GABST Days 11 and 12: Denver denouement

Queen Anne B&B
Queen Anne B&B

I have to admit that my first impressions of Denver were negative. After a solid 8 hours of driving (around five of which were in Wyoming, i.e. 99.9% snowy hills. Like literally, 350+ miles of just snowy hills) I was road-weary, and ready to roll up to a good first-impression city. Denver …is not so much that city. After exiting off I-80 (so friendly had I-80 and I become that actually said goodbye to it, out loud) I found myself on I-25 South, a highway that takes you into the heart of downtown Denver, via the city’s super generic suburbs. Bounded on either side by shopping complexes, big-box retailers, Starbucks and gas stations, I-25 is nothing to write home about. In fact, it reminded me a great deal of suburban Maryland, where I grew up. Even Denver proper, a low-key city (aesthetically speaking) is just kind of suddenly….there, with little fanfare save the sudden increase in building height. 

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It’s almost Great American Bookstore Tour time, and I need your help

A photo from my last epic road trip -- a Spring Break 2007 trek to New Orleans. This is about three minutes after I won a bet about how long I could stay on a mechanical bull. As they say, don't threaten me with a good time.
From my last epic road trip — a 2007 trek to New Orleans. This is shortly after I won a bet — with a skeevy stranger — about how long I could stay on a mechanical bull. Don’t threaten me with a good time.

About ten months ago, I began planning a vacation-slash-road-trip that would take me to the western coast of ye olde United States and, more importantly, to six of the greatest independent bookstores our country has to offer. Now, as spring peeks its timid head up over miniature piles of lingering snow-sludge, my literary adventure is a mere nine days away.

That’s right people, it’s Great American Bookstore Tour timeβ€”two weeks, five cities, five bookstores (plus The Strand), one SUV and one CD collection with an average release year of 1999. Here’s the agenda:

My journey begins with two days here, where I’ll have one travel companion, plus the pleasure of interviewing Elliot Bay Book Co. owner Peter Aaron.  (Fun fact: My employer, Reuters, is allowing me to document some of my “How does one keep a bookstore open these days?” findings in a TBD article. Of course, all judgmental city-based commentary and glowing reviews of roadside cheese food products will continue to be documented on ST.)

I anticipate spending my three days in Portland ogling hipsters and eating macrobiotic food, with the exception of the delightful afternoon I’ll get with Miriam Sontz, COO of Powell’s Books. There is a strong possibility I will fall so madly in love with this store that I will inelegantly beg Sontz for permission to stay forever, volunteering to clean bathrooms or stock shelves or stand on the sidewalk and maniacally lure in new customers by screaming things like “Books reading learn good!”

In Portland, I’ll take on two travel companions (these are, by the way, actual friends ….lest you think I have plans to pick up a predetermined number of hitchhikers along the way). Together, and with the help of the aforementioned CD collection, we’ll meander down to San Francisco, where I’ll spend four days, one of which will include a chat with City Lights Books chief buyer Paul Yamazaki.

Shedding my fellow road trippers, I will begin the long and arduous 20-hour drive from San Francisco to Denver, with overnights along the way in Elko, Nevada (a geographically logical stopping place, though I was also swayed by the abundance of casinos) and Salt Lake City (Mormons, natch). After three days of solo travel — if I don’t tweet at least every two hours, please call someone — I’ll spend another two in Denver, where I’ll have the pleasure of speaking with Tattered Cover Book Store CEO Joyce Meskis.

Trading in my trusty steed for a bird of steel again, I’ll fly from Denver to DC, where I hope to chat with Politics & Prose owners Bradley Graham and Lissa Muscatine, and spend a moderately more calm weekend with friends. Finally, I’ll close out the trip with an exhausted Amtrak ride back up to NYC, armed with trinkets and books and whatever memories haven’t been washed away by nightly carousing and cocktails.

SO HERE IS WHERE YOU COME IN. While I could walk around DC with my eyes closed (not that I wouldn’t get run over by a town car with diplomatic plates; just saying I could technically do it) I have yet to even step foot in the USA west of ….Louisiana? So I need recommendations. If one had but a few brief days in Seattle, Portland, San Francisco and Denver, where should one dine and drink? What should one do? Are there other bookstores one should check out? Secret divey hole-in-the-wall pubs off the beaten path? Bizarre funky art installations? Inquiring minds want to know. Inquiring minds need to know. Because left to my own devices I’ll be overwhelmed by possibility and end up ordering room service.