Three lit events this week in Santa Cruz illustrate why we cherish independent bookstores
Last Saturday was Independent Bookstore Day, and, like my fellow bookworms, I headed out, wish list in hand, to pay my respects. But for me, it was bittersweet.
As a former co-owner of Capitola Book Cafe, I know what it means to put the right book into someone’s hands at the right moment. I’ve seen the spark in a toddler’s eyes when Billie Harris lent her refined British accent to reading “Don’t Let the Pigeon Drive the Bus” during Monday morning story hour. I’ve been rewarded by working with a staff that walked and talked their passion for books every day, and by customers who lived for the hunt, often leaving with titles they didn’t know they wanted but were glad they’d found. I welcomed countless authors to our well-worn podium, inviting them to share their wit and wisdom with our community.
I was also plagued by the everyday disasters familiar to booksellers everywhere: failed computers, market challenges, and good intentions waylaid by tough realities. I may have been at the tail end of a 35-year legacy, but I wouldn’t trade the privilege of having carried that torch for anything. I was part of something bigger than me, and in the end, bigger than the store itself. I still am.
There’s a dance between readers, writers, booksellers and publishers, and the bookstore is our dance hall. Among the stacks, we’re free to tango with any character we please. We start conversations with strangers and discover soul mates. We traffic in stories. We geek out over the details of the “Mars” trilogy and hungrily clutch the latest John Green novel. We argue over Haruki Murakami. We read to our kids and watch them grow wings, treating picture books like launch pads. Bookstores force us to reconsider everything we think we know. They even offer up our heroes in the flesh, who appear on rainy nights after long drives to talk about their work and shake our hands. They make us believe we can do it, whatever it may be, all for the price of a paperback.
Three events at Bookshop Santa Cruz this week alone illustrate why we celebrate Independent Bookstore Day. I’m especially pleased that they feature novelists; it’s been said that the novel is an endangered species, but, like independent bookstores, their demise has been greatly exaggerated.
Animator, writer, and enthusiastic computer geek Sydney Padua will be at Bookshop Santa Cruz at 7:30 p.m. on Wednesday, May 6, for her hoot of a graphic novel, “The Thrilling Adventures of Lovelace and Babbage.” Who knew that the seeds of the computer revolution were planted in the brass cogs and punch cards of Victorian England? Who could imagine that the friendship between two eccentric London intellectuals—a mathematician named Charles Babbage and the brilliant daughter of Lord Byron, Ada Lovelace—would hold the makings of a fictional dynamic duo?
Babbage never did see his steam-powered “analytical engine” come to life, and Lovelace, who translated his work and pushed it to the next level in reams of her own added footnotes, died young, but Padua lends brawn to their brains in a steampunk adventure tale filled with fascinating historical facts and literal pipe dreams. In it, Babbage and Lovelace build the “Difference Engine” (Padua incorporated the details of Babbage’s actual designs), using it to fight crime and set off on wild adventures. Padua’s expressive drawing style, spirited wit, and exuberant obsession with footnotes (you’ll never look at them in quite the same way again), bring history to life and paint science with magic.
At 7:30 p.m. on Thursday, May 7, Christian Kiefer will be appearing at Bookshop for his second novel, “The Animals.” The story is straightforward: Bill Reed seeks to rebuild his life as the caretaker at a wildlife sanctuary in rural Idaho, after drug abuse and gambling addiction led him to a life of crime in Nevada, but when his partner in crime is released from prison, Reed is forced to reckon with his past. Kiefer doesn’t sacrifice an ounce of suspense in this noir meditation on instinct and redemption, but dives deep beneath the surface of Reed’s character, asking if can we change our core nature, or if it is fixed beyond our control.
Kiefer is too thoughtful a prose stylist to leave us with a simple answer. Instead, he weaves cliffhangers into the winter landscape, marking a path between them to open territory, even as he cautions that it might lead to our worst fears. Like his first novel, “Infinite Tides,” “The Animals” reflects a naturalistic view of the world that holds us responsible for making our own meaning and shaping our own fates. Kiefer himself sets a good example. Besides writing novels, he’s a busy professor at American River College and a father of five boys who lives in the Sierra foothills with a small menagerie. He’s a prolific musician, too, and produced a soundtrack to the book that was released at the same time on vinyl.
At 7:30 a.m. on Monday, May 1, we score another visit from Pulitzer-Prize-winning author Jane Smiley, for her new novel, “Early Warning.” It’s the second installment in her ambitious “Last Hundred Years” trilogy, which traces the intimate fortunes of the Langdon family, set against the sweeping backdrop of the 20th century. She was here last October for the first installment, “Some Luck.”
It begins in 1920 at the Iowa farm purchased by Walter and Rosanna Langdon. As the chapters unfold over 33 years (each chapter comprising a year), babies are born, children leave home, and fortunes change. “Early Warning” picks up in 1953, at patriarch Walter Langdon’s funeral. At this point, the Langdon children have grown up and spread out, migrating to urban opportunities and raising families of their own, all while navigating the tidal flow of history.
Benchmarks like the Cold War, Vietnam, the Jonestown massacre, and AIDS find their way into the characters’ living rooms, merging with their personal triumphs and tragedies. Through it all, Smiley never loses touch with the universal questions that come to define us all. Are we loved? Can we change? Do we matter? Like a great cinematographer, she moves in for a close-up and then pulls back to reveal the big picture, rewarding us with a unique sense of our own place in the grand scheme of things.
Like distinct planets in a shared solar system, indie bookstores are bound to the same gravitational pull. Authors like Ann Patchett, Larry McMurtry, Louise Erdrich, and Jonathan Lethem have all succumbed to owning independent bookstores, and just as they might say that it was slightly insane to take the leap, they’d also assure you that it was a labor of love.
The news on the business front is actually good. Sales have grown for independent booksellers by about 8 percent over the last three years, more than for booksellers in general, and the number of new independent bookstores has grown by about 20 percent. Considering that between 2000 and 2007, at least 1,000 indies closed their doors, this is a welcome change indeed.
Make no mistake, the days of retail bookstore giants that cover city blocks have all but gone. Amazon has ensured that no bookstore can compete with the everything store. But indies are coming to understand that their place is not to slay corporate dragons or be all things to all people. It’s to bring community members together around thoughtful collections of books that remind us what’s new in the world of ideas, as well as what’s timeless. There will never be much profit in the game, but again, it’s a labor of love. Venture out this weekend if you missed Independent Bookstore Day, and seek out a book you’ve always wanted—or better still, a great new title you stumble upon—at community gems like Bookshop Santa Cruz, Logos, the Literary Guillotine, and Crossroads in Watsonville. Ann Patchett put it best: “If what a bookstore offers matters to you, then shop at a bookstore. If you feel that the experience of reading a book is valuable, then read a book. This is how we change the world: We grab hold of it. We change ourselves.”
PHOTO: Pulitzer Prize winner Jane Smiley brings her new novel to Bookshop Santa Cruz on May 11.