For nerds like me, bookstores and libraries are a sacred place offering, dare I say it, a religious experience that even a heathen like this ol’ gal can get behind. From the smell of the books to the wafting scent of coffee pouring throughout, bookstores are a little slice of heaven right here on planet Craphole. As one might surmise, bookstores weren’t a big thing in rural Iowa back in the ’80’s but I did spend copious hours in the musty local library, paging through books no one my age had any business viewing and I could tear up a Scholastic book order like Amelda Marcos at a shoe sale.
With each of our moves I have managed to find a favorite bookstore to provide solace for my transient soul. After moving to Turkey I stumbled upon a tiny-wonder with a small selection of English titles but a phenomenal section of Turkish/English translations. After Turkish class, I would disappear inside that bookshop for hours and imagine myself back in a world where I didn’t struggle to communicate and where the task of speaking wasn’t exhausting. After a couple Turkish coffees and a few stories by Aziz Nesin, I was ready to take the ferry home and struggle my way through my new language.
When I returned to the US, I had a toddler in tow so I shifted to frequenting children’s bookstores and soon found them to do for my kids what bookstores have always done for me, provide an epic escape from reality. In every city we’ve resided, we’ve found a compatible match and trips to the bookstore have always been transformative and frequent. After moving to Massachusetts a couple years ago, it only took about a month before we found our spot- An Unlikely Story Bookstore. This amazing independent gem also happens to be the brainchild of Diary of a Wimpy Kid genius, Jeff Kinney.
Once found, this store instantly became our nerdly hidey-hole. If there was an early dismissal or day off, we’d make the 30-minute drive to hide out in the stacks and blow way too much dough on books. But when Covid-19 hit, the entire state locked down, including our hidey hole. I was dependent upon the library’s online platform or the USPS (and we know how reliable they’ve been lately…) to deliver a fix when I started jonesing for a hit of magical realism or dystopian humor. Finally, after six long months, when An Unlikely Story finally opened for ‘appointment only’ shopping, I sprained a finger hitting the “sign me up” button. Yes, while the rest of humanity was pushing for an appointment to get their nails did, my priority was getting an appointment at the bookstore. (Said it before and I’ll say it again, I NERD HARD)
My offspring were excited, but they were more in it just to get the hell out of the house and get some new goods. But Mama needed to smell the paper, rub a hand across those glossy covers and spend some capital on mind-candy. I counted down the days until our bookstore fieldtrip. When I got the email asking, “Is there anything special we can help you find during your visit?” I replied with a hard no. Rather, I planned to gaze lovingly at the shelves while waiting to find my new love peering out from the shelf.
As we pulled into the empty parking lot my heart began to flutter like I’d had too much Turkish coffee. I’m no fan of humans and I really hate crowds even when there is no pandemic. This bookstore was always packed so knowing we were part of a select few chosen ones allowed to enter this holy ground made me swoon. “Guys, look. There are only two cars here besides us. This is gonna be awesome!!”
“Yea Mom. Cool.” (Boys are the ultimate buzzkill.)
At our allotted time, a bookseller I renamed Judy (because she looked like a Judy…duh) joined us in our socially-distanced line in the parking lot. Judy offered a warmer welcome than I’ve received at family gatherings. “If you need suggestions or have questions, just ask. Our booksellers are as happy to see you as you are to see them. We are so glad you’re here.”
After giving us the now requisite instructions about one-way aisles and hand sanitizing stations, we were unleashed into the store. We were three steps in when an angry Karen began to throw a hissy fit after Judy asked her to do the unthinkable and pull her damn mask over her nose.
“Well fine but don’t bitch at me when I barf all over your damn store!”
I was about to turn and tell Karen to simmer down and sit and spin, but Judy was all over it.
“How about you step over here away from the children so we can talk about this.”
Karen wasn’t ready for Judy and Judy owned it. I may have stepped on my child trying to eavesdrop on the situation but suffice it to say, I want to be Judy when I grow up.
We had 45 minutes from the minute we entered, and we covered ground like a pack of nerdy gazelles. Nugs was sucked into the Star Wars section like there was a tractor beam on him. Number 1 was down with the science books and I did a serious dive into sci-fi and general middle grade fiction for the podcast (if you’re not listening, check us out at twolitmamas.com) before exhausting our budget. We saved our last ten minutes to check out their brilliant gift section which held important gifts like socks with profanity, Ruth Bader Ginsberg action figures (RIP queen) and a timely workbook entitled, “Anyone Can Be President.”
As we wrapped up our adventure, I made a pitstop next to the life-sized statue of the Wimpy Kid (appropriately masked) and ordered a cup of joe to get me back home. I was topping off my oatmilk when Nugget burst into tears.
“Nuggie, what’s wrong? Did you want coffee?”
“Did we not get something you wanted?”
“What is it? Wasn’t it good?”
“I don’t know Mom, it was good but it wasn’t the same.”
And my brilliant little baby was right. While I absolutely adored my private shopping spree, it wasn’t the same. A bookstore isn’t just a retail space. It’s warmth. It’s safety. It’s shelf after shelf of possibilities and sure, all of those things were still there, (plus badass Judy handling Karens at the door), but he was right. It wasn’t the same. This pandemic world we’re being forced to deal with blows and while anti-social Gen Xers like me are doing fine with this isolation, it’s not working for everyone. (Or my ass…to be honest, my ass needs a little more accountability than six months of stretch fabrics can provide.) Unfortunately this was a reminder that while we’re slowly accepting our new normal, our kids might need a little more time. But in that time, we can devour a few books and hide away in some amazing tales until this dumpster fire is over.