I never thought much about getting books — books were always just around.
I fished them out of Little Free Libraries. Friends lent or gave them to me. I made a regular circuit of the discounters. When I couldn’t find a used copy of whatever I was looking for, I went to Barnes & Noble.
Most of the time, I was after a specific book, usually that month’s book club selection or something I’d read about.
Sometimes, though, I was just looking — at the titles, the authors, the many books I’d read, the many, many more I hadn’t. I’d go down the rows of new fiction (never, oddly, alphabetically) and just look at the spines to see what jumped out at me.
I’m not a bookstore dawdler, the kind who stands in the middle of the aisle and reads page after page. If I were undecided about a book, I’d read page 17 and give it a yea or nay. (I don’t know where I got the habit, but it works. Reading page 17 reveals more about a book than the promotional blurb on the jacket or the overemphasized first sentence.)
I never thought much about going to bookstores. It was something I could do almost anytime.
And then there was a pandemic, and bookstores closed.
And I had to think about books. Specifically, how to get them.
Once I couldn’t go into bookstores, I realized how much I loved them — the rows of shelves, the slightly musty smell, the atmosphere, which fell somewhere between library reverent and bar casual.
I realized that, for me, walking into a bookstore was like walking into a gathering where I was sure to be welcomed — by the names I knew and the ones I didn’t, by the whipsmart people who worked there, the fellow bookworms who shopped there.
We are all dealing with the COVID-19 pandemic in our own ways. When the lockdown first began, I checked out of reality and dove into the stack of books I had waiting on the coffee table for me. That stack dwindled quickly.
The Star Tribune’s books editor, Laurie Hertzel, had written and tweeted about how independent local bookstores were struggling during the shutdown. I took her words to heart.
I’d wanted to read “Spirit Car” for a while. I had met Diane Wilson, the local author, at a party and was fascinated by her story of discovering her Dakota roots. So I called Birchbark Books in Minneapolis and ordered a copy.
For my lunch break the next day, I bicycled to the bookstore, dialed the store’s number and a kind employee brought the book out. Even though I got a little lost, I made it to the store and back in an hour.
My first pandemic book-buying adventure was a success, so I decided to try it again.
Recently, I’d come across a reference to Josephine Tey, the nom de plume of Scottish writer Elizabeth MacKintosh. I’d read her masterful mystery “The Daughter of Time” years ago and was delighted to learn that she had more books in the Inspector Grant series.
I called Once Upon a Crime in Uptown. They had five of the Tey books in stock. I ordered them all. Another lunch break, another bike ride, another helpful store clerk, a new stack of books.
I know the governor has started to loosen the restrictions and that some stores are opening up. As a cautious soul, I won’t be going inside many stores — even bookstores — for a while.
But I’ve discovered that it’s pretty easy to get books and support local bookstores at the same time. More important, I’ve rediscovered something that I used to know: that books are, and always have been, precious.