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Book Bound! (Two Weeks Remaining!)

May 29, 2013 in American literature, announcements, Classic Literature, Classic Writers, Kickstarter, Literary News

Derby Square Bookstore, Salem, MA

By Antoinette Weil and Amanda Festa

Books are not obsolete and reading isn’t dead.  It seems that everything is tech this and i-something or other and YouTube and Vine and Twitter. We love our social media connections as much as the next person, but we can’t lose touch with the tangible. People still read, people still love their favorite books from childhood and from adulthood, and people, although they may not have all the time in the world, still want to get that reading fix. We think that THIS is what sets us and our project apart. We are going back to books, back to great authors, taking the time for you to get to know these stories and places. Promoting reading, promoting travel, promoting exploration, the sharing of ideas. There are many, many people in today’s society who are tired of the constant surge of technology taking over everyday life. Sick of their beloved bookstores closing. We are doing this for them, for people like us who enjoy the story behind our beloved literature. We’re bringing books to life, and that’s something.

We have two weeks left to reach our funding goal on Kickstarter.  Please support our project and, in turn, our passion.  Every dollar helps us get closer to our goal, and every dollar shows that there are people out there who would like to see this project be made.  If you are a reader, if you enjoy the feeling of a creased and worn book in your hands or the smell of a library or independent bookstore, then this project is for you.  If you have the travel bug, and you treat it with long doses of wandering, whether it is done on the road or from the comfort of an armchair, then this project is for you.  SO take a look at our Kickstarter page, explore the posts written by contributors whose excitement and enthusiasm for this project is incredible, and if you enjoy what you see, please get involved, donate what you can, and spread the word to all kindred literary travelers.

Ann Patchett and the Battle for the Bookstores

December 13, 2012 in Bookstores, Contemporary Literature, culture boundaries, Economy, Literary News

As I was driving into work, I heard an unnerving story on the radio. It was about Amazon, the largest corporate book retailer in the world. I listened with trepid curiosity as a caller in support of the company’s expansion went head to head with an owner of a local bookstore. The callers made the age-old arguments that arise when technology challenges the continuance of tradition; one vigorously vying for the convenience of a digital future while the other nostalgically recalled the advantages of our papery past. The latter spoke with some desperation, as if this was her final stand, her last chance to tell her story. She spoke of things beyond the joy of feeling the weight of a book, the smell and feel of paper. ‘The culture is what we’re losing, bookstores have always been what bring readers together.’

I thought about that for a minute. She was absolutely right. Bookstores did bring readers together. Books were not the only casualties of Amazon’s flood into literature; there was a culture at stake. The heart-felt words of the distressed caller made me realize how I had always taken bookstores for granted. I began to mourn the loss of something I had hardly known, and I decided that it was time to visit one before it was too late.

Porter Square Books is one of the most well known independent bookstores in the Boston area, and this is where I began my search for the endangered book culture. The first thing I noticed was the dog bowl at the front door. I had read that dogs were welcome inside the store, and I wished I had brought mine along. Inside, the place was buzzing. Casually dressed employees sorted books and chatted with customers. There was a coffee bar in the corner, and the smell of fresh espresso underscored the vibrant pace of book browsing. Customers filtered into their sections of interest, which were each divided into coves of booked walls. The spaces were so small that people seemed to be bumping into each other all over the place.

Two woman in the Cooking section were discussing recipes they had both found in the same Japenese cook book. In the Travel section, a young man pointed to pictures in a book of ancient ruins and told his mother stories of his experiences abroad. In Classic Literature, an employee was describing Thoreau’s majestic sketches of a New England Fall to a man who seemed to be salivating for such a literary feast.

I wandered around haphazardly, eavesdropping and browsing the shelves. Though it wasn’t quite a library, everybody kept their voices down and smiled at each other, like they were all in on the secret. They seemed very much a small society of booklovers in their place of worship, and I felt like a welcome guest.

I bought a few moleskins and a map of the United States. It wasn’t much, but it felt good to make any contribution. On my way out, I noticed a calendar marked with events. Every week had three or four authors coming in to lead discussions and sign books. I scribbled down a few dates and names and told myself that next time I’d bring my dog.

