Tuesday, May 29, 2012

The Life of a Bookstore

My colleague and friend Dennis Bacigalupi (who wrote a wonderful guest post on Annie Dillard here on 2/23/12), knowing how much I love bookstores, told me about his working for a while, many years ago, in the famed New York bookstore, Books & Co. He said it was a great place to work, a place where the employees really knew and cared about books, where customers could find books they could find nowhere else, and which formed a community gathering place for writers and readers from the neighborhood (near the Whitney Museum) and from throughout the city and country. Dennis lent me his copy of “Bookstore: The Life and Times of Jeannette Watson and Books & Co.” (Harcourt Brace, 1999), by Lynne Tillman, which, as the title promises, tells the story of the bookstore, its owner, the many readings and other events held there, and the way the bookstore wove itself into the fabric of literary New York. Much of the book is told in the voice of the founder and owner of the store, Jeannette Watson, interspersed with passages from various writers, employees, customers, friends, and observers. The way the story is told makes it feel very immediate, as if the reader were there in the bookstore among all the other people who cared so deeply about books. People were passionate about this bookstore that had such a wonderful selection of books on so many topics. Its regular visitors included, just to name a few, writers Susan Sontag, Brendan Gill, Salman Rushdie, Paul Auster, Fran Lebovitz, Amy Hempel, Richard Howard, Susan Cheever, Calvin Trillin, Woody Allen, and Harold Brodkey. Unfortunately, the bookstore had to close in 1997 for economic reasons, the sad story of so many independent bookstores. But it had a great run of almost 20 years, made huge contributions to literature and the literary community, and will long be remembered. It was a real pleasure to read about it, and it makes me wish I had visited the bookstore at least once before it closed. Bonus features in this book are photos of various people related to the bookstore and two fascinating appendices: “Jeannette Watson’s Secret List of Fifty Books, Her Best-Sellers” (how I wish I could reproduce that list here for you, so we could all see which we have read, which we want to read, which are new to us and look intriguing, and which we wish she had included…) and “Twenty Years of Books & Co. Readings,” an incredible “Who’s Who” of the literary world.

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