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In Praise of Indie Bookstores

by Susan Henderson on April 28, 2018

Today is Independent Bookstore Day. How will you celebrate? And tell us a story about a favorite indie store.

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Robert Gray of Shelf Awareness asked me some questions about indie bookstores and then wrote this gorgeous column that makes me feel all warm and fuzzy. I hope you’ll click over and read it: “IBD & Measuring Success by Relationships.”

But today, I’d like to tell a little longer story about the indie bookstores that fed my soul and helped me find my tribe, even in cities where I felt like an outsider…

It’s a bittersweet story because so many of those stores are gone. There was Chapters bookstore in DC, where I started my collection of James Baldwin novels and essays. There was Mills bookstore in Nashville, where I had a long conversation with staff about which translations of Dante are best and, on another day, about the great wisdom of Anne Moody’s Coming of Age in Mississippi. And there’s Pittsburgh’s Phantom of the Attic (it’s still there!), where I learned of the glorious existence of The Sandman series and gamers (like finding out you have weird, distant cousins who don’t shower).

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Here’s a glimpse at each indie bookstore I visited since The Flicker of Old Dreams came out…

Turn of the Corkscrew on Long Island with co-owner, Carol Hoenig…

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Chevalier’s Books in Larchmont Village (LA) with the great David Ulin

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Book Show in Highland Park (LA) with Peter H. Z. Hsu, reading for the Vermin on the Mount literary series…

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The Book Catapult in San Diego with When We Were Ghouls author, Amy Wallen…

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Main Street Books in St. Charles, Missouri with co-owner, Emily Hall…

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Fun fact about Emily: She used to train birds of prey. And she said this, which I wanted to pass along to you: “It’s an incredibly empowering and humbling experience to have a bird of prey on your arm. The raptor trusts you enough to make you its perch, which is what is keeping it safe from danger and providing it a place from which to view the world. You are basically home base for an exquisitely evolved killing machine. It doesn’t matter if the bird is a tiny kestrel or screech owl, or a massive golden eagle- being that close to a raptor is… whew.”

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Last but not least, I want to thank the Montana indies that have reached out to me… Donna at Keystone Bookstore in Lewistown, Mara Lynn at Chapter One Book Store in Hamilton, Country Bookshelf in Bozeman, and Cassiopeia Books in Great Falls. I am grateful to all of you!

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As I said about indies in Robert Gray’s column (and please read it), “No matter the city, I know where to find my tribe. And I don’t just ask them for book recommendations. I also let them lead me to the coffee shops, the restaurants, the music venues, and the art and recreation of their town. Because booksellers are the creative and intellectual heart of that community. And just as word of mouth keeps books alive, word of mouth keeps these small, vibrant bookstores and their communities alive.”

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Some thank you’s are in order. Thank you to David Abrams, who has so generously featured my bookshelf, my book trailer, and “my first time” over at The Quivering Pen; to Gina Frangello, who reviewed my book for the Los Angeles Review of Books; to Barbara DeMarco-Barrett for interviewing me on KUCI-FM’s Writers on Writing; to Hubert O’Hearn for reviewing my book for The London Economic; to Caroline Leavitt for interviewing me on Caroline Leavittville; to BookPage for publishing my essay, Looking Death in the Eye; to Jason Schott, who reviewed my book in the Brooklyn Digest; to The Voice of Oma; to Tabitha Lord for interviewing me on Book Club Babble and live on the Author’s Cut; to Marshal Zeringue for featuring my book on the My Book, The Movie and The Page 69 Test; to Sally Christie for reviewing my book on Life Is A Story–Tell It Big; to June McInerney for reviewing my book on June’s Literary Blog; to Ric Marion for reviewing my book on Along the River; to Lori for reviewing my book on She Treads Softly; to Myfanwy Collins for name-checking my book on Bookish; to Lou Pendergrast for reviewing my book on More2Read; to Jennifer Haupt for talking with me at Psychology Today; to Angel for kind words about Mary at ouroborosangel; to Shannon for choosing my novel as a Literati staff pick; and to Jen for highlighting my book on Book Club Girl.

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As always, I’ll end by sharing the books I’ve read since my last post:

Hala Alyan, Salt Houses
Zadie Smith, Feel Free
Mark Sarvas, Memento Park
Rupi Kaur, milk and honey
Naomi Shihab Nye, 19 Varieties of Gazelle
Rachel Khong, Goodbye, Vitamin 
Julia Fierro, The Gypsy Moth Summer
Jennifer Haupt, In the Shadow of 10,000 Hills
Roxane Gay, Bad Feminist
Amanda Palmer, The Art of Asking 
Marilynne Robinson, What Are We Doing Here? 

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That’s it for now. Go visit your favorite indie store, and then come back here and tell me about it in the comments section, where all the cools stuff happens.

