A tale of two bookstores


Michael's bookstore frontWhen we first came into the little town of Bellingham in northwest Washington, more than a dozen years ago now, many things delighted us — the trees, the glimpses of mountains, and the shining Sound. But more directly, more pertinently, we found ourselves in a street which had two facing bookstores on it – Michael’s Books, and Henderson’s.

Michael’s was a more chaotic store, a warren of interleading rooms which felt almost Escheresque and interdimensional, dim corners, narrow aisles, and more books than your heart could believe possible, on pretty much every subject under the sun. There was a whole room devoted to SF/Fantasy, which was pretty amazing; some of the books on those shelves were pretty amazing as and of themselves.

The books spilled out of the store, and there was always a cardboard box or three filled with sometimes rather ratty esoterica which may not have been in good enough shape to sell in the store, labelled “FREE!”.

It was run by a genial owner who used to send us birthday cards with book specials on them.

It’s gone. I only just found out but apparently it’s been gone for a while now and I feel as though I have just discovered that a kind friend with whom I’d inadvertently lost touch had suddenly died, and I had no idea that they were even ailing.

Damn, but I’m going to miss that place. I’m going to miss those cavernous spaces teeming with books ranging from natty plastic-covered cared for hardcovers and first editions in closed cabinets, to broken-spined dog-eared and obviously treasured paperbacks of Golden Age science fiction novels complete with cheesy covers featuring tinny spaceships belching flames in the background while the foreground was peopled by bare-chested barbarians or weird angular robots carting about scantily dressed galactic pin-up girls, who sometimes came in Mere Human editions and sometimes turned up with skin which glowed blue or green, headdresses with horns or jewels hanging on the smooth glamorous brows. always wearing as little as could be decently got away with, and baring shapely ankles, and calves, and thighs, oh my.

I’m going to miss just knowing it was there, knowing that those babes and those heroes and those robots and the dragons and the poetry and the cookbooks and the history of papier mache and instruction books on origami and atlases with maps of countries which no longer exist and Doctor Who novelizations and stories of the Alaskan gold rush and Time Life photography books of historical events long in the past and biographies of bespectacled worthies whom you’d never heard of but who must have been important…

What happened to all those books? A part of me weeps, and doesn’t want to know any more…

Hendersons photoThe second store, Henderson’s, is still there, across the street. It’s another weird space, with its relatively narrow road frontage which hides a store that stretches back a full city block. It’s no less wonderful and cavernous and book-stuffed than Michael’s was, but there is a different feeling somehow. This place FEELS more businesslike and more organized. And oh my GOD is it a treasure trove. I found many many great research books there for when I was writing specific novels, and honestly, this is a resource beyond price, and if THIS one ever goes away it will leave a gaping wound. But I was in there today and I took some photos of the canyon walls, books labelled “Literature” and “YA fiction, vampire” and “Central Asia history” and “Local Interest” and the back room devoted to mysteries and science fiction and the how-to section and the sections on theater and the fall of empires and photography and computers and Greek philosophers and the geography of India and French cooking.

I’ve often bought research books here for novels that aren’t even coherent ideas yet – but something triggered a “oh, THAT’s interesting, maybe someday it will be useful” impulse. We’ve walked out of that store before with double armfuls of books, having laid down fifty or a hundred dollars – and this is a SECOND HAND store, remember, with prices mostly to match.

Long live the wonderful treasure troves that are second hand bookstores. Long live the second, third, fifth, ninth, twentieth lives that these books live in these spaces, and the minds and hearts to whom they speak, the hands that reach for them, the glory of their existence. There are modern stores with contemporary and new-published books which are a wonderful thing to visit and to behold, to be sure – but these, these old stores, they are the Temple of the Word and you go in there to worship, and to browse, and to never ever know what might be waiting and what you might find there.

Good bye, Michael’s – you were treasured. Good night, Hendersons – and hopefully I will see you again soon.

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Favorite bookstore?

We all have our favorite bookstores, Mental Floss says and asked a number of authors to talk about theirs. (Story and link below)

And because I know that my blog master will be after me for “a sentence or two or three…” about MY personal favorite, let me beat him to the punch and tell you about it.

