The first thing I try to do when I go to a new city is to find a bookstore. It doesn’t matter where I am, what language I hear on the lips around me, what art galleries or museums or cultural must-sees I might be putting off: I look for a bookstore.
Maybe I find a dusty used bookstore, whose proprietor eyes me wearily until satisfied that I’m not here to steal, but to smell the musty titles, to check on old familiar favourites, to maybe even buy a book or two (or three or four).
Maybe I find a café with books lining the walls, and I tilt my head to the right to browse while cups and saucers clink around me, old friends catch up over new coffee, the smell of baked goods (sometimes great) circle the shelves.
Wherever I might be, I buy a few books (some by regional authors, some that I’ve been eyeing for a long time), take a bookmark or bag, and try to take in as much as I can, sliding this bookstore into the pocket of my mind full of travel memories.
Books make the best souvenirs. Weeks, months, even years later, when I finally crack open that book I picked up in Charlottetown or Vancouver, Stockholm, or London or Paris, I remember that city, that store, that experience, and I meet the characters with whom I’ve returned.
Independent bookstores to me are home, a familiar acquaintance in an unfamiliar place. When I finally find a bookstore in a new place, spotting the fading titles in the sun-soaked window, it feels like running into an old friend in the most unlikely of places. I never get tired of exploring new shelves, or of that smile on the cashier’s face when they say, “Oh, this is a good one,” and I’m sure they’re right.
There are few things more comforting to me than a good book, and few places more perfect to find one than an independent bookstore. Reading is one of the only solitary activities that can bring you closer to other people. I have intimate relationships with Dostoyevsky, Didion, and Lydia Davis and Rivka Galchen, Alice Munro and Ann-Marie MacDonald; I consider Lolita and Franny Glass some of my closest friends. Don’t worry, I know real people, too – some of my best friends are real people! But books offer an opportunity to meet characters and places, time periods and situations of an unbelievable nature that you’d never have the chance to meet otherwise. They tell you what’s happening but not how to imagine it, and so to read is to combine your imagination with someone else’s, someone who might not even speak your language (they might even be dead, which is sad but doesn’t fade your connection).
I like to think this is a life skill, and that reading gives you the power to create stronger connections with those around you. In a literal sense, I’ve connected with complete strangers over books. One time a girl on the subway, whom I otherwise would’ve completely ignored (as dictated by the tacit subway etiquette rules), sat down next to me and started a conversation about the book I was reading (Another Country by James Baldwin, if you’re interested – it was devastating). Turns out that she was writing a play adapted from that exact novel. Now it would be perfectly poetic and romantic to tell you here that this girl and I are now friends, brought together by the genius of a man before our time, but I live in New York and that’s not really how things work down here. I got off at the next stop, not asking her name but wishing her the best of luck with her play, and the interaction left me filled with a warmth towards strangers that is not typically the result of riding the subway. All thanks to books!
So read to your kids, or your friends, or your partner when they’re trying to sleep (they’ll love it, even if they say otherwise; trust me, I’m single). Read to your parents when they’re old and cranky, or your babies when they’re young and cranky. Read to yourself when you can’t sleep, or when you can sleep but don’t want to.
Reading can be an escape, but it can also be an entrance into a new world, and I can’t recommend it enough. Oh, and the next time you’re in a new city, add an independent bookstore or two (or three or four) to your itinerary.
About Eat Your Words:
Eat Your Words: Books for Cooks and Other Amazing Finds specializes in vintage cookbooks, carefully curated new cookbooks, and kitchenware.