Signs and Wonders: When We Were Built by Books

Recollections  / April 18, 2019

Waldenbooks, 1982

MCKENNA: I don’t remember which of you two mutants suggested talking about the bookshops that left a mark on us in our various youths, but thinking about it has caused a cascading of memories. Bookshops ground a groove into my cortex early: I’m from one of those post-war British households where education had let people from working-class backgrounds make it into the lower-middle-classes, so books were considered to have talismanic power—fortunately for me, though, we weren’t cultured enough to distinguish between the classy stuff like The Fall of the Roman Empire and the decidedly unclassy stuff like The Uninvited or James Herbert’s The Rats. The important thing about books was to have shitloads of the bastards; it didn’t matter if some of them contained gaudy illustrations or descriptions of peoples’ organs being chewed by rodents.

I spent a lot of time in bookshops from an early age, with the result that they enjoy a weirdly prominent position in my psyche, cropping up in my dreams with worrying frequency. I say worrying because these are not the luminous, enticing bookshops with well-lit aisles stocked with the latest glossy-covered paperbacks—no, the bookshops of my dreams are like the ones I grew up around: ramshackle, chaotic labyrinths that seemed more like the expression of some profound existential difficulty on the part of their owners than anything resembling a shop, and which were rammed mainly with second-hand trash. Beautiful trash. One of the templates for this was the Cottage Bookshop in a village called Penn near where my grandparents lived. Less bookshop and more actual cottage, of the collapsing kind, which someone had perversely stuffed with every possible type of secondhand book—65,000 of them, apparently. The place was like some surreal re-education centre. There was a massive section of worthy non-fiction hardbacks somewhere, apparently, but I could not have given less of a fuck. All I had eyes for were the entire walls composed of Herbert Van Thal’s Pan horror anthologies, the sagging shelves of annuals for every grotesque failed television program ever made, the piles of science fiction paperbacks, their bases practically welded to the floor with dust and damp. Literally none of the walls in any of the rooms were visible, woodlice proliferated in the rotting window frames and door jambs, Aleister Crowley’s face would appear between copies of The Famous Five, and every surface was covered with boxes of new acquisitions that hadn’t been sorted and never would or could be.

I don’t think I ever actually bought anything in the Cottage Bookshop—there wasn’t really any need to, because you could sit and read a whole book undisturbed: quite frankly, you could probably have moved in and I doubt anyone would have noticed. But the place imprinted on me an idea of what I still half-feel a bookshop should be: a part-reassuring, part-disturbing supernatural space, full of lopsided rooms, gaudy artwork, and disconcerting, random connections. A place where Montague Summers’ Witchcraft and Black Magic, a Bionic Woman annual, and an unnerving-looking J.G. Ballard paperback could share a shelf, their presence together implying strange new truths about reality.

Is that ringing any bells for you two?

Waldenbooks, circa 1980

GRASSO: Richard, this is such a vivid evocation of time and place and family. I wish I had this kind of larger web of familial, social, and economic support for my nascent reading habit as a wee bairn. Sure, my folks read to me nightly until I was 4 or 5 years old, and once I was consuming (and eventually purchasing) books on my own, dutifully took me to the bookstore (or, far more commonly, the local public library) every chance I could wheedle out of them. But I’ll be honest: the aspirational value of books that you cite above wasn’t around in my family. If we’re being honest, the only bookshelves in the entire house growing up were in my room! And it wasn’t because my folks were anti-intellectuals or anything; far from it. My dad may not be a big reader, but my mom would always have a book at night after work: usually mysteries, police procedurals, or thrillers (Ed McBain and local favorite Robert B. Parker, about to become a household name with the 1985 debut of TV series Spenser: For Hire, were a big hit), as well as horror, of course (my first exposure to Stephen King would have definitely been through my mom’s reading).

But here’s the other thing: you would think a “gifted” kid growing up in the Boston area would have had his pick of excellent bookstores, but in my area on Boston’s North Shore… there just weren’t any! None in my town, and only a few chain bookstores at the couple of nearby malls. If I had grown up a little more well-to-do, and been raised somewhere like Newton, or Cambridge, or Lexington, I would have been able to visit any number of little hole-in-the-wall independent bookstores. But the vagaries of economics, consumer demand, and the overall construction of malls, both strip malls and shopping centers, dictated that the cluster of cities to Boston’s immediate north, full of lower-middle-class, blue-collar folks, would have very few bookstores.

