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Independent Bookstore Day

Last Saturday was Independent Bookstore Day. I visited my local indie and got some goodies. The bookstore is on College Avenue in Berkeley, nested in a colony of shops and restaurants. They’ve got snacks and lemonade and coffee to greet book lovers. I was quick to snatch the very last zip pouch with famous literary cats painted on it. I brought home also a stash of books, including The Luminaries, which, hopefully I’ll muster courage to read soon.

Shakespeare & Company in Paris


Although Shakespeare & Co. Bookstore is no longer on Rue de l’Odeon at its original location from the 1920s, the bookstore has really picked up the literary torch. The reincarnation is still on the Left Bank directly across from Notre Dame. It’s a reincarnation of the original store started by Sylvia Beach, an American with a passion for free thinking and writing. Her store then was famous as a meeting place for Paris’ expatriate literary elite. Ernest Hemingway, who then couldn’t afford to buy anything there, borrowed books from it regularly. James Joyce struggled to find a publisher for Ulysses—until Sylvia Beach published it. George Bernard Shaw, Gertrude Stein, and Ezra Pound also got their English fix at her shop.

Today, the bookstore carries on that literary tradition. This store on Rue de la Bucherie was founded in 1951 by the grandson of American poet Walt Whitman. Struggling writers are given free accommodations in tiny rooms with views of Notre Dame. The upstairs has a few seats, two cots, antique typewriters, and the residence cat perching cozily on a sofa. I make frequent trips to visit the cat and sit with him for a while while reading a book. Used and new books are all downstairs. There’s a green water fountain in front of the bookstore, one of the many in Paris donated by the English philanthropist Sir Richard Wallace. The hooks below the caryatids once hel metal mugsfor drinking the water.

Han and Hanff


I’m back to my old haunt from college days—Walden Pond Bookstore on Grand in Oakland. It’s a wonderful used bookstore with an amazing fiction and mystery selection. I love the high shelves of fiction all on one wall extending to the back of the store. I love the creaky wooden floorboard. This reminds me why I love indie used bookstore so much—I always find books that are either forgotten or no longer in print.

People probably won’t know who Han Suyin is. But I say she’s the writer of A Many Splendored Thing, which was made into a movie, set in Hong Kong, called, Love is A Many-Splendored Thing, would that ring the bell? Han, like her heroine in Splendor, is a Sino-Anglo mixed woman who was trained in medicine. She was born in Beijing and lived in Hong Kong after the war. This copy of The Crippled Tree is the first I come across after a long hunt.

The Duchess of Bloomsbury Street is the sequel to 84 Charing Cross Road, a record of a postal love affair with England through a twenty-year correspondence with a London bookseller. In this book, Helene Hanff’s dream come true as she makes her way over the pond to visit England. Finding this book also makes my dream come true.

[734] A Lesson Before Dying – Earnest J. Gaines


” How do people come up with a date and a time to take the life from another man? Who made them God? . . . Twelve white men say a black man must die, and another white man sets the date and time without consulting one black person. Justice? ” (Ch.20, p.157)

A Lesson Before Dying is about two black men, one a teacher, the other a death row inmate, who struggle to live, and to die, with dignity. A primary school teacher, Grant Wiggins, narrates the story of Jefferson, who has been found guilty of robbery and murder in the first degree. When a white liquor-store owner is killed during a robbery attempt, along with his two black assailants, the innocent bystander Jefferson gets death, despite the defense plea that “I would just as soon put a hog in the electric chair as this.” Hog. The world lingers like a foul odor and weighs as heavily as the sentence on Jefferson and the woman who raised him, his “nannan” (godmother) Miss Emma. She needs an image of Jefferson going to his death like a man, with dignity and respect, and she turns to the young teacher at the plantation school for help.

The jury, twelve white men good and true, still sentenced him to death. Now his godmother wants me to visit him and make him know—prove to these white men—that he’s not a hog, that he’s a man. I’m supposed to make him a man. Who am I? God? (Ch.20, p.158)

Grant has his own problems: stuck teaching in a plantation school on the white man’s terms; visiting Jefferson in jail would just mean more kowtowing. Then his struggle overcoming racial divide is equally troublesome. His crossing the color line to love a divorced Creole woman, Vivian Baptiste. She becomes yet another reason why Grant, an atheist, must save Jefferson’s dignity if not save him from execution.

The book steers clear of being sentimental despite the very sensitive subject matter. Grant Wiggins narrates in a very muted voice. Despite Jefferson’s initial bitter resignation to his execution, which lends credence to the lesson of how Jim Crow would break down educated men like Grant and prisoners like Jefferson to “the nigger you were born to be,” Grant manages to reach out to Jefferson. In trying to save him from disgrace, justice and Jefferson’s innocence suddenly seem secondary. In reaching out to Jefferson Grant has come to embrace a new depth, irrelevant of religion, that even the reverend cannot accomplish. The most touching, and also the most significant message is that Grant accepts Jefferson’s plight as his own and begins to fight for Jefferson’s salvation. He accepts his duty to the society he inhabits. The entire novel lambastes a society steeped in injustice. Jefferson’s death not only liberates him, it also defies the society that wrongfully accused him and convicted him not just or murder, but of being black-skinned. For a book published relatively in the present, in 1993, Gaines really retains and recreates that suffocating, racially-tense atmosphere of the post-World War Two South.

