A love letter to a little book store
Editor's Note: NolaVie presents a new guest blog series from Neutrons and Protons, a New Orleans-based literary publication that believes well-written stories, and a good dose of humor, have the power to change the world. The magazine represents a wide range of material -- from satirical critiques to comics to the heartfelt love letter to a local bookstore you'll read today. Each month, on the week before the latest issue launches, one of NP's editors will pen an original piece for NolaVie. Stay tuned for their future guest blogs, as well as their first paper edition, which debuts this month.
Last week, I got a surprise package in the mail. It was a plain brown envelope that contained just one thing: a book. The book, 84, Charing Cross Road, was not one I had ever heard of before, and it wasn’t very big, or daunting, or even all that beautiful to look at. It was sent from a distant high school friend, whom I hadn’t seen or talked to in years. There was a short note in the book that read simply, “I thought of you.”
84, Charing Cross Road is a collection of correspondence between Helene Hanff, a New York City writer in the ‘40s and ‘50s, and the employees of a used book store in London. Hanff loves books, and the bookstore is good about finding editions that she covets. Ultimately, the two form an unlikely friendship around their mutual bibliophilia, even though they never meet. The collection of letters is infectious, and since receiving it, I have read it five times through. (I’m not bragging, really — it’s less than 100 pages long, and the pages don’t have many words on them.)
In an era of e-readers and high speed Internet, I recognize that my book-loving breed may be fading fast. But my love of books and my love of good writing are separate. I don’t order brand new books on Amazon.com that crackle when you open them because the glue is breaking for the first time. I have no interest in that kind of book. I like books that have been read before. I like books that tell stories, and not just through the words printed inside them. Hanff puts it well in a letter from 1951: “I love inscriptions on flyleaves and notes in margins, I like the comradely sense of turning pages someone else turned, and reading passages some one long gone has called my attention to.”
Sadly, access to these kinds of books is dwindling. Libraries across the country are “evolving” to suit the needs -- namely free computer access -- of the people who go to them. That’s great and everything, but I can’t go to the library in my neighborhood and find some old, leathery volume of quotes about birds or facts about ferns anymore. I have to go online, search for a book I might like, and then put a request in for it. That sort of takes the magic out of the whole ordeal for me.
Growing up in Portland, Oregon, I was spoiled on used books. Portland is home to the largest new and used independent bookstore in the world, Powell’s Books, which takes up an entire city block. When I moved to New Orleans in 2008, I fell in love with everything about the city. Except, there was no Powell’s. For me, that felt like it might be a deal-breaker.
Enter McKeown’s Books. McKeown’s Books and Difficult Music was an anomaly of a bookstore, located on Tchoupitoulas Street in Uptown, stationed across the street from Hansen’s Sno-Bliz, but not in a particularly pedestrian-friendly part of town. I found the bookstore via Google Search, after I’d already checked out Octavia Books in Uptown (wonderful, but no used books), and the Latter Branch Library (stunning, but slim pickings for book lovers). I walked in and glimpsed walls upon walls of strange editions, and assorted pieces of weathered furniture holding stacks of even more well-loved titles. I felt I had found home.
Maggie McKeown was born and raised in Pensacola, Florida. She moved to New Orleans in 1993 and opened McKeown’s in February 2005 after spending most of her life in nursing, and then as a midwife. "I opened the bookstore because I love books,” she told me over the phone. “I had been reading a lot of Joseph Campbell at the time, and you know, he says, ‘Follow your bliss.’ So I followed it.”
McKeown is the kind of woman who turns on a light in people; there’s no other way to describe it. You speak with her for five minutes and immediately you feel like you have known her your entire life. She’s got thick-rimmed glasses and long, silvery hair that she usually wears down, and one of those infectious smiles that transforms a space.
The first time I walked into McKeown’s, she was there, behind the counter, talking at length with a wiry twenty-something in a plaid shirt about a concert they’d both been to at the bookstore the week before. (McKeown’s also offered itself as a stage space for experimental music.) I remember drifting into and out of listening to their conversation as I browsed the shelves of biographies and science anthologies, feeling sheepish at their intelligence and wit, but also totally thrilled. Here was a place I belonged.