But oh, I mined seemingly every section of those Waldenbooks and Barnes & Nobles for stuff. The youth section at first, of course, but eventually nonfiction history, science fiction and fantasy, and adult fiction. The typical mall Waldenbooks probably wasn’t as kid-friendly as it could have been back in the 1980s; these days, big chain bookstores (the ones that are left out there, anyway) have enormous kids’ departments (with toys and games sections that would have made 1985 Mike drool with envy). But this actually worked to my advantage, in a way; able to weave in and out of shelves with books meant for grown-ups meant exposure to them at a time when I really needed them. My so-called “YA” period lasted not long at all; it was probably only a period of one or two years at most when I was reading Encyclopedia Brown and Choose Your Own Adventure books and then, suddenly, I was off like a shot to more adult stuff like The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.

I do have some memories of unique bookstore experiences closer to Richard’s (as well as a little more about what my public library really meant to me), but I really want to hear about Kelly’s youth in bookstores in Southern California. I’m guessing it’s fairly similar to mine—a lot of mall Waldenbooks?

ROBERTS: As anyone who follows us on Twitter has discovered, I am fairly obsessed with interior shots of the physical spaces I inhabited during my youth: arcades, music stores, video stores, movie theaters, restaurants, airports, libraries, grocery stores, and especially bookstores. As you guessed, Mike, that color photo of Waldenbooks above hit me pretty hard: rarely do I come across a more evocative image. It’s summer 1982, based on the newest Mack Bolan book (Paramilitary Plot) and the newest Choose Your Own Adventure book (Survival at Sea); I consumed both series at the time. Waldenbooks was among my favorite places growing up, and it was far superior to the other big chain, B. Dalton. You could find Dungeons & Dragons manuals and modules there, for one thing! Waldenbooks (there was one in each of the nearby malls) at least tried to cater to the young adult market, even starting a sci-fi-fantasy book club in the early ’80s that put out its own magazine.

Bennett Martin Public Library, Lincoln, Nebraska, 1982

My implacable love affair with books started at the library. I feel like it’s important to say that today, when the value of these public institutions is so persistently and ignorantly called into question. My mom took me to the library every week from an early age. It’s important for me to say that too, because without her encouragement—almost all of the shit I read and watched and otherwise consumed as a kid was Weird, and she could have shut it down at any time—I would have been an entirely different, loathsomely “normal” person. Anyway, she would sit me down at the terminal or set me up at the card catalog, and I would look up books on King Arthur, mythological monsters, ghosts, UFOs, horror movies, spies and espionage—and then I would hunt down the week’s treasures while she hunted for her own (I have never seen my mother without a book). She’d let me take my stack up to the counter, show the librarian my card, make sure I understood when the books were due back.

She took me to bookstores too, and the first one I remember is the Book Shop (still there!) in “downtown” Covina, specializing in rare and secondhand titles, where I discovered a great big stack of beat-up comics in the back room for 10¢ each. I remember it very clearly: it was as if I had dug up a pot of gold, and I can rattle off every individual issue in that stack, which she bought for me over the course of a few weeks. This led me to California Comics, right across the street, and a comics obsession that I would still be indulging if I had the time or the money (my collection, of course—the one I continually threaten to sell but never do—resides at my mom’s house). There was also, a few doors down, the Covina Book Stop (closed), where I discovered Ray Bradbury (probably thanks to Ian Miller’s Bantam covers) and countless sci-fi and fantasy authors (Lord of the Rings was big in 4th grade: Ballantine’s Silver Jubilee Edition came out in 1981). Every Wednesday, from about age 9, she would take me to the comic book store after school, where I would invariably blow my allowance (my mom thinks it was $5.00 at the time, but my parents would increase it a little when the price of comics went up). And we would usually browse one or both of the bookstores afterwards: sometimes I got a book, sometimes I didn’t.

MCKENNA: We didn’t really have many comic stores in the UK back then, or at least not in the boondocks—British comics came out weekly and were sold in the newsagent. Libraries, though, were a big part of my burgeoning book… I hesitate to call it culture, because that’s not really an accurate description of only reading things with a planet, spaceship, ghost, monster or ancient Briton on the cover. My book fetish? Anyway, I always seemed to be in one, usually getting frowned at for being overdue (not because of any congenital anti-authoritarian streak, unfortunately—I’m just fucking useless). I can barely believe how lucky I was to have been living in a time and place where literacy and free, easy access to books were seen as priorities. In ascending order of scale, we had the school library, from which we were obliged to select sundry Leon Garfields, Philippa Pearces, Rosemary Sutcliffes, Alan Garners, and Helen Cresswells at regular intervals to remind us just how infested with phantoms the world was, in case we ever got it into our heads to not live in fear. Then there was the local library at the end of the street, impossibly humid due to a combination of the drizzle-absorbent fabrics we all wore back then and state-funded central heating, which contained a vast selection of large-print copies of Louis L’Amour and Catherine Cookson. And finally, there was Doncaster central library, a modernist paradise housed in a bridge astride a shopping precinct and possessed of the complete set of E.C. Tubb’s Space: 1999 books that earned me my largest ever library fine.