Ann Patchett, author of Bel Canto and State of Wonder, has recently opened up her own bookstore and taken advantage of her publicity to uphold the cause. After losing an independent bookstore she had cherished since childhood, Patchett decided to take matters into her own hands and recreate a literary sanctum for her community in Nashville, TN. She recognizes that the value of a bookstore is embodied in the community it creates (and visa versa).

Patchett wrote an article for The Atlantic, in which she tells us just how badly bookstores have suffered, and why there is still hope for them. “Now that we could order a book at any hour without having to leave the screen in front of us, we realized what we had lost: the community center, the human interaction, the recommendation of a smart reader rather than a computer algorithm.”

I agreed heartily before, but did not understand her distress until, like the woman I heard on the radio, Patchett began to wax prophetic. “I promised whoever was listening that from those very ashes, the small independent bookstore would arise.”

My experience in Porter Square was brief, but it was enough to make me understand why bookstores might be worth fighting for. Patchett finishes the interview with a plea to the consumer, and a resounding cry for book people to unite and make their voices heard over the cranking of Amazon’s assembly lines. “Amazon doesn’t get to make all the decisions; the people can make them, by choosing how and where they spend their money. If what a bookstore offers matters to you, then shop at a bookstore. If you feel that the experience of reading a book is valuable, then read a book. This is how we change the world: We grab hold of it. We change ourselves.”

Happy Halloween From Literary Traveler!

October 31, 2012 in American Authors, American History, Bookstores, Classic Literature, Dark New England, Edgar Allen Poe, Famous Museums, Halloween, History, Holidays Literary Traveler, Horror, Horror Writers, Massachusetts Travel, New England Travel, Psychology, Short Stories, Stephen King, Vampires in Literature

Literary Traveler has been very excited about Halloween…and it’s finally here! To celebrate, we’d like to show off all the work we did in advance of the spookiest day of the year. All Treats.

Halloween Reflections – “Halloween is a time when the veil between the dead and the living was at its thinnest.”

Mercy Brown: American Vampire – “Like the vampire, tuberculosis visited ordinary communities seemingly at random – preying upon family members, slowly robbing them of their life and turning them into fevered ghostly individuals with a persistent bloody cough.”

The House of the Seven Gables – “If Hawthorne’s The House of the Seven Gables house was once haunted by the uneasy ghosts of family (his ancestors were involved in the Salem witch trials), the resident ghost today seems to have the philanthropic and busy spirit of Miss Emmerton.”

The Hawthorne Hotel – “Despite general manager Judi Lederhaus’ assertions, hundreds of tourists stream into the stately lodgings ready to embark on a supernatural safari.”

The Psychology of Salem – “The most dangerous element of the teenage mind is the inability to grasp the concept of linear thinking. Some teenagers cannot see beyond immediate gratification.  This makes decision making tricky.”

Master of Creep: Edgar Allen Poe – “Poe created complete universes in which the reader starts to believe the narrator.”

The Salem Witch Trials – “In 1692, fear spread through Salem, Massachusetts like contagion, infecting the minds of the mainstream, and claiming the lives of those among the periphery.”

Literary Traveler Goes to Salem – “I mosey by a zombie playing the saxophone for a couple of onlookers and I am officially sold on the city of Salem.”

Top Five English Language Bookshops in Europe, Curated by Tyler Moran

February 20, 2012 in English Language Bookshops, Travel

Photo by Michael Cavén

When traveling Europe by train, one is subjected to many hours of butt-numbingly cramped quarters with only miles upon miles of countryside sameness to stimulate the mind. There’s not much to do besides watch the wooded hills and rolling farmlands melt by through dingy glass. Thusly, the literary traveler must be properly equipped. Armed with an absorbing novel or a rollicking history, the literary traveler can vanish an eight-hour leg into nothing.

For experienced readers, eight hours can translate into hundreds of pages. By the time you’ve arrived at your destination, you’ve finished the book, read the about the author and closely studied the copyright information. But never fear! Go find your lodgings, relieve yourself of your bags, refuel with the local fare, check a few items off your sightseeing list and then it’s time to reload. Europe’s major cities are home to some of the world’s finest bookshops. But unless you speak the native language, they’re not all going to work for you. However, the following list of shops definitely will. So, fellow book hunters and European travelers, I bequeath to you five of the choicest English language bookshops.