256 pp. Vintage Contemporaries. Trade Paper. [Read|Skim|Toss] [Buy|Borrow]

256 pp. Vintage Contemporaries. Trade Paper. [Read|Skim|Toss] [Buy|Borrow]

Treasure Hunt


A man was deplaned after he got angry at all the Christmas greetings at New York LaGuardia Airport. Though I’m not that extreme, I could understand his frustration. I have avoided all the Christmas madness. The only holiday thing I did was to get together with my “orphan” friends for a meal. Malls and shops I had nixed. Yesterday I spent all day at the used bookstore treasure-hunting.

The beauty of used bookstore is that you can find books that are long have been out-of-print. It’s a tunnel to the past—to books that were read before I was born, to when there was a war going on. Other than this little list of great books written in the 20th century, I was browsing with the liberty of having no engagement for the day. All the fiction is against one wall. Many times stare at me: Drury, Dickey, Cain, Amis, Murdoch, Rhys, McCarthy, … At the end of the day I picked out the ones I have always meant to read but have not had the luck to find.

I don’t mind used books as long as they are not completely brittle and tattered. Sometimes I am left with no choice if the little pocket paperback that’s been taped three times over is the only copy of the book I’m looking for. A lot of great books by unheard-of authors are only available used, and some have cracked spine and loose pages. A book is book, it’s meant to be riffled, turned, and read. The sorry condition of these books make me happy that at least they were once read. They were things of the past.

Indie Bookstores Thrive


Publisher Weekly has an article about Green Apple Books in my own backyard on how bookstores survive in the Age of Amazon. Green Apple Books to San Francisco is like Powell Books to Portland. When I’m looking for hard-to-find, obscure used or out-of-print books, Green Apple is the first place off the top of my head. One of Green Apple’s co-owners, Pete Mulvihill, offers up his opinion on how they and other indie bookstores survive—or rather thrive—in the age of Amazon.

“Indie bookstores offer community, discovery, and beauty; readers feel good about keeping their hard-earned money recirculating in their local communities; and many people value the ‘third place’ enough to put their money where their mouths are.” I don’t live in the midwest where your nearest neighborhood is a mile away and where big box store is the fulfillment of shopping. I walk; I bike; I shop local. I must be living in the old times where printed word was more valued. I think e-books and printed word could co-exist, therefore independent bookstores could co-exist with Amazon. As long as there are readers who like to browse and interact, bookstores still have their niche and will thrive.

My affair with Green Apple began in high school. Like many teenagers, I had limited allowance and I had limited budget on books—even used ones. That’s when I discovered Green Apple in the quiet Richmond District, a diverse neighborhood that includes Chinese-American residents and Irish bars. Every weekend I stopped there and browsed for as long as I was free. I got some of my novels and mysteries for at least half the cover prices. Two doors down from the main store is the fiction and music annex. For as long as I can remember, customers are so diverse that they represent a slice of the city. They range from families who drop their kids off, to Asians, to geeks, to little old ladies buying paperback mysteries, and the collectors. They like the sense of discovery and serendipity at the store, and I find Green Apple a beautiful place.

Books for New Mexico


Although I dig the local indies, on weekends I would browse the big-box bookstore in the suburbs because parking is so much easier. I don’t have to worry about keeping time and feeding meter. Anyway, with kids back in school and summer coming to an end, browsing was a pleasant experience.

I continued with new authors and ones whose works I wish to explore in depth.

The famous King’s English Bookstore in Salt Lake City lists Anne Perry’s The William Monk Mysteries: The First Three Novels in their 25 Best Mysteries section of their gorgeous coffee table book. I am glad to own this one finally. Few authors have made Victorian London as engaging and lively as Anne Perry has and her rich descriptions and charismatic characters have long captivated fans around the world. André Aciman is a personal favorite after Call Me By Your Name. The story of how an immigrant Indian man becomes a celebrated French chef in The Hundred-Foot Journey intrigues me. The book is like a fable with real human struggle. I usually don’t like movie tie-in cover but I give it to Helen Mirren. The Bookseller is like a booklover’s dream come true: a mystery set in a Parisian bookstore. Now the New Mexico trip reading list is complete!