Then, one rainy afternoon in February of this year, I wandered into McKeown’s with a friend and found myself under a sign that read “Store Closing.” McKeown had priced all her paperback books at $1 and all the hard covers at $2. I’d always been too shy to get to know McKeown even though she makes a strong effort to get to know her regular clientele. After I’d moved from Uptown to Mid-City, the trek to Tchoupitoulas Street didn’t make as much sense for me anymore, and I hadn’t been stopping by the way I’d wanted to. McKeown was sitting behind the counter, as always. I shuffled into the corner of the fiction section, picked up a copy of a Douglas Adams book, and started to cry.
People who love books and bookstores will understand this reaction. It’s almost like a death in your family; it is the end of something loved so dearly, complained about so often (“Why isn’t there ever any Proust?!”), and taken for granted so completely. When the Maple Street Book satellite store in the Bayou Saint John neighborhood closed down less than a year ago, I could barely bring myself to go to the store on the last day. It was too sad and the place had meant too much to me. Humans are creatures of spaces: We grow very attached to the places we choose to inhabit.
But actually, Maple Street Books is doing pretty well. It changed ownership last summer, when Gladin Scott purchased it from Donna Allen. Scott was just the right kind of person for the job — before he came to Maple Street, he had run a record producing company and then a video store. Anachronistic modes of entertainment were already Scott’s specialty.
Scott started shopping at Maple Street Books when he was 17. He told me (with some pride and excitement) that the store would be celebrating its 50th birthday this year. He barely batted an eyelash when I asked him about the satellite location's closing. The money just wasn’t good enough to sustain three stores, plain and simple. But the flagship shop — the one that is actually on Maple Street — is doing well.
"Don’t get me wrong, it’s challenging, because you have the discounters like Amazon, and then you have people reading on e-readers as well,” Scott told me. "But at the same time, a lot of people like to come in and browse. Here, we all enjoy the camaraderie of being with the customers, and sharing authors that we love and books that we enjoy reading. Having the one-on-one experience of talking to someone is totally different from being on your phone or your computer and looking at a review on Amazon.”
Tom Lowenburg, who owns and runs Octavia Books with his wife, was similarly optimistic about the overall fate of bookstores. He seemed frustrated by even the suggestion that bookstores might not be able to survive an increasingly Amazon.com-driven climate.
"There are bookstores opening up all over the country. Independent bookstores, in general, are being appreciated in new ways right now. Sometimes in the past, I saw articles that made it sound like independent bookstores are something that is going to go extinct, which is not really what’s going to haven at all, I don’t believe. I still think that book-selling is a very strong; in New Orleans, especially,” Lowenburg said.
So what happened at McKeown’s? McKeown told me that there were lots of reasons that keeping the store open was no longer feasible for her, but she said the main problem was that the location of her store wasn’t prone to lots of foot traffic. “I loved the books, but it was the customers that made the difference. I loved my customers,” McKeown said. "I just wish there had been more of them."
But for those of us who loved and patronized McKeown’s, there will be a significant cultural dent in its absence. Talking to McKeown about her ambitions, dreams, and habits in the nine years she ran the store was a little like having a conversation with a major celebrity about the one body of work that most changed my life. I felt starry-eyed and choked up listening to her tell her story.
I asked her if she had enjoyed running a bookstore. She said, a little teary, "I loved it. I really like books! I was surrounded by good books every day and other people who liked books.” She talked about the bookstore the way a person talks about a great life love, recently lost. There was a somber satisfaction in her voice. "Would I ever open up another bookstore exactly like this one? No, I don’t think so. Would I repeat the whole experience? Yes. Yes. Because I loved it.”
The Joseph Campbell quote that led McKeown to open her store is one that is cited so frequently and placed on so many refrigerators that it has frankly lost its significance to me. When she said it, though, the quote came alive for me again, the way a good book can if it’s read out aloud by just the right person. “Follow your bliss.” What if we all really and truly did that? What if we took it off the refrigerator and put it in our lives? What if we stopped just reading and started living by the principles we underline in our books? Maybe we’d have more places like McKeown’s.
I want to put 84 Charing Cross Road right back in the mail and send it to McKeown, but I have a feeling she’s already read it. It’s the type of odd volume she kept in stock at her store all the time. In Hanff’s final published letter in the book — this one written to her friend Katherine in 1969 — she writes, “If you happen to pass by 84, Charing Cross Road, kiss it for me? I owe it so much.”
Neutrons Protons is an idiosyncratic literary project on the web and in print. It focuses on true-to-life narrative stories and offbeat, highbrow humor writing. The next digital issue will launch March 3, and the first print issue will launch on March 7. There will be a launch party at the Reading Room 220 at Press Street from 6 to 9 p.m.