1. London Review Bookshop 14 Bury Place, Bloomsbury, London

In a neighborhood full of wonderful hole-in-wall bookshops, LRB is surely Bloomsbury’s finest for both popular and academic books. Just a block from the British Museum, this well stocked shop is one to get lost in. Take a seat in one of the plush armchairs and choose your next destination as you flip through their impressive travel section. If you’re lucky, you’ll stop by during one of the frequent literary discussions or lectures put on by the shop’s friendly, passionate and somewhat cheeky staff. When I remarked on the fine condition of the shop’s older volumes, the cashier winked conspiratorially and murmured that he had a first edition of Darwin’s “Origin of Species” in the back room.

Purchases: Just one: a woodblock sized volume of Edward Gibbon’s seminal work, The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. After all, I didn’t want to get bogged down with paper so early in the trip.

2. Shakespeare & Company 37 Rue Bûcherie, Paris

o Okay, so this isn’t exactly an insider’s pick, but the location and ambience of this world famous bookseller cannot be topped. Located on Paris’ Left Bank, a short walk from Île de la Cité and Notre-Dame Cathedral, Shakespeare & Co. is the literary traveler’s ideal break from a leisurely stroll along the Seine. Founded in 1951 by American George Whitman, who lived upstairs until his death in December 2011, the shop became a bustling epicenter of local literary and artistic activity. Whitman was an eccentric, free-spirited fellow who described the name of his shop as a “novel in three words.” Shakespeare & Co.’s bohemian atmosphere attracted the likes of famous Beat poets Allen Ginsberg and William S. Burroughs, who likely slept in one of the 13 beds kept onsite for travelling writers, artists and literary enthusiasts.

Purchases: With the long haul to Berlin looming large, I picked up two novels: Paul Auster’s novel, Man in the Dark and James Ellroy’s crime fiction, The Big Nowhere.

3. St. George’s Bookshop 27 Wörtherstrasse, Berlin

As I talked up fellow travelers at hostels and pubs looking for the inside track on the next city’s best English bookshops, St. George’s in Berlin was consistently and emphatically promised as one of the best I would ever set foot in. Located in the heart of the fashionable Prenzlauer Berg district, St. George’s is primarily a used bookstore but you will find its staff more than happy to make a special order if you are seeking something new or rare. Due to its trendy location, St. George’s staff and clientele is decidedly hipster, yet determinatively friendly. So even if you’re a self-professed square like I, and you amble in wearing a fanny pack with your sandals and socks, and possess nary a tattoo or piercing, rest assure you’ll still be welcomed as the second coming of Lou Reed.

Also notable, the easy-going staff allowed me free reign of the rolling ladder used to reach the floor-to-ceiling stacks: a virtue in today’s liability-worried world. Thanks to St. George’s lax safety policy, I ended up with a few gems from the top row.

Purchases: Kurt Vonnegut’s, Galapagos, David Mitchell’s, Cloud Atlas, and Steven E. Ozment’s, A Mighty Fortress.

4. The Globe Bookstore and Café Pštrossova 6, Prague

Though only founded in 1993, The Globe’s interior reeks of history. The building that houses this charming bookshop is over 120 years old and possesses vaulted ceilings that dwarf the jammed shelves below. The cashier’s counter is a giant slab of oak riddled with the swirls and knobs of old age. It is easy to imagine the counter flipped on its side, doubling as the door to a medieval monastery. The Globe is a great place to meet Prague’s American expatriate community who frequently drop by for the bookshop’s well-liked book readings and film screenings. Behind the shop’s dense, labyrinthine main floor is a lovely café, which is the perfect place to retire with your purchases. The menu is a delicious and fun mix of Eastern European-American fusion with a selection of Czech beers so rich and tasty it’s worth dusting off the old “nectar of the gods” cliché.

Purchases: In what was perhaps the most physically debilitating purchase of the trip, I picked up A Dance with Dragons, the gargantuan 5th novel in George R.R. Martin’s wildly popular fantasy series. I think I saw someone reading one of them in every country I visited that summer.

5. Paperback Exchange 4R Via delle Oche, Florence

I stumbled upon this quaint and quiet shop by accident. After climbing Il Duomo in temperatures exceeding 90 degrees, I was desperate for a place to cool down. The Paperback Exchange appeared before me like mirage, its signage promising both air conditioning and half-priced paperbacks. Done and done. With a vast collection of art theory and art history books, this shop is a must for Florence’s many visiting Brunelleschi, Caravaggio and Michelangelo aficionados. The Exchange in the shop’s name comes from the staff’s willingness to accept your old, well-loved books in exchange for store credit.

