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McLean and Eakin
Sometimes I have trouble convincing people that I come from a literary place. I say “Michigan” and New Yorkers immediately think of one of those middle-of-the-map fly-over states whose greatest cultural appeal is that it is home to a disproportionate number of “nice folks.” In fact, Michiganders are no kinder on average than Americans from other parts of country; anyone who doubts this is true should spend about ten minutes with my fourth-grade gym teacher. But we are fiercely proud. So, when my friends debated their favorite Manhattan bookstore, I, of course, began gushing about Petoskey, Michigan’s McLean and Eakin.
“Don’t take my word for it,” I insisted. “Just ask Ann Patchett!” Patchett, who wrote about her love affair with Petoskey in The New York Times, wasn’t excited about her first trip to town. But the moment she arrived at McLean and Eakin, she said, “All the other bookstores I’ve known in my life fell away.”
Patchett discovered what I have known since I was a little girl: this bookstore is a true gem. Every summer, my family traveled from our Detroit suburb “Up North,” as we call northern Michigan. We’d visit the store before a day of boating on crystalline Walloon Lake, where Hemingway spent his childhood summers. McLean and Eakin was always meant to be a quick stop, but I found it difficult to leave the spectacular children’s section on the first floor and the cozy lower level, where I could browse for hours. But what I remember most was the staff.
“We’re all passionate readers,” owner Matt Norcross told me when I spoke to him over the phone last week. “If you don’t read, you won’t last long here.” This is obvious to anyone who has spent time in the store. No matter who sits behind the register, you can count on excellent recommendations—in any genre. This small fleet of booklovers was, for many years, led by Matt’s mother, Julie, who opened the store in 1992 and who, Patchett speculated, “must have a long history of people falling in love with her at first sight.” While I haven’t had the pleasure of knowing Julie personally, I, like many long-time customers, was always aware of her fairy godmotherly presence.
Although Julie’s career as a bookseller didn’t begin until her children were nearly grown, she seemed born for the role. By contrast, Matt, who’d struggled with reading as a kid, said he took a “nontraditional route.” He moved home from Chicago in 2003 and planned to work at the store temporarily while applying to graduate school. But he got hooked, which probably had something to do with his meeting—and later, marrying—Jessilynn, another McLean and Eakin staffer. Together, they are now at the store’s helm.
I haven’t been back in a few years, but I will always adore this store because it was one of the places where my love of books was ignited; I picked up my first Hemingway, The Old Man and the Sea, after a staff member led me to the regional authors section. I often imagine returning with a couple New York friends and watching them fall in love with this readers’ haven as I have. They’ll wonder what took them so long to make the trip.
Kate Schmier is an MFA student at Sarah Lawrence College. She hails from Birmingham, Michigan and now lives in New York City. She is the recent recipient of an Elizabeth George Foundation grant for emerging writers.