{ 30 comments… read them below or add one }

Roz Morris @Roz_Morris April 28, 2018 at 7:36 am

Hi from the UK! I have a long-running friendship with a bookstore in Leatherhead, Surrey. I walked in one Christmas, looking for gifts for my husband – things he wouldn’t have found for himself. Soon, the store owner, Peter Snell, was pulling titles off the shelves, saying ‘what about this… and this…’ He judged our tastes pretty accurately – half his suggestions were books we already had. Then I asked about books on writing and had to explain why I’d read everything … which meant he then realised I was an author. I discovered he was the most wonderful advocate of authors – holding signing events, author parties, creating a fantastic, supportive environment for us all to meet readers, meet each other, celebrate in real life what we spend so much time doing in our heads and on line.
A few years ago, a radio station set up in the town. Peter – who knows everybody because the shop is a focus for the community – was asked to contribute a show about books and writing. He invited me to be his co-host. We recorded 52 shows after hours in the shop – we sat in the travel section sometimes, the crime section at other times – and we had a darn good time talking about writing, books, the writing life. The series is on Mixcloud if anyone wants to listen to it.
Oh and the building is a wonder too. It used to be a bank, so it has a vault with a steel door. One of the things behind that steel door is a lifesize cardboard cutout of Michael Caine – promo material from a biography, many years ago. So here’s to Barton’s Bookshop, Leatherhead, Surrey.

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Susan Henderson April 28, 2018 at 11:44 am

I love this story so much! Everything about it! Can you give us the link to your show? And I’m going to look up the shop because I want to see the bank vault.

Have you ever thought of writing a book or a screenplay set in that shop? Because I’d be so eager to read/watch that.

(My husband, btw, used to shop at WHSmith in Gerrards Cross – just around the corner from his house.)

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Susan Henderson April 28, 2018 at 11:47 am

There’s a video!! https://youtu.be/1Nd-zbZ3Z8g

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Roz Morris @Roz_Morris April 28, 2018 at 2:00 pm

Ooh, I hadn’t seen that video. Thanks for hunting! It doesn’t do the shop justice. This is a more recent one – and much better https://www.youtube.com/watch?time_continue=1&v=ir-GjH9BtQg

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Susan Henderson April 28, 2018 at 9:06 pm

Yes, much better video!

Roz Morris @Roz_Morris April 28, 2018 at 2:01 pm

Replying to you in pieces … A book set in the shop? Well I’d never thought of that, but anything is possible!

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Janet Clare April 28, 2018 at 4:20 pm

Roz,
We don’t know each other, but I hope to meet one day because Peter is familiar with my first novel to released this December and has invited me to do a reading at Barton’s! What a generous soul he is and what a great coincidence to meet you on Susan’s wonderful blog.
Best regards

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Susan Henderson April 28, 2018 at 9:08 pm

Janet, I hope you’re able to go to Barton’s! If you’re there in January, I may just be able to come.

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Janet Clare April 29, 2018 at 5:44 am

No plan at this point, but wouldn’t that be something?

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Roz Morris @Roz_Morris April 29, 2018 at 9:16 am

Janet, what a coincidence indeed! I have to drop into the shop today to sign some books so I’ll ask Peter about it.
Are you on Facebook? If so, I feel we ought to get in touch there.

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Roz Morris @Roz_Morris April 28, 2018 at 1:57 pm

Hi Susan! Here’s the portal for our wondrous show. It’s an appropriate adjective because our theme tune was Wonderous Stories by Yes. https://nailyournovel.wordpress.com/who-am-i/radio-show/

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Susan Henderson April 28, 2018 at 9:11 pm

Listening to one now…

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Ric Marion April 28, 2018 at 2:13 pm

Out here in the sticks, as we used to call it, there are no bookstores. That requires a trip to the big city. Perhaps that’s why I connected with Petroleum so much. It’s not really that isolated here, but walking around the corner to a cozy bookstore isn’t going to happen.
My Mother (95 next month), when we would fly to Florida to drive her home in the spring, would tell her fellow snowbirds she was going back to her very tiny town by stating it was 30 miles from the nearest Walmart. “NOBODY is 30 miles from a Walmart!”
So, as life continues its cycle, I’m 40 miles from the nearest Independent Bookstore – and that one specializes in Kids and Young Adult.
The video is way cool!
And, it’s nice to see Robert Gray is still around – I loved his tales and stories from Northshire. (Clearly, I’ve been doing this way too long.)
Life is good.

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Susan Henderson April 28, 2018 at 9:18 pm

I always look forward to your stories–you have such a way of capturing your life and family that’s so visual and inviting. And I think I met Bob Gray post-Northshire. Life takes us on such interesting journeys… funny how our roads intersect and diverge along the way.

Happy early birthday to your mom!

