You wouldn’t know it to look at me but I’m wildly supportive of independent bookstores or “indies” as habitués call them. If you see someone like me on the street with a guide dog you might think: “there’s someone who doesn’t go to bookshops.” Ah but you’d be wrong! So wrong!
Whenever I enter an indie bookshop my spirits lift. Really, they do. I’m no longer at the bottom of life’s stairs, l’esprit de l’escalier, like Diderot—hoping I might be wise or “wiser”—thinking all the sharp people are one floor above me. No, the independent bookstore is where all those who like being alive come for books.
I first learned this in my early twenties. I was fortunate enough to go to graduate school and felt lucky to find myself among bookish people. I was also lucky because despite my greenness and other deficiencies I was studying creative writing in Iowa City, Iowa.
In general it’s good to know you’re lucky. And of course the sensation isn’t ubiquitous. One can’t feel kind fortune every minute. My poetry classes at the Iowa Writer’s Workshop were contentious. The teachers were famous and my fellow poetry grad students were talented and ambitious. Such conditions should make for satisfaction if not happiness but often classes (known as workshops) could be rebarbative affairs. Occasionally a student would run from the room in tears because a Pulitzer winning poet-teacher had made a moue of disgust at a line in a poem. It was crazy. Old and young people fighting about poetry. Sometimes discussions about the merits of a student’s poem or lack thereof felt to me as fatuous and exaggerated as that section in Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels where we see that a civil war has been fought over the question “which end of the boiled egg do you crack first—big or little?”
Enter the bookshop. In the summer of 1979 a fellow named Jim Harris opened a store in downtown Iowa City called “Prairie Lights” and he hired some of us anemic baby poets to help build bookshelves and lug boxes. Maybe this doesn’t seem like much—sweat and sawdust and the emergence of a new kind of store—but then you see there’s this quality of community that stands behind every indie bookstore. I knew it right away. And my hammering poetry pals knew it too. This, I saw, was a genial space.
To his credit Jim Harris made Prairie Lights an ever more genial place, hosting poetry readings, talks, events for kids. He hired people who genuinely loved books and who also—wait for it—liked talking with customers.
The playwright Edward Albee once said he wasn’t interested in living in a city where there wasn’t a production by Samuel Beckett running. By the time I was 25 I knew I didn’t want to live in a town without a warm, jazzy, welcoming and vital bookstore.
In a few days I’ll be publishing my sixth book, a memoir about poetry and a special dog. Have Dog, Will Travel: A Poet’s Journey will be released on March 13, by Simon & Schuster. Like many authors I’m thinking ahead about places where I might read from the book. Indie bookstores are at the top of my list.
On April 9 I’ll be reading at my beloved Prairie Lights where I’ve been fortunate to read a number of times and then I head to Bexley, Ohio both to read and celebrate Gramercy Books—a new “indie” that’s already proving to be remarkable. As Linda Kass, owner of Gramercy Books says on her website: “our name, Gramercy, comes from the French words ‘grand merci,’ which translates to ‘big thanks’ or ‘many thanks.’ We’re so grateful. For books. For our customers. And for the opportunity to bring you this experience.”
And that’s really what I’m trying to convey—indie bookstores are about thankful experiences. This of course is not a customary dynamic in capitalism but it’s the manifest hope of independent book sellers that we might warm each other with good words.
ABOUT: Stephen Kuusisto is the author of the memoirs Have Dog, Will Travel; Planet of the Blind (a New York Times “Notable Book of the Year”); and Eavesdropping: A Memoir of Blindness and Listening and of the poetry collections Only Bread, Only Light and Letters to Borges. A graduate of the Iowa Writer’s Workshop and a Fulbright Scholar, he has taught at the University of Iowa, Hobart and William Smith Colleges, and Ohio State University. He currently teaches at Syracuse University where he holds a University Professorship in Disability Studies. He is a frequent speaker in the US and abroad. His website is StephenKuusisto.com.
(Photo picturing the cover of Stephen Kuusisto’s new memoir “Have Dog, Will Travel” along with his former guide dogs Nira (top) and Corky, (bottom.) Bottom photo by Marion Ettlinger