New Acquisitions


The recent acquisitions are all products of random browsing at indies. When half the staff recommends a book or an author’s works, I can trust that opinion. Norman Mailer is such an author. Clarice Lispector is re-discovered and further pursued at the prodding of my friend. Bernard Malamud is new to me. He was a twice-National Book Award winner and winner of Pulitzer Prize. His work showed a regard for Jewish tradition and the plight of ordinary men, and was imbued with the theme of moral wisdom gained through suffering. My current reading, Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore, is set in San Francisco. Quoting the New York Times Book Review: “Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore,” by Robin Sloan, dexterously tackles the intersection between old technologies and new with a novel that is part love letter to books, part technological meditation, part thrilling adventure, part requiem.

Our lives are mediated through technology. Our devices and gadgets hold an illimitable dominion over us. Technology has become so entwined with our lives there is a term, nomophobia, for the fear of losing or being separated from one’s phone. And then there are books, an enduring technology. Despite regular lamentations about its demise, the book perseveres. I myself have only been an iPhone convert since April 2013, but I have become so attached to my smart-phone. I make dinner reservation, buy plane tickets, text my family and friends local and overseas, check out the latest shoes. As much as I fear to part with my phone, it doesn’t replace books, which exert a great dominion over me and satisfy my cravings for literary (and textile) pleasure.

CA Bookstore Day Recap


(Picture: The California Classics box set that is exclusive to California Bookstore Day. How many of these have you read?) Last weekend was California Bookstore Day. It was a big celebration of the reading culture and the independent bookstores. At my local indies, they had special events around the clock every hour. Readers and customers can write their favorite books and authors on the board. Featured in the wall on “invisible shelves” are 30 must-read books selected by booksellers and authors.

1. The Great Gatsby, by F. Scott Fitzgerald. First read it in college but didn’t come to fully appreciate it until I read it again a few years ago. Since then I’ve been re-reading it. It’s timeless book about human ugliness, selfishness, and unrequited love. Language is beautiful. The book doesn’t exhaust its moral possibilities.

2. A House for Mr. Biswas, by V. S. Naipaul. Title character was born inauspiciously with a sixth finger in colonial Trinidad, struggles against ignorance, superstition, and bullying in-laws to scratch a tenuous living as a yellow journalist. I have meant to read Naipaul but have refrained after learning he’s a chauvinist pig.

3. A Tale for the Time Being, by Ruth Ozeki. Now on my list to read.

4. Bleak House, by Charles Dickens. This book is often overlooked.

5. Charlotte’s Web, by E.B. White. I once read that if everyone on earth read Charlotte’s Web, preferably once a year, the world would be a better place—more generous, more patient, and more receptive to the unlikely.

6. The Wisdom of No Escape, by Pema Chödrön. Never heard of this one. She piques me—a Buddhist nun writing about various teachings.

7. Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk, by Ben Fountain. Another great find. The story raises important issues about who is fighting for American values and just what those values are.

8. The Light Between Oceans, by M.L. Stedman. Read it and loved it. Childless lighthouse keeper found a baby washed up the shore and decided to keep it as his own.

9. Anna Karenina, by Leo Tolstoy. Another regular re-read for me.

10. The Information, by James Gleick. Looks creative and intriguing. A biography of information.

11. Beloved, by Toni Morrison. Dense but beautifully written. It’s about time to re-read this classic.

12. Kindly Bent to Ease Us, by Longchenpa (translated by Herbert V. Guenther). A three-volume Buddhist classic filled with poetic, profound—and profoundly simple—wisdom.

13. The Eight, by Katherine Neville. Historical thriller? I’m in!

14. The Middlesteins, by Jami Attenberg.

15. Flow, by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi. Flow is a state of mind.

16. One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, by Ken Kesey. Another high-school read that is worth re-read.

17. In Our Time, by Ernest Hemingway. I’m not a Hemingway fan, so far I have only enjoyed A Moveable Feast.

18. Mrs. Dalloway, by Virginia Woolf. The ultimate stream-of-consciousness classic.

19. The Count of Monte Cristo, by Alexandre Dumas. I’m intimidated by the daunting size. But it’s marked for a read.

20. The Wind in the Willows, by Kenneth Grahame. I didn’t grow up in the western world so I was denied most of the children’s classics. I want to read this an ode to friendship.

This is a reasonable and comprehensive list, catering to different tastes in genres and ages of of readers. This is why I love my indies because I always discover great books that I have never heard of. I especially like how indies don’t just push all the big names and bestsellers. The event is to celebrate this confluence—how indie bookstores bring together people to talk about books.

California Bookstore Day

California Bookstore Day

Saturday, May 3 will be California Bookstore Day, a statewide party that celebrates independent bookstores. It is a project of the Northern and Southern California Independent Booksellers Associations, representing several hundred bookstores. Indie bookstores are an essential part of lively communities, the free-flow of ideas, and the thrill of discovery. California Bookstore Day will harness the creative power of authors and publishers in a giant celebration of the written word that will drive readers to brick-and-mortar bookstores.