Bookshopping: Powell’s


I’ve been going to Powell’s Books for decades; it’s my favorite bookstore.  During my few days in Portland, I went to Powell’s in the afternoons to do a little bookbrowsing and miscellaneous research-trip preparation (and to visit this novel, which arrived home the day I posted about it.)


One of the things I like about Powell’s is the way it mixes new and used books together on the same shelf.  So you can find all the copies of a book in one place and pick the one — and the pricepoint — that suits you.  There’s a way that this arrangement makes the experience about the books themselves and not about which spending bracket you fall into.

This is echoed even in the featured shelves of award winners and recommendations.  New and used books are mixed together here, as well.  And the Award Winner shelves don’t only promote this year’s winners, but mix in award winning books and writers from all different timeframes.  These books have value and weight and contemporary relevance at Powell’s far after date of publication.  Good books resonate.  In an era of flash news, it feels good to be someplace where we can circle back on an novel, revisit.  Where these books from decades apart are weighted together in the same conversation — alphabetized on the feature shelves so that they stop being temporal and abut each other across time and content.

Powell’s has a whole huge room devoted to its featured shelves and tables — and does a remarkably creative job at recommending books to us.  There is a “Choose Your Adventure” table full of books about people traveling to other places, and a “Knockout Narratives” table of essay collections, where Consider the Lobster and Sloane Crosley’s new collection and Marilynne Robinson all feel at home.

Their recommendations in general are robust and wide-ranging, including both the oft-cited new books receiving critical acclaim and well-written new books that have gotten little attention.  Because in the end there are so many wonderful new books written, and we wind up reading and hearing about so few.  Powell’s allows some of those we’ve missed to resurface.  I find things here that I wouldn’t otherwise, and am grateful for the books I come across when I visit.

Powell’s has multiple branches scattered through Portland and one of the most active, ambitious reading series in the country.  So huge its main location requires a map and several solid days to explore fully, Powell’s is a cornerstone in our national literary culture.

I am fortunate that it has also been a recurring fixture in my life as a reader.  On this visit, I was thinking about how I might write about Powell’s, and I thought about how it’s a place to check in with regularly, to visit and revisit.  It’s a part of the rhythm of my reading.

Even during the years when I’m not able to visit in person, Powell’s is my default for ordering books online.  And in those moments when you aren’t able to buy from a local bookstore, I urge you to do your online buying from Powell’s, too.  Because this bookstore is an integral part of how we think and talk about and read books here in our country, and it’s important that we support it.


Bookshopping: Magus Books, Seattle

The other bookstore I visited in Seattle is Magus Books.  Just steps from the University of Washington campus, Magus Books has an extensive collection of used books in this old, vine-laced bookshop.

The shop is especially strong in its older hardcovers.  There are bookshelves full of well-cared for gilded spine collectibles and classic hardcovers complete with box sleeves.

They also carry a great collection of children’s novels from the early and mid-twentieth century.  (I bought one of the ones on this shelf!)*

I really like how they mark the beginning of each section with related prints and images.

The day I was there I was especially drawn to their botany and birding and antique book collections, along with their impressive art books.  I found one on Stuart Davis and another great one on Henry Moore that I wished I could fit in my luggage.  Not to mention a couple more children’s novels and pocket books I really wanted.

One of the aspects I liked best about this bookstore is its knowledgeable and thoughtful staff.  I had a great conversation with the man working there that day about various older book series they had on display, and really admired his expertise and low-key generosity.

I liked this bookstore and Elliott Bay Books for different reasons.  The two are a terrific balance.  Magus is another one of those bookstores I wish I lived close to.  It’s the kind of place where I think if I dropped by every so often, I’d light on something different each time.  And I have so much more I want to talk over with these booksellers about early 20th-century book publications.

*Yes, I did already violate my prohibition on buying books on this research trip.  I really don’t have any spare room or weight in my backpack during these nomadic next few weeks, so I’ll have to ship this one home to myself before I leave Seattle….  Not buying books (or supporting these independent bookstores) is lousy!

Bookshopping: Elliott Bay Books, Seattle

After some research meetings the other day, I stopped at Elliott Bay Book Company in Seattle.  Their New Fiction table and staff recommendation shelves reflect an unusually broad and sensitive reading of new book releases.

Their staff has pulled together recommendations that not only include the books that are currently getting a lot of attention, but also a rich collection of new books that I hadn’t yet heard about.   I felt like the two hours I spent there were completely absorbed in taking in these tables of new titles.  Being there felt like an important part of my work as a fiction writer.

They have extensive staff recommendation shelves — the largest staff recommendation section I’ve ever seen, peppered with some especially lovely and evocative description cards.  And even beyond the usual sections of staff recommendations and new releases and bookclub suggestions, there are themed tables and endcaps upon endcaps of interesting selections.  Elliott Bay Books’ tables and shelves feel like a cross between a great reading list and a Maureen Corrigan book review.