Well, actually, no, not “it”. How could anyone have just one?

This bookshop because of this reason, and that bookshop because of that reason, and the more of them I mention, the more I love them all.

But there was a tiny hole in the wall bookstore that catered to SF and Fantasy in Auckland, New Zealand, which didn’t last very long but which, during its mayfly-like tenure, was the place that brought me the gift of meeting Roger Zelazny.

There’s the under-the-escalator used bookstore tucked into this tiny place which, like a TARDIS, looked much bigger on the inside because of how many books they had managed to stuff in there.

Closer to home, there’s the two used book stores which played no small part in helping us make the decision to move to this town.

Michael’s Books is a warren of rooms with ancient warped floors and an entire chamber stuffed full of science fiction and fantasy – oh, the wonder barely contained in THAT Tardis of a room, so much bigger on the inside than it seems! And it has recent works, as well as WELL loved and barely-holding-it-together paperbacks of things published in the fifties, classic science fiction stuff at its best.

Henderson’s is more of a city, laid out in straight avenues bordered by floor to ceiling shelves in straight lines, and many’s the time I walked in there not really focused on what specifically I wanted but staggering out with $80+ worth of used books on truly fascinating and esoteric subjects, to be used as research material for the NEXT book I would write, a book whose very identity was still a nebulous ghost in the mind of my Muse.
Bookstore Novi SadThere’s the bookstore at Matica Srpska in Novi Sad, the town where I was born in what is now Serbia, which was a massive treasure house of literature, an archive of things published in Serbia which dated back maybe a couple of CENTURIES. On the street level, as you walked in, there was this magical bookstore where my grandfather would regularly take me. While he chatted to the people who worked there, all of whom he was acquainted with, I would happily wander off and sit in the stacks and get buried in some old hardcover which *smelled like book* and which was a gateway to a whole other world from the brink of which I would have to be unwillingly dragged, whining gently if not kicking and screaming, when it was time to go home – more often than not holding the book I had just been drowning in between my eager little hands and barely able to wait until I could get home and get re-buried in it.

FAVORITE bookstore? What’s that?

The proper question is, does it have books in it? I’m in.

Most of the other authors asked to comment, could not pick just one either. For example:

Elliott Bay Bookstore SeattleElliott Bay Bookstore / N i c o l a, Flickr —

SARAH VOWELL, author of ‘LAFAYETTE IN THE SOMEWHAT UNITED STATES’: “Country Bookshelf in my hometown of Bozeman, Montana, for bogarting my babysitting money throughout my formative years; Politics and Prose in Washington, D.C.; Elliott Bay in Seattle; Powell’s in Portland, Oregon; and an honorable mention to Eslite in Taiwan for making book shopping second only to dumpling eating as Taipei’s favorite pastime.”

See the other authors selections HERE

The Off the Shelf Staff offers some Christmas presents that look good dressed in festive paper, but don’t really require wrapping.

11 Books on Our Holiday Wish Lists

“Books are obviously our favorite gift to receive, too, and our Off the Shelf staff has compiled a list of eleven titles we’d be thrilled to be gifted, whether tied up in a pretty bow or not. Happy holidays, and happy reading!”

Empress cover

They didn’t select my upcoming nearly 600-page epic novel, ‘Empress‘, a grand historical fantasy story inspired by Byzantium’s Justinian and Theodora.

But then how could they, it won’t be out until March

(though you can preorder it HERE)



They came up with some wonderful choices, for example:

The First Bad Man

The First Bad Man by Miranda July:

“July is an artist who is willing to share a world that is even stranger than what I experience in my fantasies. The characters in this novel use imagination as a tool for emotional healing and challenge readers to go beyond their comfort zones in a way that no novel I’ve read has done before.” —Erica


See all their choices HERE




Greenhouse HomeThis Couple Builds Greenhouse Around Their Home to Grow Food and Keep Warm Year Round

Hidden PictureIf you hold this antique book just right, you’ll see a hidden masterpiece

Quote of the Day
Book Inside Me

Which book is inside you?

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