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Janet Clare April 28, 2018 at 4:54 pm

The big bookstore when I was a kid was Pickwick in Hollywood, http://bookstorememories.com/blog/?tag=pickwick-book-shop, and scrolling down to the picture here of the first floor, I can still remember the wonderful smell of it, of wandering upstairs. I thought it would be there forever. And, there was Martindale’s , a block long in Beverly Hills, where they kept the porn magazines near the bibles, and Dutton’s, of course, two locations. The little known Exodus Bookstore in Sherman Oaks, where I grew up, owned, of course, by Leon Uris, who I later interviewed for my high school paper.
People do, indeed, read in Los Angeles, and though these amazing places are long gone, they’ve been replaced with some lovelies: Skylight, Vroman’s, Diesel, Chevalier, etc. Spread out over the city, getting from east to west these days can be a trial, but still worth it.

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Susan Henderson April 28, 2018 at 9:20 pm

Did I introduce you to Wendy Werris when we were at Chevalier’s? (Wendy, are you here?) Anyway, she used to work at Pickwick! I love the small, intersecting world of writers and booknerds! And love your description of that block in Beverly Hills!

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Janet Clare April 29, 2018 at 5:41 am

Yes, I did meet Wendy briefly. She worked at Pickwick! Small world, indeed!

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Peter Snell April 29, 2018 at 9:49 am

Ooh, this sounds interesting.

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Susan Henderson April 29, 2018 at 10:41 am

Wait, you’re the celebrity we’re all talking about!

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Roz Morris @Roz_Morris April 29, 2018 at 11:53 am

He is!

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Janet Clare April 29, 2018 at 1:27 pm

Peter!
I’m getting excited and oh-so-nervous…it would be a dream to come visit you with Time Is The Longest Distance!

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Roz Morris @Roz_Morris April 29, 2018 at 2:16 pm

Time Is The Longest Distance? Great title!

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Janet Clare April 29, 2018 at 2:36 pm

Thank you, Roz. And, yes, I’m on Facebook, so we must connect. Say what they will about FB, it’s how I met Susan, and other wonderful writers near and far.

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Peter Snell April 29, 2018 at 3:52 pm

Twitter is Alive with a Barton’s love fest. It warms the heart of a grumpy old bearded bookseller to be appreciated. Thank you all so much.

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Susan Henderson April 29, 2018 at 4:23 pm

Glad you’re here! Next time I’m in the UK, Barton’s will be my first stop.

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Janet Clare April 29, 2018 at 4:58 pm

The best people are grumpy.

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GC Smith May 25, 2018 at 8:10 pm

My Indie bookstore was The Bay Street Trading Company in Beaufort SC. The store was in an ante-bellum building that a friend of mine, Steve Stanley, (unfortunately deceased) bought for a pittance some time ago. The store contained an office supply business which Steve also bought. Steve’s wife Christine put in a shelf of books and when that sold she expanded it and expanded again and again until time came that the office supply business was abandoned and the bookstore took over.

Anyway, Beaufort had a young writer who self published a book titled The Lords of Discipline. The book chronicled the guy’s time as a Citadel cadet. Christine (Chris) gave the guy a book signing date and did other kindnesses to encourage the young writer. The guy went on to publish many books. The Water Is Wide, The Boo, The Great Santini, The Prince of Tides, Beach Music, and others. His name was Pat Conroy and he had many other signings at The Bay Street Trading Company.

As time went by with Beaufort being a tourist town and Pat becoming well known his books came to make up about a third of Chris’s sales. The rest of her sales consisted of Beaufort and Southern history (another third) and general literature (both fiction and non).

Conroy never forgot Chris’s kindness before he found fame. When well established he asked Chris for a key to her store, which he used to her profit. He would come into the store in the wee hours of the morning and autograph her stock of his books. Some went for premium prices. Near the end of his career Pat wrote a book called My Losing Season (Basketball at the Citadel). A local businessman bought four or five thousand copies to give to his customers/clients. Pat came into the store and autographed every one of them. He paid his dues.

Chris and I were and still are close friends and she tried to hook me up with Pat. I never liked Conroy’s writing and felt it would be hypocritical to try to hook up so I demurred. I don’t know if that was wise or stupid, but I suspect stupid.

Unfortunately after Steve died Chris sold the bookstore and the new owner, a local lawyer, failed to make it go. It’s a toy store now. A sad loss, I think.

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Susan Henderson May 26, 2018 at 2:37 pm

Love that story of Bay Street and so sorry to see the good ones close. Do you have an indie near the new house?

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Mac wheeler June 14, 2018 at 1:51 pm

so I saw you plugged…and I thought…I don’t follow enough writers. So I’m here. I’ll be dropping back. Look forward to following you. 🙂

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Susan Henderson June 14, 2018 at 2:42 pm

Glad you’re here, Mac. : )

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