I was particularly taken with their Resolution Reads shelf — always an interesting concept in books.  Theirs feels playful: it includes classics like Ulysses, contemporary giants such as Murakami and Tartt’s Goldfinch, mixed in with a book on personal finance, The Art of Urban Sketching and Mindy Kaling’s essay collection.  Elliott Bay’s staff seems to embrace a wide picture of what, exactly, our resolutions may include (laughter, possibly?)

The bookstore is also active in supporting local and contemporary writers: Elliott Bay hosts an extensive reading series.  (Even while I was there, a staff member was updating their chalkboard with details on the next night’s reading.)  And augmenting this effort to promote contemporary writers, they publish two newsletters — a monthly event guide to upcoming readings and a seasonal gazette full of book recommendations.

In addition to all that, Elliott Bay has impressive selections of art magazines and literary journals, and a whole table devoted to poetry collection highlights (which I’ve found is always a hallmark of a good bookstore).

The store itself is beautiful — huge and full of rich, warm wood floors and wooden beams.  There are two floors of books and a lower level just for their readings.

I wish I lived closer to this bookstore so that I could stop here more often to replenish my reading list from their selections.

And I really wish I could have picked up a handful of books here during my visit.  On this research trip, I have to keep my pack light, so I really can’t carry books.  It killed me though.  There are at least half a dozen books from Elliott Bay I’m eager to read — and it’s so important to support independent bookstores.  Fortunately, they do sell online, so an order is certainly in my future when I get back.

Bookshopping: Carroll & Carroll

On my weekend trip to the Poconos, I stopped at Carroll & Carroll Booksellers in Stroudsburg.  Walking down the main drag in Stroudsburg feels like going back in time a few decades: they have a bookshop, a music store, a camera shop, and just for good measure a homemade ice cream shop (called, delightfully, Sweet Creams.  Get the cinnamon.  It’s delicious.)


Carroll & Carroll has a terrific collection that encompasses everything from brand-new novels and hardcovers to standard-issue used books, to some pretty gorgeous antique editions.  And they’re all jumbled together in great, inviting piles.  Usually when I see bookstores mix new and used books together like this — at favorite bookstores like Boulder Books and Powells — the used books are incorporated into the new book shelves.  But Carroll & Carroll organizes the whole bookstore like a used bookstore, with bookshelves stocked two-rows deep and piles stacked on floors and in corners.  There will be two new copies of Rebecca Makkai with a tattered Malamud sandwiched between.  And in this bookstore, that absolutely works.

Perhaps because of the nearby college, or more likely because of the fabulous, sharp, witty couple that owns this shop, there’s a pretty impressive selection of whip-smart literature.  A whole row of Doris Lessing, a shelf of Proust.

And then completely random and unexpected extras.  I wound up in a great conversation with the bookstore owner about a book on pencil sharpening that turns out to be as fascinating as it is unironic.  (So many significant daily inventions are perfectly designed for the jobs they do, but are not quite world-changing, we marveled.)


The owners keep a wall of newsclippings about writers and books, mostly obituaries of great modern writers.  And it feels like a nice reminder of our shared enterprise, our community of writers and readers and booksellers.  A point of human connection with all the people who wrote the books we’re browsing.

Plus, for balance, some comics.

That’s what it feels like in this bookstore: that you’re discovering things every time you bend down over a bookpile or move the front row from a shelf.  Each time there’s something unexpected and delightful, engaging and challenging.

I really did have such a nice afternoon in Stroudsburg.  And just when I’d finished book browsing, I walked one block away and found this:

My week has been happily stocked with books and records ever since this trip.

Bookshopping: Longfellow Books

Longfellow Books is one of the two best bookstores I visited during my recent trip to Maine.  Located in the arts district of Portland, about a block from the Henry Wadsworth Longfellow house, Longfellow Books is an excellent example of a hardworking urban bookstore with a core focus on serving its local community.


Run by a team of booksellers who clearly know their literature, the bookstore is organized with tables of notable fiction and non-fiction, shelves of new releases, the bookstore’s own bestsellers, and a large table of suggested books along with handwritten recommendations.  They don’t rely on outside lists or picks or national bestsellers — an approach that speaks to the store’s confidence in its own selections and in its readership.


There are extensive shelves of new and used fiction, a section devoted to Maine titles, a cluttered community bulletin board, and a large, airy children’s room with a plush green couch.

Longfellow Books is also home to a foster cat, Prince, who is up for adoption.  When I stopped in, Prince was nestled up on the couch with a young girl, who was completely absorbed in her novel.  A group of fellow children made a point to introduce me to Prince: they knew a lot about him.  He likes the couch in the children’s room, and the children, who sit with him reading.

