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John Benditt in conversation with Nancy Pearl - University Bookstore Wednesday, February 25th, 7:00pm
Each Was Home
In the past ten years I’ve lived in four different states, 7 different cities, and at 11 different addresses. To say I’m tired of moving would be a gigantic understatement.
I’ve grown accustomed to picking up and heading out. I’m expert at tossing unnecessary items and retaining valuable items for future use. Naturally, because I’m a writer, some of the items I hold dearest are books. Heavy, bulky books.
Let’s face it: it’s tough to toss out White Noise or The Complete Stories of Flannery O’Connor when for years I relied on these books like they were my air. For the most part, I’ve moved around for the adventure and for reasons related to writing—so how could I be expected to leave behind the very things that first energized me to write and explore?
What’s crazier: I probably could have sold off my books and purchased them again in each new town. I mean, it’s not like I ever moved to Ulaanbaatar. While I’ve been lucky enough to live in some truly fantastic places (and some not so fantastic places), these many cities and towns have yet to become permanent homes. In each new town and city I carved out a life, and I searched to find a sense of home. Often this feeling arrived whenever I found a good bookstore. I’ve known so many.
As I now gaze back at the past ten years, I have fond memories of so many wondrous bookstores. Each one comforted me and entertained me by offering readings. Each had a distinct personality. Each had different ways of displaying titles and interesting employees. Inside each, I found new books to adore. Through the years, as these and other independent bookstores struggled, I silently rooted for them. Each was my library. Each marked a different stage of my writing career. Each was a home.
The following are only a few of these homes.
Green Apple Books, Inner Richmond
When I moved to San Francisco in my early twenties I had one friend in the city and little money. What cash I did have was spent at Green Apple, which was just down the street from my apartment, and which, I soon learned, gave me my literary foundations. Green Apple is split into two storefronts. I spent hours and hours in the fiction annex browsing the aisles. I started at “A” and read the name of every book until I reached “Z.” Then, obsessively, I began again until my choice was made. There were just so many—almost too many. At Green Apple, I found Dennis Cooper and Knut Hamsun and Patricia Highsmith. I found Paul Auster and A.M. Homes and Walker Percy. I found Marilynne Robinson. In the magazine section, I found Granta, ZYZZYVA, Zoetrope, and The Iowa Review. For me, Green Apple was not just my neighborhood bookstore. It was the place I became educated in the culture of writers and writing.
Bird and Beckett Books, Glen Park
Later on, I moved away from the fog and to leafy Glen Park, one of my favorite neighborhoods in San Francisco. Glen Park reminds me of a small village. And in that village was Bird and Beckett Books, and what a wonderful, varied fiction selection. Spend enough time in a neighborhood bookstore and you’re bound to make a friend, like I did. Eric, the owner, is a jazz aficionado, and it wasn’t uncommon to hear jazz pulsing through the store as we talked and I browsed. It’s now been nearly ten years since then, and I still keep in touch with Eric.
Diesel Books, College Avenue (Oakland)
When San Francisco got too expensive and booted me out, I hightailed it to the East Bay. Berkeley is a book town, and Diesel Books, technically over the city line and in Oakland, was one of my East Bay refuges. I discovered many favorites here. Like Ethan Canin, Joy Williams, and Andre Dubus—all suggested by the well-read staff. There’s also something aesthetically pleasing about the store’s layout—smart but cozy.
Cody’s / Moe’s, Telegraph Avenue
Cody’s was one of the greatest bookstores to ever exist, but while I was living in Berkeley they shuttered their doors. It was like losing a relative. I watched the store struggle, attempt new sales tactics (they kept open a satellite store on Fourth Avenue), but ultimately it went under. Their lineup of visiting writers was incomparable. I saw Camille Paglia and Mary Gaitskill read here, among many others. I bought my New York Times here. It was an institution, and I still miss it.
Thankfully, Telegraph Avenue also has Moe’s, a multi-level store with new and used books and excellent taste in fiction. On the top floor is the rare books room. I roamed those floors so many times I lost count. The store was known as the place where Jonathan Lethem once worked, so there was a bit of happy intrigue in those long aisles. Today, Moe’s is still a great place to get reading suggestions from sales clerks with Ph.D.’s.
Collected Works, downtown plaza
After leaving the Bay Area, I landed in Santa Fe, grateful to find a gem of a bookstore called Collected Works. Naturally, I was afraid my great bookstore browsing days were over, but Mary and Dorothy, the mother-daughter owners, managed to strike the right balance between regional and national fiction. They’re friendly, and helpful. (And they remain friends.) The store, once located on the main drag, later expanded and moved an even larger space to accommodate readings and events. But I’ll always remember the first store, on West San Francisco Street, as the place I silently browsed for my next novel alongside Cormac McCarthy.
Years passed, jobs were worked and lost, and eventually I found myself on the West Coast again, in Portland, home to the independent behemoth known as Powell’s. Entering Powell’s that first time was like entering a dream state. It just didn’t seem possible. I couldn’t believe how the store went on and on and on. There were huge maps on the walls explaining, via a color-coding system, different sections. It was massive—it is massive—but in its enormity was the reassurance that books remained just as vital and important as the day I first traipsed into Green Apple. Huge, blocks-long, and in the center of everything, Powell’s is now a regular stop on any tourist’s must-see tour of Portland. Imagine that: tourists paying homage to a bookstore.
Move after move after move. It has been a wild decade with a lot of driving, and I haven’t even mentioned the other cities I lived in. These days I shuttle between Portland and Iowa City, home to one of this country’s best bookstores. Situated downtown in a two-story building, Prairie Lights has become the latest in a long series of homes. Owned by two women poets, it’s a dream bookstore filled with light, comfortable places to sit and read, world-class readings, and an upstairs café. Though I don’t obsessively browse anymore, like I did at Green Apple, I send my students to Prairie Lights to buy their books for the semester, hoping they will linger a while longer, find a novel of interest, bring it home, and carry it with them—wherever they go—for years.