Let me say from the outset that I have no problem with the big-box bookstores that now dominate the landscape. I love independent bookstores like the Montclair Book Center (which I used to live above, actually) and Micawber Books in Princeton, and I park some of my bucks at them as often as I can manage, but I still appreciate the giants as well. I was still doing the newspaper thing when the first Basset (later Borders) Books opened on Route 18 in East Brunswick, and on nights when I had to cover meetings it became my ritual to get out of the office a little early and grab a double cap and magazine at the store before continuing on to the East Brunswick municipal complex. I don’t hate them just because they’re big. In fact, I don’t hate them at all.
But I have equally fond memories not just of independent bookstores, but of the old department stores that tried to be all things to all people. That meant each store had its own book department and its own buyer making his own decisions about what to stock. That meant there was no uniformity. And that meant it was worth one’s while to spend an afternoon poking through the nooks and crannies of different stores.
I was raised in Bergen County, N.J., and my favorite hunting ground was the Garden State Plaza off Route 17 in Paramus. It was still an open-air mall back then, and I had my regular circuit. First stop was Sam Goody, which at that time was a biiiiiig store with plenty of vinyl albums, a cassette section in front and a musical instrument section in back. They had a regular coupon in the Sunday New York Times that would get you $1.25 of credit if you brought in a $1 roll of pennies. That’s how a certain high school boy came to buy his first Bob Dylan record, Blood on the Tracks, and get a glimpse of how to walk tall with romantic heartbreak.
Looming over Sam Goody was Bamberger’s, and the first place to look for books. They had a nice feature display for new titles set up with ables and modular bookcases. There were also several rows of back-catalogue paperbacks, all carefully grouped by genre, right next to the big window. Bamberger’s is where I bought my first paperback copy of Jimmy Breslin’s The Gang That Couldn’t Shoot Straight the week it came out, for the outrageous price of $1.25.
Leaving Bamberger’s, if I wasn’t feeling rushed I would veer right and duck into a greeting card place called Atlantic Cards and Gifts. This store had a very small selection of paperbacks on shelves down near the carpet, so shopping there had an element of spelunking about it. Books would remain on that shelf for months, which is how I knew that after reading Gods, Graves, and Scholars by C.W Ceram, I could find another Ceram title, The First American, safely hidden at Atlantic, waiting for me to come to the rescue. I also found the third and fourth volumes of Fritz Leiber’s Lankhmar books, beginning a long and happy acquaintanec with that neglected American master.
From there it was a straight shot to the holy of holies, Shiller’s (Schiller’s?) Books, which was everything you ever wanted in a bookstore. The new bestsellers were racked up front, and as you passed the cashier’s area there was a big table of remaindered books. The genre stuff was in the back, and beyond that were the academic books and heavy duty fiction section. For years I passed directly to the science fiction section — so directly that I’m surprised I didn’t wear a path through the tiles. Shiller’s always had the new stuff just as it came out: classy SF, the spiffed-up second-generation edition of The Lord of the Rings, with cover illustrations by Tolkien himself, and the Ballantine Adult Fantasy series, which may sound like an adjunct of Penthouse Forum but was actually a pretty sophisticated attempt to find the next fantasy blockbuster to succeed Tolkien’s work.
Here, too, I came when I started feeling that I needed to be a little more demanding with myself in what I read. My brain felt flabby — I felt like an athlete who’d skipped too many workouts. The summer after my freshman year in high school, I decided to pick one Certified Big Time Author at a time and read everything I could get my hands on. Early in the summer, while the family stayed at a bungalow in Sea Isle City, I found a discarded copy of Travels With Charley.
John Steinbeck had always seemed a little forbidding from a distance, but here was a book about a guy driving cross-country with his poodle. You couldn’t get much more approachable than that. The book went down in one gulp, and when we came back from the beach, I took my sunburned self to Schiller’s (Shiller’s?) and inspected the long white rack of Steinbeck paperbacks put out by Bantam. I started with The Long Valley, and each week thereafter (continuing after school started again) I would make the pilgrimmage to pick out a new Steinbeck. I held back from the biggies, The Grapes of Wrath and East of Eden, for a while, which is how I got to discover such neglected titles as The Pastures of Heaven and Cannery Row.
The next summer, as I finished up Steinbeck (Burning Bright — couldn’t make heads or tails of it) I decided to try Hemingway. First The Old Man and the Sea — I’d seen the Spencer Tracy film, and it was obvious the story would be pretty reader-friendly. Then A Farewell to Arms, which has one of the most wonderful opening lines of any novel. It also has a doomed love affair, and since I was deep into my Sorrows of Young Werther period, that definitely rang a bell. I started For Whom the Bell Tolls during a visit to Darlington Lake, and I can still remember lying on my towel, hearing the wind in the upper branches of trees in New Jersey while reading about Robert Jordan in a pine forest, listening to the wind rustle the upper branches of trees in Spain.
And let me tell you, I got the oddest feeling that I had a secret accomplice in this project. When I started burrowing through Steinbeck, the shelf with his books became longer over the weeks, and obscure titles like Once There Was a War cropped up just when I thought I would have to order them through the mail. Somebody at that store was paying attention and placing stock orders without making too big a deal of it or even calling out to me. He was talking to me through the books. I am convinced of this.
Shiller’s (Schiller’s?) Books is gone, but there are still plenty of others like it. They can be a little hard to find, but finding them is worth the effort. You can get a lot of things through the big box stores, but you can’t get a silent conversation through books.