Arndale Centre, 1970s

The other bookshop in my young existence was also in Doncaster: W. H. Smith’s in the then-Arndale Centre, one of the network of “American style” malls scattered across the North of England. Smith’s was the opposite of the Cottage Bookshop. A slick, modern British chain with possibly the definitive ’70s orange-and-brown livery, it sold stationary, magazines, comics, music, and books, and had a brown-and-orange carpeted aisle where the horror and SF were handily positioned near the children’s books: a short walk took you from Wind in the Willows and the Usborne UFO book to Spacecraft 2000-2100 AD, the Battlestar Galactica photonovel (it was in reference to photonovels that I first heard a person—my mum’s boss—utter the word “abomination” in real life), The Crabs, and The Manitou.

Back then, there was little interest in “documenting” things in the UK, and any interest in such was likely compromised by Brit tight-fistedness when it came to stuff like paying to have film developed, so there are fewer images of the British bookshop environments of the ’70s and ’80s than there seem to be of their equivalents in the States. Maybe that’s better in a way: my memories of these temples remain unsullied by proof of how dingy they actually were.

GRASSO: There’s not much I can add to both of your memories of public libraries; they hit me right in the gut. Without the kind librarians and collections of Revere Public Library I would have been utterly lost as a grade school kid. But I said I’d talk about some of the special, sui generis bookstores of my youth, and there were a handful. First, there was a single, unique, burned-forever-in-my-memory trip to a Boston educational institution, J.L. Hammett’s (est. 1863), sometime in the first half of the 1980s. I have no idea how my folks or I found out about it, but their showroom in downtown Boston near Haymarket was a revelation for a nerdy kid like me whose geode needed to be acknowledged. It was a wonderland of school supplies; not for the kids, but for the teachers. I don’t think my tiny mind could even conceive of such a wondrous place. Hundreds of textbooks, sure, but also blackboards, 100 different colors of chalk, pointers, Cuisenaire rods, wall maps, and globes! So many globes! It puts a tear in my eye to think of it now, 35 years later. It was like the first scene in Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory where the kids first glimpse paradise. Of course, like most brick and mortar specialty stores with more than a century in business, Hammett’s tried to ride the tiger of the information revolution in the late 1990s with the usual dispiriting results. The internet killed Hammett’s, their showroom, and a very special piece of Boston educational history. Given the fact that schools don’t even pay for teacher supplies anymore because of the brutality of neoliberal austerity, maybe it’s for the best.

The other two very special Places of Books from my childhood and adolescence were within walking distance of each other in Malden Square and remind me very much of Kelly’s memories of California Comics. The Malden branch of New England Comics, the Boston area’s premier comic shop (yes, yes, I know about Newbury Comics, but they were for music in my high school years), was where I first began my deep dives into the 1980s Marvel mutant titles; their back issue collections were unfathomably deep and cost me a pretty penny in those long-ago days (some of them were as much as 5 bucks!). And then right down the street was the hobby store that outfitted dozens of junior high/high school all-night dungeon delves and tabletop battles in the grim darkness of the far future: Excalibur Hobbies. It too was an archive of rulebooks and boxed sets, half-forgotten back issues of Dragon and White Dwarf, official TSR modules and third-party knockoffs, lead minis that had been languishing there since the late ’70s, and a friendly clerk who never missed an opportunity to inform us that he was from the Midwest and had gamed with the Greater Deity himself, E. Gary Gygax.

I still remember, and always will, two very important trips to Excalibur, both tied to childhood stress and sadness. First, after a particularly worrisome and stressful doctor’s appointment for me at age 12, my folks took me there to grab the 1st edition AD&D Player’s Handbook, my very first acquisition that elevated me out of red box D&D Basic Set. And the second, far sadder, in the aftermath of my grandmother’s death on my thirteenth birthday in 1988, my dad taking me there to pick up the Atlas of the Dragonlance World by fantasy cartographer Karen Wynn Fonstad. The more I think about those days and weeks after my grandmother’s passing, I think of how the original Dragonlance trilogy novels and that atlas helped me escape into another world, one still replete with its own triumphs and tragedies, but one that seemed more magical and strange and heroic than my own.

