When I go back to visit cities where I once lived, I often drop in on my old bookstores. In Madison, it is Paul’s Book Store. In the San Francisco Bay Area, it is City Lights. It also used to be Cody’s Books in Berkeley, but Cody’s has long since gone out of business. Its main store was a cornerstone of Telegraph Avenue – so when it closed in 2006, bibliophiles throughout the country realized that all independent bookstores, regardless of location, size, or years in business, were at risk. I always buy at least one book whenever I go into any of these shops and consider it the price of admission. Recently I came across the word “showrooming” in reference to books. It is when someone leafs through titles at an independent bookstore, then goes home to buy them on Amazon. I occasionally buy things on Amazon (not books), but this made me cringe.
Two weeks ago I had what I consider a unique bookstore experience. Manyu and I drove to Viroqua to show my new book to the owner of Driftless Books. Beth, owner of Pearl Street Books in La Crosse, had suggested to me that my book of nature essays would appeal to the sizable back-to-nature crowd in this small community.
Driftless Books is in a century-old tobacco warehouse. It is open only April through October because the building has no heat.* The place is huge, and while I’ve always thought it cliché to call a used bookstore a maze, I don’t how else to describe the place. The only shelves to run parallel to the exterior walls are the ones tight against those walls. All of the other shelves are angled, a good share of them curved. Most of the thousands of books are used. The only new ones are either by local authors or on subjects of regional interest. There is no sign outside identifying the building as a bookstore. On the day we stopped by, there was a small placard that said, “Open.”
I introduced myself to Eddie Nix, the owner. He reminded me of John Muir. I gave him a copy of my book, and he immediately asked how much I wanted for four others. He bought four, then said I should check every few months to see if he needs more. I told him that I’d lost money on the books I just sold him and would have to charge a little bit more in the future. I suggested he might do better by restocking directly from a wholesaler, and he replied “I don’t deal with corporate wholesalers.”
I wandered the store and came across a Noam Chomsky book on democracy. When I was ready to leave, I could not find a cashier or a service desk. I asked for help from a woman who seemed to be working there (at least she was straightening books on some of the shelves), and she led me to a counter piled high with books. My purchase came to $4.24 with tax, and I handed her a $5 bill. There was no cash register and no credit card machine as far as I could see. The woman pulled out a small tin box, rifled through some coins, and said, “I don’t think I can break a five. If you have four ones, we’ll call it even.” She recorded the sale in a spiral notebook.
I already have a half dozen books on my bedside table waiting for my attention, but I think I am meant to read this book.
* Driftless Books runs a small downtown annex during the winter months, but the winter location lacks the one-of-a-kind character of the main store.