Among the Stacks

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Among the Stacks

The WQ rates its favorite bookstores.

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In the Spring 2010 issue [“The Conscience of a Collector”], Jeffrey Scheuer writes of the rare books room in Oregon’s Powell’s Books, “I could easily have spent a whole day in there, grazing over titles, authors, bindings, covers, inscriptions, dedications. I had come home.”

He gets a big amen from the WQ’s editors. In the spirit of Scheuer’s essay, here are a few bookstores where we would happily while away our summer days:
 
Steven Lagerfeld, Editor: The phrase “rural New Jersey” may sound like a contradiction in terms, but it fits the stretch of small towns near the Delaware River I used to visit frequently. These were happy family occasions, and none was complete without a stop at Phoenix Books, which occupies an old two-story house near the end of the main street in the pretty riverside town of Lambertville. It’s hardly an original name for a used-book store, but everything else about Phoenix Books is distinctive, from the big old desk where the owners sat right as you walked in to the sense that some kind of overarching hidden logic lay behind the collection of books that jammed the shelves. Magazine editors are swamped with review copies of new books, so the sense that these books weren’t part of a random outpouring was as much a relief and a comfort as the smell of venerable books that surrounded you when you walked in the door. At the Phoenrix I happened upon a few obscure discoveries but mostly I found with uncanny frequency books that I’d always vaguely meant to read and now at last would get to. The family visits are a thing of the past but the pull of the Phoenix alone is powerful enough to draw me back.
 
James Carman, Managing Editor: What defines a good bookstore? It may simply be one that makes you seek it out whenever you’re nearby. Olsson’s—now vanished from the D.C. landscape—filled the bill for me. It offered many of the same things you now find in any Borders or Barnes & Noble, those colossal superstores that surely had a hand in its demise in 2008. So what made it different…and, for me, better? For one, Olsson’s embraced clutter (a must for any genuine bookstore). The difficulty in navigating its aisles invited browsing through the oddball offerings on the display racks, where you were as likely to find a memoir of someone you’d never heard of as the latest bestseller. And like the superstores, Olsson’s offerings branched out to include gift cards and music, yet even here it outshone its competitors; the quirky classical section was as likely to have Szymanowski as Strauss.  True, you can find almost anything today at Amazon or Arkivmusic, but I miss the joy of browsing.
 
Sarah L. Courteau, Literary Editor: The Dickson Street Bookshop opened its doors not long after I entered the world, just a couple miles from the hospital where I was born in Fayetteville, Arkansas. But it wasn’t until I was a green reporter in my twenties, living in town on my own and looking for fuel for my post-college angst, that I came to truly appreciate this local landmark—an unprepossessing red brick building (actually, an amalgam of three) at the corner of School Avenue and Dickson. (It started out on the other side of the street in 1978 before co-owners Don Choffel and Charles O’Donnell bought the current site, the old Woodruff Laundry building; one of the storage rooms is still referred to as the Fur Room.) Inside, a dense maze of shelves, each stuffed to the rafters with used books, beckons readers seeking cheap paperbacks (there’s a whole room of them, most of which are priced around a dollar), rare out-of-print volumes, and everything in between. A cowbell attached to the single glass door announces your arrival, receipts and inventory are recorded by hand, and the most advanced technology in evidence is the calculator the clerk at the front desk uses to tally your bill. There’s not an espresso machine anywhere in sight. But it’s open until nine, so you can hit one of the bars that come and go on Dickson Street before heading over for a lit fix at a place that prides itself on remaining just the same—quite a feat these days.
 
Rebecca Rosen, Associate Editor: I'd like to second Steve: New Jersey is a book lover's paradise. My personal favorite is the Montclair Book Center in, you guessed it, Montclair, New Jersey (Exit 150 for the peanut gallery out there). The Montclair Book Center is the perfect spot for a lazy afternoon of browsing. You'll find no cute coffee shop and no cozy armchair, just books—15,000 square feet of them spread across three floors under the sterile glare of fluorescent lighting. When you're done, you can pop over to nearby Applegate Farm for some ice cream and call it a day.
 
Megan Buskey, Assistant Editor: I recently moved to Washington, D.C. from New York City, a place bursting with such bibliophilic treasures as the infamous Strand, 192 Books, an elegant outpost just one gritty Chelsea block from the Hudson River, and the artsy Spoonbill & Sugartown. Even so, there’s no place I’d rather browse than the Seminary Co-op, located on the campus of the University of Chicago. Boasting 100,000 titles, the Co-op makes its home in the surprisingly large basement of the Hogwarts-worthy Chicago Theological Seminary. Its front table display is legendary—so much so that the Co-op publishes a virtual version on its Web site—and its dungeon-like quarters are crammed with must-reads from floor to ceiling. The Co-op is also the place where most U of C students buy their course books (I used to be among them), giving the curious reader the chance to peruse obscure classics handpicked by university professors—quite a departure from other bookstores, where the spotlight is usually on new releases. For bookworms outside Chicago, the Co-op publishes U of C course book lists online, and posts a rundown of its favorites from each academic quarter on its great blog, The Front Table.
 
What’s your favorite bookstore?
 
Photo credit: The Dickson Street Bookshop, Fayetteville, Arkansas by Jason Hudson