Going on book tour means a lot of time dropping by the mega-chains to sign stock, all of them a blur of sameness, cavernous spaces where books seem almost like afterthoughts to the business of selling lattes, magazines, and movies we've already seen.
But I've also been to many independent stores, among them the legends like Book Soup in Los Angeles and the sweet upstarts, like the charming Queen Anne Books in Seattle. In these places, I explored rather than searched, and felt myself growing almost physically rounder as I did so, filling with possibilities for the mind.
Always, though, there were reminders of the realities of the business. I spent more than an hour in the magnificent children's section at Seattle's Elliott Bay Books, half listening to a grandmother reading books to her granddaughter. Based on their clothing and the woman's cell phone discussions of dinner reservations, they were far from a poor family. But as they were leaving, the girl asked if they could buy one of the books. "I'll get it somewhere else," the grandmother told her. "Somewhere cheaper." She's the kind of shopper who came to mind a few hours later when I heard that Cody's Books, one of the most important independent bookstores in the Bay Area — where I live — was closing its doors for good after 52 years in the business.
Visiting Powell's this morning was a welcome tonic, then. It's the granddaddy and grandson of them all in a way: a place so thriving and sprawling it seems it has to have a future. I joined throngs of happily dazed shoppers who looked as if they were touring a Louvre where they were allowed, for a small fee, to take home the art.