With equal interest and authority, they told me about what they were reading.  (They didn’t have favorite books, though, they were careful to tell me.  “It’s too hard to choose,” one said.)  One of the children slipped and referred to the bookstore as a library, then caught and corrected herself.  I could see why she made the mistake: the bookstore, and especially its children’s room, had the comfortable, worn-in feel of an excellent library.  It’s a place where children come to discover great books and then lose themselves in them, already three chapters in and completely immersed by the time they leave the store with their purchases.


Longfellow Books knows its literature, its readers, its community — and the store reflects that easy, comfortable confidence.  They refer to themselves as “a fiercely independent bookstore.”  And in our current bookselling world, thank goodness.  Luckily for those of us who live too far afield to curl up with Prince on a regular basis, Longfellow Books also publishes an excellent newsletter with recommendations.  For the latest, check out their website.


Bookshopping – The Old Inlet Bookshop

One of the things I loved about Homer was its bookstores.  This small Alaskan town hosts three, and we dedicated a couple afternoons to poking around in two of them.  During our first full day in Homer, we had breakfast at the excellent Two Sisters bakery, and then went up the road to the nearby Old Inlet Bookshop, located not far from Homer’s main beach.

The Old Inlet offers an enormous selection of used books, many stacked on the floor along the sides of the aisles.  It’s one of those stores where you’re filled with awe at how much there is to read in the world.  One of those stores where you pick up a book you’ve never heard of on a topic in which you never thought you’d have an interest.  And yet there you are, standing in an aisle, transfixed.

I wound up flipping through Jean Henri Fabre’s illustrated book on insects (you can see it in the stacks in the photo above), particularly the pages on cicadas.  I didn’t wind up buying it, but I was tempted.


The Old Inlet’s second floor is mostly dedicated to fiction and literature, with some history along the back wall.


The fiction section’s shelves often have books two rows deep, so that you only ever see a small sliver of the store’s collection.  There is something comforting about this magnitude of books.  A comfort that resonates in this particular location, at the edge of an Alaskan peninsula, where there are winters of darkness.

On our trip, at the height of summer daylight, I was struck by this sunlit upstairs space, and the coziness of this wicker-chaired nook amid the novels.


The owner keeps the literature grouped in rough alphabetical order, separating out the hardcover from the paperback and — delightfully — creating a whole section for short stories.


I wound up buying this one: Best American Short Stories from 1946.  An amazing find.  J. found the sequel to the John Cheever novel he was reading, and a hardcover copy of The Godfather.

And, to boot, the owner of The Old Inlet is an incredibly nice guy — a former fisherman and a writer in his own right.  He and my husband and I wound up talking for quite some time about running and fishing and writing and books.  He even lent us his phone and tried to track down a local race for J. while we were in town.

I can’t recommend this bookstore highly enough.  Whiling away an afternoon there was an utter pleasure.

p.s. You’re in luck today!  My good friend John over at Oh John Carroll has a terrific new post on Moe’s Books and City Lights Bookstore in the San Francisco area.  Go check it out!

Bookshopping: Strand Books

One of the things I admire most about Strand (and let’s be honest, there’s a lot to admire) is that they consistently do an excellent job curating engaging, unique book displays.


Their most exciting new(ish) display series is The Author’s Bookshelf.  The store invites contemporary writers to share the titles on their bookshelves — the books they love and recommend — and then Strand displays these selections on their website and on tables in their store.  As you know from this post, I’ve always liked looking through other people’s bookshelves (do any of you do that?), so The Author’s Bookshelf has a particular allure.


Strand has a number of fun categories for their in-store displays, ranging from the ever popular (but much appreciated) Award Winning Books section to the more ambiguous Expand Your Horizons table.  Their displays are accessible and often sorted into affordable price brackets.  (“Biographies Under Ten Dollars” one sign says.)  Yet Strand pulls no punches in its book selection.

Poetry Table

I can honestly say that I’ve never seen Gertrude Stein featured on any bookstore’s poetry table (if, indeed, they even have one).  So to see Tender Buttons next to Stanley Kunitz and Sylvia Plath was a thrill.  Not to mention the prominent placement of Wislawa Szymborska, one of my all-time favorites.

This is a bookstore that honors its readers with a high standard of expectation.


Regardless of category, all their section signage includes quotes, some thought-provoking (“A book must be an ice-axe to break the seas frozen inside our soul,” Franz Kafka proclaims from the Literary Nonfiction signage) and others lighthearted (Sally Field’s “You like me!” on the aforementioned Award Winning Books sign).

