I usually devote the pixels of this blog to a celebration of the special within the ordinary. The Midwest is, by many measures, an ordinary homeland. But under a benevolent microscope, the extraordinary can be found. So, from a gray house in an average suburb, I write about grand libraries, warm bakeries, and green, rolling hills.
I’ll admit it’s a Pollyanna point of view. Like the unloved little girl who brought the world the ‘glad game,’ I don’t dwell on the difficult side of life. It’s not that I don’t have problems. Everybody does. But on my troubled days, I like to keep a store of small adventures, past and future, with which to pull myself forward.
Last week was filled with such days. Last Saturday, without warning, I became a victim of the stomach flu. It stole two solid days from me, and on Tuesday, dental surgery stole the rest. I should’ve bounced back. Any normal person would. But I have an underlying health problem, and it has slowed my progress. I napped, and napped again when I should have been working.
Fortunately, in those dark days I had the memory of a small adventure to sustain me. Before illness struck, I spent a day in Lawrence, Kansas, with my good friend Jennifer, in search of bookstores.
We started our quest a block off Massachusetts Street, in the heart of the downtown shopping district. The Raven, a two-room bookstore on 7th Street, drew us in with a bright folk art bench outside its front door. Not an inch of precious display space goes to waste in the tiny store, and we immersed ourselves in the extensive line of paperbacks that fill the walls and bookshelves in the first room. The mystery collection is especially good, as befits a store called The Raven. I appreciated the shelf devoted to “First Mysteries in a Series,” as nothing is more frustrating to a book lover than finding you’ve begun a series in the wrong place.
I also enjoyed reading yellow “staff recommendation” cards scattered here and there along the shelves. And when I stumbled onto a pink “This Author was Here!” card that bore the name Marilynne Robinson, I felt quite at home. I’d been dying to read Robinson’s latest book, Lila, and wasted no time in picking up a copy, delighted that I could support an independent bookseller by doing so.
The second room of The Raven contains non-fiction and children’s books, both fine in their way, but not what I was hunting for that day. Jennifer and I agreed it was time to pay for our purchases and move on. A large brown striped cat watched us approach the check-out counter, and I stroked its head and chatted with the owner as she rang up the sale.
Around the corner from The Raven, on Mass Street, sits The Dusty Bookshelf, a second-hand bookstore filled with light from its large front windows. The cavernous space is split into rooms and alcoves by the placement of its book cases, which are loaded with books of every category. At first we felt overwhelmed by the sheer number of volumes we faced, but after we turned our tour into a game of, “Have you read this?” we got on very well indeed.
“Clan of the Cave Bear!” Jen exclaimed, touching the book’s worn spine. “This was the first book that made me feel like an accomplished reader.”
I had to admit I’d never read the series. “What about The Far Pavilions?” I countered. “By M.M. Kaye? I read that in high school.”
Her eyes widened. “I remember that one. It weighed a ton. No, thank you!”
And so it went, from shelf to shelf. A self-guided walk down a memory lane paved with novels.
When we thought of books we’d like to own, the clerk knew exactly how to find them for us. Though the inventory seems chaotic, they track it by computer.
(A few days later, I met another fan of the Dusty Bookshelf: a friend of my daughter’s who’s an art major at KU. “I always find something interesting,” Alissa told me with enthusiasm, “like a German-language copy of Harry Potter, or a Manga Pride and Prejudice.”)
Our third stop of the day was Signs of Life, not far down Mass Street. We entered through the sunny coffee shop, where students gathered at wide wooden tables to chat or study, then passed through to the bookstore. The inventory at Signs of Life strikes a balance between general market titles and traditional Christian publishers, and even includes some textbooks for rent.
We stopped to admire the 1894 Steinway piano (pictured at right), and continued upstairs to the second floor art gallery. There, amid a display of prairie landscapes, sat more patrons at wooden tables, having passionate discussions at the tops of their voices. Their intensity didn’t surprise me. Signs of Life strikes me as a place that feeds the deeper debates of life.
Jen and I finished our adventure with a long lunch at the Free State Brewery, where we conducted our own deep discussion and settled all the trickier issues of life. We parted warmly after lunch better friends, and better-acquainted with the bookstores of Lawrence, Kansas.
Last week, as I battled illness and fatigue, the memory of that day sustained me. When I grew tired of staring at the popcorn on my bedroom ceiling, I closed my eyes and retraced the literary landscape of Mass Street, and the garden path of friendship.