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John Benditt in conversation with Nancy Pearl - University Bookstore Wednesday, February 25th, 7:00pm
I live just 90 steps from Browseabout Books. Here in the tiny beach town of Rehoboth Beach, Delaware, everything (like in all beach towns) is measured by its distance from the beach, so I should add that I live just a block and a half from the ocean—a truly wondrous pleasure for this city girl. I should also add that a good library is just a block and a half in the other direction.
But 90 steps from a bookstore, that’s the most tremendous thing about my life here—the comfort and pleasure I derive from its physical presence. It’s a luxury to have an independent bookstore anywhere anymore, but especially so in a small town like this, with a population of just a few hundred people. Located on Rehoboth Avenue, the town’s main street, Browseabout is a big store, too, with half of its space devoted to a coffee bar and the usual non-book items: Crane’s stationery, an enormous assortment of greeting cards, sweatshirts for chilly nights, reading glasses, Moleskins, calendars, journals, toys, games, puzzles, and a smattering of beachy items. But it’s the half with books that is a thing to behold—best sellers and beach books, yes, but also a strong kids section; travel books and literary fiction with an extensive back catalog; books by local authors; and a selection of essays, poetry, plays. Several shelves feature smart staff picks by a staff that you know by name, a staff that can appreciate the subtleties of individual tastes. This is no airport kiosk—it is a bookstore, a true bookstore, with that feisty smell of ink and paper, mixed with the smell of Coppertone in the summer from people stopping in on their way to or from the beach. Still run by the original owners, Steve and Barbara Crane, who have been there since 1975, and are still committed to selling books.
As a kid, I took refuge in libraries and bookstores, especially Kramerbooks & Afterwords Cafe in Dupont Circle, Washington, D.C., where I grew up. It opened when I was eight; my aunt Pat took me there on the Metro because I had read about it in the Washington Post and I wanted to SEE it. We sat at the café table and I mispronounced Darjeeling, a tea I had never heard of (nor had I ever seen a tea infuser). I felt grateful to the server who did not laugh at me, to the counter clerk who didn’t ask me if I wanted to see the children’s section. It was all exotic and perfect and wonderful.
I would spend much of my adult life living within a few blocks of Kramer’s, where I bought so many books that became crucial to me there. Susan Minot’s Lust, Pam Houston’s Cowboys are My Weakness, Liz Benedict’s Slow Dancing, Candace Flynt’s Mother Love, and Marti Liembach’s Dying Young. Books by young women about young women. After I left college, I yearned to continue learning; the DC Public Libraries were in rough shape, as was the district in general during those days of deficits, crack wars and Mayor Marion Barry’s own addiction and imprisonment. Books from Kramerbooks played a key part in my education. Those books made me start writing my own stories. I bought my New Yorker there when I didn’t have the money all at once for a subscription, and I started to consider what good writing was. Kramerbooks was a refuge, & Afterwords Cafe, too—I went on dates there and got boozy there and met friends and showed up drunk there after club shows, but really, it was always about the books. I can’t remember a single meal, though I’ve eaten hundreds there; I just remember that first cup of Darjeeling tea, and my patient aunt, herself only about 22 then, but so worldly in my eyes. But I vividly remember all the books, piles and piles and piles of books. The tall gleaming shelves, the tables piled high. Just the sight of it left me feeling less alone, more at home, as if I belonged in the world after all.
Even as a kid, I preferred buying books to checking them out. If I owned a book I could re-read it at a slow pace, figure out how it worked, write marginalia, invent characters of my own in the gutters of the pages, or scrawl questions to authors on the end pages. Keep it forever, sleep with it if I truly loved it and wanted to be near it, lend it, give it to a friend who I loved so that she might come to love it too. Owning a book was a tremendous thing, even as a child. I loved the reach and vast collection of a library, but if I really loved a book I checked out from the library – Ann Beattie’s The Burning House, for instance—I told the librarian I lost it and then paid for it. I had to HAVE it and I didn’t really know then how to get a bookstore to order a book. That was the only way I knew how to make the book my own.
