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The Boulder Bookstore
With a six-pack from the Avery Brewery Company in the cooler, this week’s Book Clubbing takes a relaxing sojourn through the Rockies with our magazine’s new editorial assistant, Emma Komlos-Hrobsky, who offers us a personal look inside The Boulder Bookstore.
In the four summers that I worked at the Boulder Bookstore, I had books recommended to me by customers nearly as often as I doled out recommendations myself. I’d be shelving new poetry anthologies on the bookstore’s venerable ballroom floor when I’d spot someone scanning shelf after shelf of literature, running a finger across the titles. Abruptly, their finger would stop and they’d make some happy noise of exclamation, extract a book, then beeline to where I was working, the book held out in front of them like a baby being introduced. “This book!” they’d say. “Do you know it? It’s the best thing I’ve ever read!” They’d be grinning fanatically, the same way I did when someone checked out my employee picks on the shelves. (If someone actually bought whatever most recent Neil Young biography I’d recommended, I would’ve gone from grinning to fainting.) I love the Boulder Bookstore for precisely these moments, when it’s clear that it’s less of a shop and more the collaboration of a book-loving community and a staff of booksellers devoted to their cause.
I see the Boulder Bookstore as the beating heart of my hometown, the point of convergence for its disparate factions. Oxygen-starved mountain bikers looking for trail maps and Jewish-Buddhists browsing for enlightenment, aging Beats and bohemian teenagers, kids fresh from innertubing on the creek who pay for their books with wet one-dollar bills—everyone seems to wander into the store. It’s a place that’s been decidedly indie from day one. The bookstore’s owner invited Ginsberg to read when he was lucky to draw a crowd of ten people, and it’s been at the forefront of the local business movement for years. Today, the store buzzes with readings, events, bookclubs, and the occasional vampire prom endured by a very sporting staff.
The Boulder Bookstore is also the closest I’ve encountered to the bookshop’s platonic ideal. The space is glutted with books, all held in heavy oak shelves that fit under each staircase and into every possible nook. There are armchairs for reading and antique lamps to light the way. The store’s rooms build and twist across three sprawling floors, each unfolding into the next in unexpected ways, so that finding a book becomes fantastic exploration in itself. Making the climb from the cool of basement non-fiction, through the bustling main floor, and up to the grand top floor with its converted ballroom and arched windows and towering shelves of fiction always seemed to me a bit like ascending to some secret literary Shangri-La. The first summer I worked there, rumor held that the sex section in on the uppermost floor was haunted. (Where better, after all, to do some phantasmagorical over-the-shoulder reading?) Holding the closing shift upstairs meant flipping off the last bank of lights and sprinting, flailing, from the room in the dark.
But as grand as the Boulder Bookstore’s space is, its star remains its books and the affection that’s lavished on them. The selection in the store reflects a staff that’s both deeply and widely read, and that understand reading as adventure into wild new territory. One of the greatest pleasures of working in the store was shelving and getting to look through basket after basket of titles I wouldn’t have known to pick but that I inevitably wanted to read. You’d be hardpressed to come up with a topic that’s not to be found somewhere in the bookstore’s stacks, or an employee who wouldn’t be glad to tell you about the twelve things they’re currently reading. Even the children’s section is peppered with recommendation tags, some featuring reviews transcribed from the not-yet-writing kids of the staff (all big proponents of The Gruffalo). Used books are afforded a rare dignity and shelved alongside the new. Space for local book clubs’ selections aid in snooping on what everyone else is reading. It’s all these touches that reveal the Boulder Bookstore as a place that not only knows its books but its readers. It’s a store that lives for the sweaty kid who’ll drop his bike outside the door, paw through the chapter books, and arrive at the register with something clutched to his chest. “Have you read this?” he’ll say. “It’s the absolute best.”
Emma Komlos-Hrobsky is an editorial assistant at Tin House. Her writing has appeared in Hot Metal Bridge, The Splinter Generation, and Steve Almond’s music review, “The Tip.”