Monday, December 15, 2008

Pudd'nhead Books

The Library made me crabby yesterday.   

I went to return my books and I wanted to browse for new fiction.  I should know better by now.  I get crabby every time I go to Buder Branch without a "mission" and just decide to browse around, looking for a book I've never read that attracts my interest.  You see, I have this silly idea that one of the functions of a public lending library should be to encourage people to read. What better way to encourage reading, not to mention justifying the expense of purchasing new books on the taxpayers' nickel, than to display those new books in a prominent, easy-to-access location.

Some Library branches do that.  But those branches aren't open on Sundays so I always end up at Buder Branch, where "new books" are tucked away in a little alcove with floor to ceiling bookshelves on opposite walls and only enough room for 2 people at a time to browse and where most of the books for some reason are placed on the lower three shelves so that you have to bend over to look at them and, yes, bump butts with the other person in the alcove who is doing the same thing on her side. It's just incredibly poor design and it's been that way since they opened this otherwise beautifully designed building - a building that has LOTS of space that could be used to display new fiction in all its glory.

I was not in the mood for butt bumping yesterday; it made me crabby.  And, when crabby, I cannot choose a book.  I left the Library.  Crabby.  I knew I needed to do something book related to try to get the crabbiness out of my mind, so I went to check out Pudd'nhead Books at 37 S. Old Orchard in Webster Groves (in the same little shopping center where the Ben Franklin and the Starbucks are located). 

I saw it a few weeks ago, the day after Thanksgiving, when my extended family was going to dinner at Big Sky Cafe (which I highly recommend and not just because I'm related to the fabulous sous chef there).  The books in the window of what had recently been an empty store front caught my eye and I wandered over to look.  A new bookstore! That was nice.  It was, however, closed and I couldn't see much of the interior. But I decided to go back one weekend day and check it out.  Truthfully I didn't think that it would end up being a place that I loved because ... well, I'm used to disappointment.

But. Oh. My. God.  I loved it. I think it is going to be one of my favorite places. 

The thing is, I always like the idea of supporting independent booksellers but truthfully I have not had an independent bookstore that I've really patronized for all my book needs since The Library Ltd. closed its doors many moons ago. Independent bookstores by their very nature reflect the tastes of their owners and the successful ones generally try to find some kind of niche market.  None of the bookstores within easy distance of me really seem to fit me, although it's hard to say why.

What would fit me? The bookstore of my imagination is small, with a friendly proprietor who likes the kind of books I like, in an easily accessed location with a lot of books that excite me. 

That last part sounds simple but it isn't. I can find a book to buy in almost any bookstore, but my idea of heaven is to walk into a store and fear for my wallet within the first five minutes.  That just doesn't happen very often in small bookstores, at least the ones near me.  They seem to be directed at people with different tastes in reading than mine.  Thrillers.  Political tomes.  Niche books (gardening, photography, psychology).  It's not that I won't read those, I do.  But they just don't get me ... excited.   Off the beaten path literature (especially British) excites me.

So you can imagine my excitement when I walked into Pudd'nhead Books and the first thing I saw on a table full of books was one of the books in the Merry Hall Trilogy.

Well, maybe you can't. 

Because I'm guessing that most of you haven't heard of Merry Hall by Beverly NicholsI had never heard of Merry Hall until a few years ago when I came across it at the bookstore of The Missouri Botanical Garden and decided to buy it for my best friend H, who is a great reader and a great gardener.  The first-person account of Mr. Nichols' post-war renovation of a rundown Georgian house named "Merry Hall" including, most particularly, the reconstitution of its garden, seemed like a perfect gift for H.  And she loved it.  She lent it back to me to read.  I loved it.  She bought the sequels; we both loved them.  They have made the rounds of our book club.

The thing is, as delightful as they are, I have never seen them anywhere except the Botanical Garden bookstore.  And it ran out of its copies long ago. So to walk into a little bookstore in Webster Groves and see one just sitting there among a group of other, more "normal", books made me think that maybe this might be the bookstore for me.

I started wandering around.  Although it contained all the usual categories, it's focus seemed to be on the things I like to read.  Fiction.  And not just fiction.  "Literary Fiction". Lots of British authors.  Lots of Canadian authors.  Lots of books I knew and loved.  Lots of books I've been wanting to read.  A fair amount of books I've never heard of.  A smattering of best sellers.  It also had what seemed to be a really good children's section. 

It also had a nice sitting section with a big comfy looking couch and a couple of upholstered chairs.  It isn't very big - really just the right size for a friendly neighborhood bookstore.  But what really clued me that whoever was running this bookstore was on the same wavelength as me were the displays.  Almost any bookstore will have books that I want to read.  But the bookstore of my imagination will make it easy for me to find them.  They won't be hidden on shelves; books that would interest me would be displayed (the owner would of course be able to read my mind to know my tastes). 

As I looked at the displays I realized that about half of the displayed books were ones that I had already read and REALLY liked.  And the other half were books that I hadn't read.  There were no books on display that I knew I didn't like.  That meant that there was a very good chance that I would like the books I hadn't yet read.

I intend to frequent this little store and I hope everyone I know does too.  It's hard to operate a bookstore in this economy so word of mouth is going to be important.  So all you St. Louis lurkers pay attention!  Go check it out and buy something!

And those of you NOT nearby .. do you have a small bookstore you love?  Or are you still searching?