Confessions of a Book Smuggler

I have a secret. 


Actually I have several of them.  One in every haunt.  If it’s a town I frequent—somewhere I lay my head of overly big curls more than once a year, you can bet I have one there. 


Let’s see…there’s one at the beach in Atlantic City, North Carolina, one in Beaufort, North Carolina (no they are NOT the same place).  Of course there is one at home in Raleigh and in Chapel Hill.  I have a few in Charlotte.  My hometown in Eastern Kentucky is too small, but there is one in Lexington, and one more in Morehead.  I found one in Paris, two in London, and don’t even get me started on Oxford…too many to count.  I can get you to a couple in Manhattan and hook you up in Westchester.  I’ve even got connections in San Francisco and Houston. 


I don’t go in for the big ones.  I like ‘em small, svelte, and dressed down.  No coffee shop, please. 


Each is unique, with its own odors and its own style.  Blindfold me, spin me around, and plop me down and within a few seconds of running my hands over the merchandise, I can tell you exactly where I am. 


I am at the local independent bookseller and my blood pressure just dropped to double digits over double digits.  I am chill.  Note that for the record.  Chill.  Lawyer. 


Each of these small shops, owned by some a local person known by his her neighbors, has a unique feel and selection.  Almost all of them have a “local authors” section.  Generally, they host readings, poetry slams, and local writers groups.  There is, in each of them, a “Staff Picks” table or shelf that holds the selections of the local literati.  They rarely disappoint.  By the way, Millennials, “Staff Picks” are like Amazon Stars, only the publishing house didn’t pay for them and the author didn’t hit up all of his buddies to write the reviews.  Still with me?


The sizes of these luscious, loquacious stores vary.  The Rocking Chair Bookstore in Beaufort is tiny and carries both new and used books, as well as children and adult titles.  Its size, though, is misleading.  The buyer at The Rocking Chair has excellent taste—she is a sommelier of literature.  I have yet to visit this small, waterfront store with eye-popping views of the sound, and come out empty-handed.  For example, I spent two days in Beaufort this summer.  I bought, read, and loved five books from that shop.  Take that Borders.  Oh wait, Borders is bankrupt.  Oops. 


Quail Ridge Books and Music, which is only a couple of miles from my house, may be the best independent bookstore in the universe.  Somehow it manages to bring Pulitzer Prize winning authors to speak in its intimate environs while also staying true to its large collection of North Carolina authors and subject matter.  Recently the store re-arranged the stacks to maximize space and I felt a bit as if someone had come in to my home and rearranged my den.  I’m probably there a bit too much.  They made me take my quilt home. 


I grew up going to the very first Joseph Beth bookstore in Lexington,Kentucky, when it was still in a small storefront.  When it moved into the defunct mall at Lexington Green I thought I’d died and gone to book fairy heaven.  I’d never seen so many books in one place.  It was the first time I ever experienced choice paralysis.  How could one pick just one book, or even just five books, when surrounded with so many wonderful titles?  Of course, it was Joseph Beth that convinced me food and books don’t go together.  It was not long after they opened their fancy café that JB expanded beyond its local bookseller roots and became not much better than Borders, something I consider akin to being not much better than Halliburton.  Chapter 11 was not far behind.  Joseph Beth is a cautionary tale:  Beware of bookstores with diners in them. 


Of course Quail Ridge and Joseph Beth are both, well, upscale.  Raleigh and Lexingon intellectuals of note go there to see and be seen. (Right? I’m not wasting my time milling around, right?)  I’m not afraid to slum it.  I also love a good used bookstore.   There is a fantastic one in Charlotte, North Carolina at the corner of The Plaza and Central Ave.  It’s name?  Used Book Store.  Who needs fancy?  Within two converted storefronts are isles of wonderful titles for mere pennies.  I always left there with far more books than I brought in, but then I have a problem.  Maybe you don’t.  I’m designing a new house with more bookshelves than bedrooms, bathrooms, and closets combined.  This, in the era of the e-book.  My name is Amy and I don’t like e-books.  It’s hard to subtly flip to the end to see what happens. 


