and Miriam Sontz at Powell’s. People like Paul at City Lights and Joyce Meskis at Tattered Cover and Patrick Marks at The Green Arcade. Each of them took time out of their busy lives for me, and not merely because I said the word “Reuters,” but because they were excited to, and in love with the idea of this trip. They showed me around their stores, and let me peek behind the scenes. They introduced me to their employees, and indulged my (silly, unimportant) opinions on book publishing. They were all so very lovely and generous and amazing that I feel blessed (a word I very rarely use) to have been able to share even the smallest amount of time with any of them. Reading isn’t dying because we as a society still love books — their offer of escapism and emotion and impact — but it’s also not dying because of people like them.

Cities visited: 6
Bookstores visited: 27
Books purchased: 37
Laptops broken: 1
Bookstore t-shirts purchased: 3
Wyoming sweatshirts purchased: 1


9 thoughts on “GABST: What a long strange trip it’s been…”

  1. Kira,

    I have read, and re-read, this post and my heart continues to flood with such warm emotion. Oh, from the first time I heard you discussing your plans I have been ‘hooked’, both to your journey, and to your commitment to the concept of each visit.

    For Tom & me, over the past few years, actual visits to local bookstores have been enriched by the virtual experiences of the ‘book channel’. To be honest, I have, repeatedly, paid as much attention to the projected environment of the bookstore as I did to each author’s presentation.

    Your (and indirectly that of all of us who treasure you) deep, boundless joy of anticipation is currently being replaced by the satisfaction of completion. But, I believe this transition, the reality of “This is over”, can bring a sense of loss. The dream is coming to a close. How often, when we awaken from a delicious dream, we want to go back to sleep. Have faith that your book store journey is an authentic dream that can continue in the present.

    Your affirmation of the continued relevance of bookstores, and your detailed valuing of mangers of book stores feels good. My life is richer because of your epic blog, because you bothered to feed my love for the print, because you treasure aloud these ever-renewing resources. Your values pulse delight-filled life for many of your readers.

    The old Irish, when deeply moved by appreciation, begin, “And up from my heart of hearts…” it is from this deeply-protected, ever-sensitive self flows my thank-you.


  2. It was wonderful to see you during your cross country adventure. You have inspired me to give myself the gift of time to sit down and enjoy a book without worrying that I should be doing something more “productive”. Reading IS productive, and like you, I have a library of books waiting to be opened. I will calm my mind and make reading time a priority.

    I’m so glad you got to see the country. Traveling the open road is something not many people have the guts to do alone. It’s liberating and exciting and you’ll remember it forever. And every time you see a “Little America”, you’ll think of your trip…and your awesome Wyoming sweatshirt.

    Love you cousin! I look forward to visiting you at home and I hope to see your favorite NYC bookstores!

  3. I will miss the daily blog… and want to believe that your parents had some small part in making you the passionate and intellectually curious person that you are : ) Reading and travel go so well together that St. Augustine said “The world is a book and those who do not travel read only a page.’

  4. It has been a vicarious pleasure to accompany you on this trip. Not only was this series a fine piece of literary tourism, but it was the essential message you carried that struck deepest: long live bookstores, books, and the wonderful people who sell them. I look forward to GABST, Part Deux.

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