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More than once in my own fiction, I’ve called Wichita, Kansas a dusty, grown-up cow town. There’s truth in my phrase, but also some exotifying. These days, Wichita is a city with wide streets and a Barnes & Noble spacious enough to fit multiple 747s; the once-patch of prairie is now populated with sprawling aircraft plants, megachurches, and strip malls. Those strip malls have worked their way into my fiction, likely because they overwhelm the landscape of my childhood. However, I’d also like to think it’s because Wichita taught me of their possibilities—that gems may be hidden behind those flat, sterile facades. And because one of those gems has always felt like home.
Watermark Books lives an unassuming-strip-mall existence in the heart of Wichita, blending into a landscape that grows stranger each time I come home. I’ve lived away for nine years now, having rooted myself in the mid-Atlantic, and every year, a bit of Wichita escapes me. Now, when I return, it’s flatter, its buildings are larger, and its trees are further between. On a recent trip home, my family picked me up at the airport, and we drove until we pulled into an amply-sized parking lot, as you do on every errand in Wichita. The six of us shuffled through a door covered in posters for upcoming author visits and reading series at the local university and sat down at a table, newly reunited. Flying in earlyled to a coffee craving, making a Watermark stop was a given. We caffeinated, caught up, and from time-to-time, popped up to bring a book to the table. Here I was, back at my second home, a place that’d watched me grow up.
When my mom first took me to Watermark Books, I was a confused five year-old. A building full of books that you could take home forever? Bookstar and Barnes & Noble had yet to dot the strip mall landscape, and the only book-centric buildings I knew of were libraries. We plopped down in the children’s section and browsed for hours, just like we did at the library. But then we took some books home. And kept them forever. Now, each time I enter the store, first stepping into the well-curated fiction section, I’m transported beyond the strip mall landscape. Home as a place of transportation? It sounds oxymoronic, but home to a teenager is often the place that takes you beyond your tired surroundings, hinting that the rest of the world is around the corner, waiting. That I, like a novel’s heroine, might someday live in Dakar or Istanbul.
The exemplary selection continues across the genres, each compressed into their own cozy nook: non-fiction, children’s, young adult, philosophy, religion. It’s all there, and every section comes with a plush chair, inviting and wonderfully dangerous in its ability to strip my sense of time. Every corner of the store is risky that way. Customer reviews appear throughout the store, tucked into books as bookmarks. Each bookmark holds a handwritten review, and often, I’ve spotted familiar names. In browsing, I’ve learned there’s no better way to sell me a book than to sandwich locals’ praise in its pages. These reviews democratize the displays, letting customers speak above the marketing, truly making Watermark the city’s bookstore. Posters lining the bathroom walls advertise new releases and favorites; has there been any other bathroom in America that has pushed me so to become a more voracious reader? Quite remarkable, too, I’ve realized in growing older, is the selection of literary magazines. Watermark dependably carries publications that I’ve traipsed around multiple NYC bookstores in search of. Once, I picked up an issue of Boulevard to find an article that summed up my entire undergrad and graduate literary education: a piece on writing fiction, co-authored by my professors Jean McGarry and William Black. Coffee in hand, reading the philosophies I’d internalized through dozens of seminars, my Baltimore and Wichita homes melded into one.
Over time, Watermark Books has become more than a bookstore to me, and perhaps, ultimately, that’s what makes it home. If it were a storyteller, it’d be able to write its share of my own life story. I’ve played Scrabble there. Gone on dates. Later sat plotting revenge against said dates. Skipped school. Cried to my best friend. Tried fighting the good fight, be it organizing students for Darfur or fighting injustice in the local ballet world. Sat on a bench outside the bookstore, reading The Bell Jar, simultaneously hating/loving the book for brushing up against my own teenage angst. Tried writing novels. Failed writing novels. Dreamed of the day I might return to Watermark Books for my own book launch party. And that thought is often what keeps me going, draft after draft.
Patrice Hutton is the director of Writers in Baltimore Schools. She’s currently a graduate student in writing at Johns Hopkins University. Her writing appears in The Hairpin, Outside In Literary & Travel Magazine, Prime Number Magazine, and Mount Hope Magazine. She tweets at @patricey.