Not that I go there all that often, but the second best bookstore in the universe is in Oxford, England.  It’s just across from the university next to a chips place.  It smells like fish.  But inside, oh inside!  It has a domed ceiling and skylights and books on shelves and stacked up one atop the other from the floor like towers of knowledge.  And of course it helps that everyone in there speaks with a British accent, which is the accent I read in.  I used to know the name of the place—it was a pun.  Alas, I have forgotten it.  I was last there twelve years and two children ago.  You’ll have to trust me that it was clever and the store was everything I ever dreamed an English bookshop should be.


Some people collect bars.  Others have shoe stores.  I collect bookstores.  When I’m having a bad day at work I do succumb to the evilest, mega bookstore of them all.  It has no musty smell, no pun-y name, and no charm whatsoever.  It is  It is killing my other loves one click at a time. 


This is my deal with Amazon. 


Wherever possible I, Amy, of this blog, try to use Evil Amazon to purchase only used books.  This way, I’m buying new titles (where the money is) from real booksellers and not from Amazon.  I know this is not a perfect solution.  It is not even really a great solution, but it is how I feed my addiction during work hours.  I’m a two book a week girl when I’m not on vacation, as many as six to eight when I am.  I read fiction, poetry, essays, nonfiction, biographies, and magazines.  About the only thing I don’t read is the local paper.  (I broke up with it over some crappy political coverage a couple years ago.)  Anyway, I can’t be paying full rates here people, I have kids to feed.


I justify my nasty Amazon problem this way.  I still spend a whole lot of money and time in my beautiful bookstores.  I buy new, hardcover titles there.  (Did you know that the author gets more royalties when you buy in hardcover?)   I drift in and out of there, take friends there, buy almost all of my Christmas gifts there.  I don’t love Amazon.  I just use it when I need a fix.  I love Quail Ridge.  It completes me. 


P.S.  Don’t tell my husband about the books I have delivered to the office.  Or the ones that I smuggle in to the house in my really big purse.   


May this post be the beginning of—or feed—your love affair with bookstores.

14 Responses to Confessions of a Book Smuggler
  1. F. M.
    August 29, 2012 | 9:47 am

    Have you not been to Black Swan Books at the corner of East Maxwell and Woodland Ave in Lexington — pretty good bookstore — … granted not the mustiest place but not bad.

    In the mid-70′s I used to browse the stacks at UK’s library — interesting finds there — I found one volume, … nay, manifesto,! written in the 1880′s by a Memphis preacher claiming that President Lincoln was satan incarnate– I probably have that title scribbled in one of my reporter’s pads … check out those old university stacks … it’s cheaper — they won’t sell you the damn books, bastards!!

  2. honestconvogal
    August 29, 2012 | 10:05 am

    I didn’t know about the Black Swan–I’ll check it out on my next visit home. I not only don’t mind a little musty smell in a book store, I think its adds character. When I was in law school, I used to study at UK on breaks. Great library. Alas, they won’t sell you the books. I will say I have been sorely disappointed with Raleigh’s library. If you want a book written before 1982 you have to get on a waiting list 15 deep. I would love to put a dent in my book budget, but I like to be a bit more current than that!The library in Macon, GA; however, that was a thing of beauty! And I go to the New York Libary every time I’m in Manhattan. But libraries is a whole other post.

  3. Melissa Young
    August 29, 2012 | 11:07 am

    Amy, Lexington has the GREATEST new indy bookstore right in the heart of Chevy Chase. This hipster hangout boasts an extensive local author section. I drop a lot of cash on hardbacks in here (and I don’t really love reading hardbacks–I prefer paperbacks). Absolutely no food or drink for sale and readings galore.

    The Morris Book Shop:

    Also, the best used bookstore in Lex. for my money is Wild Fig Bookstore in Meadowthorpe. They have a small coffee stand, but don’t hold it against them.

  4. honestconvogal
    August 29, 2012 | 12:06 pm

    Well, Mom and Dad will be nonplussed at the reason, but we must make a trip home immediately! Not one but three bookshops to peruse. Leaving home at the unripe, and barely driving, age of 17 didn’t do much for my bookshop knowledge, apparently. How exciting! I suppose now that you reside in the boonies, I’ll have to make an appointment for a visit with you, though.

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