I live in a town with no bookstores. This is true. Among the list of things I am doing now or have done that I never imagined I would do (including - I never imagined I would drive a mini-van, I never imagined I would direct a pre-school, I never imagined I would marry a priest, I never imagined I would not be able to fit even one car in our two-car garage, I never imagined that I would read books on something that gets recharged, I never imagined that I would want to write a blog, I never imagined that I would start a photography business, I never imagined that I would want to play Scrabble on a small device I also use for phone calls, I never imagined that I would live with four beings - five, counting Sadie, the dog - that I adore this much and on and on and on), living in a town (county, actually) without a bookstore ranks high on the list. I did not know such a thing existed.
This is not to say that my town is not wonderful; it is. There is a town square to beat any, and we actually have concerts and events and children run around playing and adults smile - really! And we have nice people. We have nice people everywhere, and many of us know each other well. We know each other's names. In my town, people care very much. If it is almost Christmas time (say, three years ago) and your husband is in the hospital and his mother is in another town, in another hospital, close to the end of her sweet life; people stop everything they are doing and they 'do you' for a while. They come to your house and some of them clean and some of them do the laundry and some of them rake the yard and some of them buy a Christmas tree and some of them decorate the outside of your house with lights for the kids and some of them buy a cake for your daughter's birthday and some of them leave food and some of them put little things in your outlets that make your house smell homey and the ones that are not at your house pray for you . . . a lot. My town is great.
And we have an unbelievable arts program for young people and we have a beautiful college campus just across a bridge and we have fun parties in our cul-de-sacs and we go to special events at one another's churches, we wave at each other all of the time, we don't have to drive far in the car to get to any other place in our town, we have great big antebellum homes and organic farmers and cool artists and an unbelievable library. It is a grand town. Really.
But there is no small, corner bookstore. There is no large chain bookstore. There was a Chapter 11 and a real bookstore in the next county over and there were bookstores here before. They are all gone now. Saddened by this, a group of us at my church started a small bookstore right in our church, and all of the proceeds go to outreach. I am thankful, and I imagine that I will write more about it some time on this blog. There is one 'used book/sell/trade' bookstore, and I'll pick up the story here.
These days I love this used bookstore; but upon our arrival here twelve years ago, I wasn't sure just what to make of it. When I made my initial voyage in, I felt that all of the books had numbers on the bottoms of the spines (i.e. No. 427 of this Romance series or No. 17 of this Sci-Fi Thriller or No. 102 of this Western) and it threw me off - way off. I searched and searched for books without the numbers. I looked way down at the bottom, in case that was where they put the ones that not many folks like, and I looked back in the back where the books are stacked in piles instead of side by side in order. No luck. I finally headed to the front to ask. On my way, I began to wonder how I would ask for the section I wanted - what was it called? Hmmmmm. Once, some friends told me that I seemed to read a lot of books with white covers that were about poor people. Is that a genre? And so I asked, "Do you have a literature section?" "You mean, like the Classics?" the nice lady asked in response. "Well, not exactly that." I said, rubbing my chin to think harder. I tried different descriptions, like 'bestsellers' - 'top ten' - 'New York Times' - 'popular' - I tried many different adjective-infused phrases. And then it happened . . . she knew what I meant!
"Oh, you're talking about Oprah books! They're over here on a special rack." Alas, there they were; the books I like, the books I had heard of, the books I recognized, the books with no numbers on the bottom of the spines! I'm all about Oprah, and appreciate the Oprah Book Club, but I would not have thought of invoking her name on my hunt for a good read. Now I know better. I immediately felt warm and happy, as I slowly turned the spinny rack. All was right with the world. I had moved to a good place, and there were Oprah books. Ahhhhhh.
I perused the section, picked out a few I had heard of and a few that looked interesting. I paid for the transaction and left with a new confidence, a new awareness about small-town life. I think maybe I read an Anita Shreve or Jodi Piccoult and then went for a book I had chosen for the reason we are taught never to admit - I had judged a book by it's cover. Really. The book was And Then There Was One, by Carolyn Radziwill. It was a good read and very sad. Carolyn was married to John Kennedy, Jr.'s cousin, who died of cancer early in their marriage. Carolyn's best friend was Carolyn Bessette, wife of John Kennedy, Jr. To say that she overcame sadness is an understatement. All of the tragedy in the book was tragedy I already knew about, and that is not what stayed with me after I finished. I was left with a sentence, and I have never forgotten it. I like it, and I felt like it explained a lot, made sense of a lot, and made me understand why talking and listening and reading and writing is important. Here is the sentence . . .
"Ultimately what remains is a story. In the end, it's the only thing any of us really owns."