Chatham, Massachusetts is a quintessential Cape Cod beach town, the kind that insists gently on protecting its quintessence from whatever forces of modernity might threaten it. The downtown has more gazebos than stores, the crosswalks are painted a cheerful solid green, and the bay teems with seals swimming just a few yards away from the humans. The cottages and beach houses have driveways of gravel instead of asphalt, or of crushed oyster shells instead of gravel, and are packed so closely together that actual neighborhood road signs read: “Thickly Settled.” (Is this a warning or a boast?) The seafood restaurants, taverns, and antique shops are all studiously quaint, right down to the lettering on their own signs—local ordinance seems to forbid the use of any font developed less than forty years ago. Presiding over it all is a church whose steeple, as my friend and host Dave pointed out, is a marvel of Yankee pragmatism: it doesn’t have a spire (too grandiose), but since it’s the tallest structure in town, does feature a clock.
Nested snugly into this bastion of Americana, which I was fortunate enough to visit this weekend, are two fine bookstores called Yellow Umbrella Books and Where the Sidewalk Ends. The former is the home of the first edition Paley I mentioned in the last post; this proved to be too pricey for a humble editor’s budget, but I did pick up a nice poetry anthology from the store’s “Small Press” rack. The latter, like so many of the shops in Chatham, is tucked unassumingly into a converted house; as its name suggests, it has an excellent children’s books section and a stellar Shel Silverstein section in particular. I thumbed through Lafcadio: The Lion Who Shot Back (an old favorite) and The Giving Tree (you know when the boy carves his girlfriend’s initials—Y.L.—into the tree? I realized for the first time that this stands for “Young Love”), basking in the warmth of nostalgia and the cool of the store’s welcome air conditioning.
Both Yellow Umbrella and WTSE charmed me thoroughly. Their only flaw? Too few Abbeville books. If you find yourself headed up Chatham way, I would heartily recommend ducking into either shop for a while before grabbing a shake at the Kream ‘n’ Kone or a Sam Adams at the Squire. Or before frolicking with the seals.
(Many thanks again to both Dave and Mrs. B for hosting this weekend and making these bookstore excursions possible. – AA)
Our bookstore recommendation today is actually a three-fer, as “Dog Eared Books” is the umbrella name for a trio of San Francisco bookstores owned by Kate Rosenberger and George Kirby Desha. The original store is called Phoenix Books, while the offspring stores are Dog Eared Books and Red Hill Books. Got that straight? Good. Because you’ll need all your wits about you when you confront their unique brand of tough literary love:
“We are three fiercely independent stores who will look you in the eye as we sell you the book you’d been searching for. We will pay cash or give store credit for your books—and feed your dog a treat as we’re doing it. Get lost among our new, used or remaindered stacks for hours—we encourage it. Ask us for a book even if you can’t remember the title—our staff of genuine literary nerds welcome the challenge.”
Gaah! Yes sir, yes ma’am! None of us even owns a dog, but we’re tempted to get one solely in order to fulfill this commanding call to action. We’re also tempted to take up the staff’s challenge: we’re thinking of this really cool book we once saw, we can’t remember the title, but we think it had some sort of doughnut-shaped clay thing on the cover, and it might have had something to do with Native Americans…wow, yes, it is Abbeville Press’s Pottery by American Indian Women: The Legacy of Generations! You guys are amazing!
In all seriousness, the three stores stock plenty of Abbeville titles as part of their fine selection, so that’s one major reason to visit. And even if you live far from Frisco like us, they’ve got three separate minisites/blogs, one for each store, to keep you entertained. (All three sites can be found on their mainpage here.) If you think you can handle how much they love books—if you can look them in the eye without wilting under their steely gaze—we strongly encourage you to check them out.
The Raconteur, based out of Metuchen, New Jersey, is the very model of the modern independent bookstore. It was founded in 2005, bucking the whole trend of the book industry toward large chain stores and online retailers. It has a name and logo that ooze panache (the drawing of the Raconteur could pass for the portly granduncle of Blad J. Garamond); a very funny website; an events blog; a regular blog; a private literary society; a summer writing workshop; a slate of “oddball literary happenings” that includes pub crawls and beard-growing contests; a decor that features Hunter S. Thompson’s obituary, a piano, and a knight’s helmet; and above all, a damn fine selection of books. It even has its own motorcycle club, but that’s just gravy. This “literary sanctuary” has garnered admiring press from The New York Times and the London Guardian, among other publications, but today it receives the most coveted plaudit of all: the imprimatur of the Abbeville Manual of Style.
How do we know about this place? One of our Arbiters, the previously-uncredited Lauren Evangelista, is a frequent patron and a friend of the owner, Alex Dawson. When Lauren goes book shopping, The Raconteur is where she goes. So there’s a personal connection here, but it hardly matters; the most objective possible assessment of this store will confirm that it’s got style to spare. Hell, it even has a good prose style, as evidenced by the following excerpt from its website:
“The soul of Paris resides in its sidewalk cafes, that of London in its many pubs, Florence in its teeming piazze. The soul of central Jersey sits, wound in colored lights made from shotgun shells, high atop a shelf, squarely between a six of Gonzo Imperial Porter and a ridge-backed Rancor action figure, at The Raconteur.”
We suggest you take a peregrination to seek that soul for yourself.
P.S. At least one of our Arbiters is going to the Adult Vocabulary Bee at Chelsea Market tonight. If anyone wants to take us on, we’d love to see you there. We’ve already unloaded “plaudit,” “imprimatur,” and “peregrination” on you today; come see what else we’ve got up our sleeves. Bonus points to the Raconteur website for “poltroon.”