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.

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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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