Strand is a store where it’s easy to come across old favorites, titles you’ve been meaning to read, and books you’ve never heard of but are very glad to have found — all in the span of one table or shelf.  Strand’s in-store signs market their books as cheaper than eBooks (they often are), but that’s hardly the only thing that gives them a competitive edge.  It’s a bookstore still personalized by staff picks, author recommendations, and a spirit of creativity that — in a world of online bookbuying and eBooks — makes the store feel ever-relevant and necessary.

(Note: You can read more Bookstore Reviews here.)

Bookstore Review: Book Plate, Chestertown

Chestertown is one of those places I dream about escaping to on weekends (like this short getaway last summer).  Not least because, in addition to the water and historic, tree-lined streets, it features *two* independent bookshops.

Book Plate - New Yorker Shelves

The Book Plate is a very well-curated shop right in the main historic section of town.

Book Plate Interior

It has an inviting, warm decor: natural light, upholstered chairs that feel like they might have come from someone’s living room, a long oriental runner.  The front room features an eclectic collection of chapbooks and ephemera that totally sucked us in and had us laughing.

Book Plate - New Yorker

And the heart of the bookstore reflects its college-town surroundings.  There are several shelves dedicated to writers from the New Yorker, and an extensive feminist section that includes some impressive tomes.

Book Plate - By Women

(The one bone I’d pick is the signage here: “By Women, About Women” is fantastic.  But I question “For Women.”  It seems to me that the next important step in gender studies… and in literary equity as a whole, is to have books by and about women be FOR both women and men.)

As our spring continues to lag behind, I’ve been dreaming about whiling away a morning at Book Plate… and then a long afternoon eating crabcakes on a Chester River dock.  Soon, I hope…

Book Plate - Exterior

Bookstore Review: Boulder Bookstore

The Boulder Bookstore has a distinct personality.  I felt this especially when I wandered through the bright sunny spaces on the second floor.  This upstairs has a great web of twisting hallways and half-stairs, which lead you into, among other sections, the store’s impressive collections of meditation and metaphysical books.  Here there is the sense of a unique spirit that seems reflective not only of the individual sensibilities of the store’s owners, but also of the community to which this bookstore belongs.

The second floor also houses the store’s large collection of literature in its “Ballroom.”  It was easy to browse: the sunny space with its lovely arched windows seemed to invite lingering.

And the books themselves were thoughtfully arranged and displayed so that it was easy to pick up a few volumes and take a look through.

The Boulder Bookstore carries a mix of new and used books, but unlike many stores that carry both, the used books aren’t all cordoned off in a separate part of the bookstore.  Perusing the running section, for example, my husband came across a great selection of new books mixed in with a handful of harder-to-find used titles.

And while the Boulder Bookstore doesn’t feature cushy couches and lounge areas, there are practical and serviceable assortments of wooden armchairs throughout, and even an occasional table at which you could sit and jot down some notes.  Somehow lush leather club chairs would feel out of keeping with the straightforward nature of this store.  And my husband and I happily settled into old wooden chairs to flip through our piles of books.  Which is good because we would up returning almost daily during our trip to Boulder.

Bookstore Review: Red Letter Books

When we were in Colorado, my husband and I met the nicest people in brewery tap rooms.   We swung by the Avery tasting room the night before we were supposed to leave Boulder, and while we were there, the guy sitting next to us at the bar told us about Red Letter Books.  (You can see that two of the themes of our trip–books and beer–joined forces for this post.)

We were scheduled to head out of town that next morning, but we stuck around a couple extra hours in order to check out the shop.  Red Letter Books is a used bookstore in Boulder, just past the pedestrian mall on Pearl Street.

There’s something classic about an overstuffed used bookshop, and Red Letter Books epitomizes that overcrowded vibe.

The bookshop’s tiny alcoves made it easy to lose yourself behind a stack of boxes, and it felt somehow serendipitous when a particular book surfaced at the top of a pile and found its way into your hands.  I was inexplicably charmed by this 1960s copy of Best Friends for Frances.  (Although when I flipped through, it struck me as mildly outdated in its depiction of gender, so I didn’t buy it.)  1960s children’s picture books always remind me of my grandparents’ house.  And vintage Hardy Boys mysteries–like these at Red Letter–bring me back to the collection in my own attic growing up.

We wound up browsing in Red Letter until our parking meter was dangerously close to expiring.  Along with a few other books, I picked up a beautifully bound edition on Japanese prints and Joan Silber’s slim volume on time in fiction.  (How had I not heard about this book before?)  Both are exactly what I’ve needed for my own research and revisions.  Which is, perhaps, the thing I love most about used bookstores like Red Letter.  The way they always seem to put just the right books in your hands — the ones you wouldn’t have known to look for.  (Amazon, for all its efficiency, can never duplicate this kind of fortuitous accident.)

I cannot wait to get back to Red Letter next time we’re in the area — if only to see what books chance happens to send my way.