Travelin’ bareback on the book trail and other bright ideas

Opinion September 5, 2013 0 Comments

“A clean well-lighted place” of another kind: Left Bank Books in Belfast, Maine. (Photo by Hugh Gilmore)

by Hugh Gilmore

The travel-packing checklist in our house runs something like this: wallet? Yes; credit card? Yes; book? Uh oh.

What book do I take? Fiction or non-fiction? Light or heavy? Adventure or inspirational? I try to guess by picturing where I want to be sitting and how I want my next book to make me feel. I consider escaping through a mystery novel. I consider having my brain fumigated by something that changes my mental chemistry forever. I consider buying a pipe and learning to smoke thoughtfully as I follow the flow of a good history book. I desire a book that will forever after be part of my best memories of that vacation. Quite a burden to bear.

In Saratoga Springs a few years ago it was Robert M. Sapolsky’s “A Primate’s Memoir.” In Montreal this June: Marina Lewycka’s “A Short History of Tractors in Ukraine.” Sanibel Island, Florida, last April: “Grit Lit: A Rough Southern Reader,” edited by Brian Carpenter and Tom Franklin.

They all still resonate within me. Some books provide pleasure enough to overcome the discomfort of a week of cold rain. Sometimes they enhance the beauty that drew you to the place you’re visiting.

In recent years – bold me – I’ve taken to “travelin’ bareback” where books are concerned. I take an issue of the New Yorker along as a backup after verifying that the city I’m visiting has a bookstore.

There are two advantages to journeying bookless. First, I need to make amends for the sin of buying most of my new books from Amazon during the year. That is, if I’m first not able to borrow them from the public library. My buying habits do not contribute much to the survival of the new book trade.

In my own ridiculously small way I try to help the publishing and bookselling trades by buying retail while on vacation. I guess what I’ve just said sounds perilously like some stock comic Mr. Bigdome character: “There’s a dime for you, sir, and I trust you’ll spend it carefully.” But that’s the way it is in this changing world. I’m no longer building a personal library.

All I want to do with new books is read them and send them back so someone else can read them. Occasionally I like a book so much I must keep it for a while. But that’s just till it’s time to blow off the dust and send it to a new home.

The second advantage to traveling without a book in my bindle lies in knowing that my compulsion to read might lead me to read something I wouldn’t otherwise read. No matter how sophisticated at targeting the Internet becomes, nothing can match the sheer delirious joy of wandering aimlessly in a new bookstore.

Oh Brave New World! You can read all the book reviews in the world and still never anticipate the things you’ll find by just walking around: “Oh, I didn’t know there was a book about this subject.” “Oh, I didn’t know so-and-so had written a book about grapes.” Trust, and ye shall find.

When I first arrived in Belfast, Maine, last week for our annual stay, I headed out to enrich the local book trade. On Route 1 in Searsport, across from Tozier’s food market, which is next to Captain Tinkham’s Emporium (mostly antique tools, but also lots of old books and paper), a charming, but small shop named Left Bank Books was always worth a visit. Last year I pulled up to find the shop vacant. Another victim of the great outgoing book trade tide, I supposed. This year, however, I pulled into Tozier’s parking lot and looked over to see that the shop had been reincarnated as a bookshop again, this time called Works.

I walked over. Inside sat a pleasant, middle-aged woman named Karen Jelenfy, the owner, who smiled and greeted me warmly from the other side of her small desk (computer open, of course – greatest tool ever invented to assist the book trade). No one else was in the shop while I browsed.

The inventory was clean, well chosen, and nicely displayed. We talked casually about books as I browsed. I was slightly disappointed to discover that the shop carried no new books, since I only buy current books when I’m traveling. I burrowed into her fiction holdings, however, until I found a book I’d never heard of, “Bloodbrothers” (a ‘literary’ book, despite the title), written by an author I really enjoy, the American novelist Richard Price.

Back in Belfast I discovered that the original Left Bank Books has moved to a bigger, brighter and more noticeable location downtown. Joy of joys. I found two Europa Editions titles I’d not read yet and bought them. That was satisfying, but I still needed “The Big Hit” that would make this trip special. I had almost given up when I walked over to New Arrivals. There I saw: “Salinger” by David Shields and Shane Salerno. Priced at $38. Ridiculous. Insane. Price gouging. But … vacation money is play money in my opinion, so I grabbed it and paid up – the pain of paying retail muted by the pleasure principle. A Richard Price novel I hadn’t read, a new biography of J. D. Salinger, and two Europa novels. What a great way to start a week in Maine.

But that’s when the trouble started. I went back to the rental cottage we had to occupy for two nights before we moved over to our usual quarters and began to read. Rather, I tried to read. Perhaps we’re simply unlucky, but every place we’ve stayed at lately has been equipped with 40-watt light bulbs. We strain and crane and complain, but when our eyeballs start bulging and the headaches come on we give up.

Or used to. Inspired by a notion, I stuck my head out the window and yelled, “I’m mad as hell, and I can’t take it anymore!” We drove up to the hardware store and bought two 100-watt light bulbs. Incandescent. Frosted.

Green crime, I know, but we shall never travel without them again. They worked fine. Our nights from thenceforth were filled with reading pleasure.

In the future, my travel checklist shall read: Wallet? Check. Credit cards? Check. Light bulbs? Of course.

P.S: Left Bank Books is but one of six bookshops in the small town of Belfast, which is rapidly becoming a kind of book buyers heaven.

Hugh Gilmore’s “Scenes from a Bookshop” is a collection of offbeat, heartwarming, stories based on his days running a bookshop on Chestnut Hill Avenue. His best-selling book, it’s available in both paperback and eBook formats.

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