Purchases: Ross King’s, Michelangelo and the Pope’s Ceiling.

Well, fellow book hunters, we have come to the end of this list. I hope you all get to peruse the shelves of one (or all!) of the aforementioned bookstores someday soon. As for me, I am still battling back pain from lugging my badly misshapen pack which, due to my inability to pass up a good find, had begun to spring rectangles in the oddest places. Until next time, happy travels!

Boston Has Fewer Bookstores Than Columbus, Ohio

July 13, 2011 in Harvard Square, Massachusetts

Pangloss and Schoenhof's bookstores, January 1983. Image courtesy of HarvardSquare.com

In the past few months, two bookstores in my neighborhood have closed their doors. This might not be a surprise, considering the dire state of brick-and-motor stores around the country, but I happen to live in one of the most academic regions in the United States, where reading is second only to breathing. Harvard Square in Cambridge, Massachusetts, a historical hotbed of the bookstores, should be a natural habitat of the printed word. Unfortunately, it seems that even here, there is no sanctuary from competing online retailers.

This wasn’t always the case. Back in the 1950’s, Harvard Square was home to over 20 different independent booksellers that specialized in everything from obscure poetry to children’s books. Now, independently owned shops like the Harvard Bookstore, Raven Bookstore, Schoenhof’s Foreign Books, and Grolier Poetry Book Shop are far and few between. And while you can buy almost anything at the Harvard Coop, it is owned by Barnes & Noble (the antithesis of a cooperative), thus making it a disappointing substitute for the Square’s former tenants.

According to The Boston Globe, the most recent closures are the direct result of the economy and the increased digitalization, which has hit publishing even harder than most industries. The Globe Corner Bookstore, which specialized in travel books and narratives, will now be operated solely online, and the Curious George & Friends bookshop (the only one of its kind in the world) has also been forced to shut down to the dismay of its many fans.  And as Brian McGrory wrote in the article, Vanishing ink in Hub’s core, the damage is not limited to the Cambridge side of the Charles River; the closure of the Borders location at Downtown Crossing highlights this “stunning fact:”

After Borders is gone, it will leave Boston, the literary capital of the United States, with exactly one major bookstore within the city limits. That store is the Barnes & Noble in the Prudential Center, and who knows how long it will be around.To put this in perspective, Columbus, Ohio, has more major bookstores than Boston — many more. So do San Diego and San Jose and just about any other city you can name. It wasn’t that long ago when the Harvard Bookstore stood on Newbury Street across from the massive Waterstone’s, not far from the Brentano’s in the Copley Mall.

While the closures have been met with sadness, it seems like there’s nothing to do about the dearth of bookstores in the area. Hillel J. Stavis and Donna T. Friedman, co-owners of the Curious George bookshop, have plead repeatedly for funds to keep their business going, but no one stepped forward. “From the perspective of a viable business, a Cambridge landmark and as a viable non-profit, we hope that an angel contributor will step forward,” Stavis said at a City Council meeting earlier this year.

As a Cambridge resident, I share the disappointment of many locals who consider bookstores a valuable part of our cultural and physical landscape. Instead of mourning the loss of two great establishments, however, I’ve decided to view this as a reminder. Retailers like Amazon.com and Barnes & Noble have their uses—there is no better place to buy up-to-date text books or trashy and disposable paperbacks—but it’s important to support local business. Instead of spending my money online, I’m going to make a concerted effort to visit the few shops we have left in the flesh, starting with the Harvard Square Bookshop. 

After all, this can be a very effective way to change the course of events—and recent trends shows that it does work. Earlier this year, Rodney’s Bookstore, located in Central Square, announced their going out of business sale. Prices were slashed 50% on all stock, and the entire area mourned the loss of a landmark business. Every time I walked by on my way to the train, I felt an uneasy mix of sadness and greedy excitement at the thought of all those half-priced hardcovers. However, when the fateful day finally came, Rodney’s announced that, thanks to their many fans, they were able to raise enough funds to stay in business. Now I feel a certain satisfaction when I walk by the quirky shop. Maybe my purchases, driven by my desire for discounted books, helped save Rodney’s. At least, that’s what I like to think.