Ed’s Covina Hobby and The Book Shop, circa early 1990s

ROBERTS: I also loved those Dragonlance books, Mike, and I remember playing one of the D&D modules they were based on during my junior high “Outdoor Ed” trip, huddled inside a cabin somewhere near Lake Arrowhead. There was also a hobby shop in downtown Covina (still there!), but everything inside was too expensive. As I got older and my reading interests shifted to the Western canon, Waldenbooks was still there: I bought tons of Penguin and Bantam Classics, and I remember one of my friends buying me the Modern Library’s Basic Writings of C.G. Jung (this one) for my birthday in ’87 or ’88. When I moved to West Los Angeles in the early ’90s, there was a great used bookstore called Wilshire Books that I haunted when I wasn’t working at a bookstore myself: the recently opened Barnes & Noble “superstore.” I remember B&N being accused of killing the independent book shop at the time, but now they’re the independent book shop.

I suppose I could go off on a rant here, as I usually do, about The Things We Have Lost, but I won’t. To quote the title of a Jacques Barzun book that I discovered (and subsequently bought) while browsing a bookstore, we get the culture we deserve. You thought the tech bros were “savvy” when they suggested gutting the libraries and replacing them with hip internet cafés. You thought the Kindle was so cute that you crocheted a little sweater for it. And now you have a game show host president who is zealously proud of his semi-literacy and guttural ignorance. Eat shit.

I’ll tell you a story. Shortly after my first daughter was born (2011), we all went to lunch and, on the way home, decided to stop at the Barnes & Noble I used to work at. My wife and I would do this at least once a month pre-pregnancy, but it got tough post-holy-shit-we’re-going-to-be-parents, because, you know, it’s fucking uncomfortable and exhausting for her to carry that thing around 24/7. Anyway, we park (at the end of our night shifts back in the day, we would race up the nearly empty parking garage at Christ knows what speed), I put the kid in the stroller, and we head up to Level One in the elevator. Ding ding. We get out, turn the corner, and—what the fuck is this? My bookstore is now a nefariously overpriced yuppie furniture store. Three floors of books! The place where I bought (40% discount for employees!) half the books that made me want to be who I am—dead and gone at eleven-years-old.


MCKENNA: Discussion of this risks becoming one of those privilege-spewing meditations on The Good Old Days©, and nobody wants that bollocks. But It’s the same thing plenty of people have said, I suppose: housing something physical like books necessitated these habitats that a generation was fortunate enough to grow up around, and the network of ley lines that connected them. Maybe they fostered an engagement with literature and culture—and by extension life—that was slightly less mediated, slightly less implicitly impersonal and results-oriented, slightly more meditative, before those habitats were hollowed out and destroyed? Or maybe not, maybe I’m kidding myself, who knows.

The insane second-hand bookshops I was talking about at the beginning seemed like the incursion into reality of a different way of existing, and I think that’s why they infest my subconscious: as intimidating—and even vaguely disgusting—as I sometimes found their ramshackle, uncontrollable nature, they provided me with something—a physical representation of a mental alternative that was at once reassuring and provoking, maybe? It seems innately part of their actual physical reality, something that for whatever reason it’s hard to evoke through media. You could probably say the same of the aisles of a Waldenbooks or whatever the fuck your weird bookshop chain was called: myriad expressions or interpretations of human experience housed in a communal space that was, yes, often mediated through the shittiest kind of commerce, but still physical, on the Earth, connected to a time and a place and to other people, with all their horrors and failings.

Speaking for myself, I’m optimistic, because the kids I know (Jesus wept, there’s a phrase that’s a knife in the heart to write) all have their literacies—be they high or low—but I can’t help feeling it’s a shame that, increasingly, there doesn’t seem to be a physical agora for those literacies to manifest and interact in. Though they probably have their own agoras that haggard relics like us are, rightly, denied knowledge of.

3 thoughts on “Signs and Wonders: When We Were Built by Books

  1. I love reading about these bookshop memories. Boston area (US) it’s so true–you really had to travel into Boston and Cambridge — there really weren’t/aren’t too many indie bookstores in the greater the Boston area/suburbs in any direction. I do have a soft spot for Barnes & Nobles formerly of downtown crossing in Boston, despite being a chain outlet–I feel like it was a bookstore I grew up in as kid/teen/twenty-something before it shuttered. The late 1980’s/90’s we did have a discount chain I loved called Buck-A-Book which was also mostly in the city/metro area, Boston, Cambridge, and I think perhaps Somerville/Quincy. The books went beyond $1 up to $5 or so depending and a couple of times books actually fell and hit me and so I found great reads so of in an impractical way, but it was a great place–I found many wonderful gifts there not just books, but they had children’s books, toys and other little items and I still miss it. Sometimes I write short essays/on the blog about “bookstore” memories perhaps I’ll do Buck-A-Book soon. Thanks for sharing/posting!

  2. Pingback: Cold War Interrupted: The Promise of ‘2010: The Year We Make Contact’

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