Around the same time that Kramer’s opened, Browseabout Books opened in Rehoboth Beach, where I came with my family on vacation as a child. I’d buy books when we were in town, carry them around on the boardwalk. My mother would refuse to carry them – it was her vacation too – so I’d do it, leaving that evening’s purchases with the ticket taker at Funland, checking them with the person in charge of distributing the putters and colored golf balls at the mini-golf course, smear them with pizza grease and ice cream drippings, but they were mine, those books, so it was okay. My childhood beach memories are replete with sand and surf and boardwalks and rides and the bookstore, too.
When, after a lifetime of visiting, I moved to Rehoboth Beach four years ago, I assured myself that I wasn’t leaving civilization, really. The bookstore, after all, was a mere 90 steps away. In my early forties a writing life at the beach seemed ideal. The off-seasons are not so desolate anymore, though still quiet. Like many locals, the off-season is my favorite time, and Browseabout stays open and busy with activities throughout. It would be different here if Browseabout closed, the way many shops do during the off-season. In a town this small, having a bookstore open, with its light shining at 6 p.m. on a Wednesday in December, well… if you haven’t spent a winter in small town, well, then, you might not quite be able to imagine the comfort that provides.
In summer, Browseabout is bustling. Open 6 a.m. to 11 p.m. Coffee and newspapers and pastry in the morning. People in and out all day. A different after dinner crowd than the one in the Hopperesque light at Kramerbooks, but an after dinner crowd all the same. Water bowls for dogs out front. A window counter if you’ve got a dog and can’t come in, or are holding a dripping ice cream cone, or lugging a beach umbrella. For some of us, books are a critical part of vacations, especially beach vacations. Once I lugged a vintage suitcase from the 1930’s filled with 75 lbs. (the airline limit) around the South Pacific for three months. There I was with Alice Walker in Tahiti, Philip Roth in Fiji, Chinua Achebe In Australia. I had never been on such an extensive trip and I was afraid, no, petrified, of running out of books to read, afraid that I wouldn’t find bookstores in the remote locations I was visiting. You see those people here now, buying book after book, more than they possible could read while here. Beach reads, yes, but also literary fiction, serious biographies.
And of course, there are the most serious readers: the kids. Like the girl, about 11, telling her dad that no, she really does need to buy just a few more books. The boy of 10 telling his mom he likes BOOKS and doesn’t want a Kindle (nothing against eBooks, but watching a child 35 years younger than me in the same kids section I once haunted, holding out for books on paper, makes me well up a little). Naturally there are also the parents cajoling their kids to get a book—“If you want pizza, you have to read 10 pages tonight,” scenes like that. But the kids who love to read, I recognize them, and my heart is rooting for them. I want to go whisper to them, Keep reading! Maybe you will be a writer! Take yourself seriously! I want to hug them and tell them all the hope they raise in me, how they make me feel better about the human race… Browseabout brings them to me, along with the New York Times, and good coffee year round, and special orders and so much more. Barbara and Steve Crane, the owners, are always about, especially Steve, always asking, “What do you need?” and always investing in the community, always sponsoring events, supporting the local charities. Like so many independent bookstores, it isn’t merely a retail space, but a heart space.
My fiancé and are moving a bit farther away this fall, two whole blocks. We are putting up a tiny free library close to our house; I imagine going to buy books for it at Browseabout, leaving them out for locals and visitors alike. It will seem strange to live “so far” away after the luxury of counting the distance to Browseabout in steps instead of blocks. Our attachments are fierce in this tiny town, strong as the wind off the ocean in February. What a lucky thing for a writer and a reader like me to have come ashore here, the bookstore illuminating the way, my own private lighthouse.
Anna March’s essays, reviews, fiction, playlists and poetry have appeared in a wide variety of publications including New York Magazine, Salon and The Rumpus. She has been nominated for a Pushcart and is currently at work on a memoir. Her novel The Diary of Suzanne Frank is forthcoming. Follow her on twitter @annamarch or read more at www.annamarch.com.