Thursday, July 21, 2011

Book Nerds' Big Day Out (aka Book-a-palooza)

It's no secret that I'm a huge fan of shopping (and eating) from local, independent businesses as much as I can, with local restaurants, coffee shops, and independent bookstores being my favorite places to go. I'm fond of telling others that locally owned, independent businesses are like snowflakes: no two are ever really alike. To prove my point and just for the fun of it, I recently decided to embark on a summer "field trip" and explore the bookstores of Denver. I was quite surprised to find out how many there actually are in the Denver area, so decided to make a day of it with breakfast and lunch included.

A quick search online found 14 bookstores that met my criteria of being locally owned and operated in Denver. I was definitely going to need a whole day for this one.

On the appointed day, a friend of mine and I went to Snooze on Colorado Boulevard in Denver. I like Snooze for a lot of reasons, among them that they use locally sourced ingredients as much as possible, which is really important to me, and their food is downright tasty. (Review to be posted on my food blog soon.)

Taking a look at our map showed us that our first stop, The Bookery Nook, was about 10 miles from where we were. Hm. That 20 mile drive would be pretty significant considering we would have 13 others to hit before 6:00 p.m. (when several of the stores closed). We decided to wait and see how we felt at the end of the day before heading over there. The fact that they serve locally made ice cream resulted in huge bonus points in their favor, and no, 10:30 in the morning is not too early for ice cream, thank you very much. (ha ha!)

Off to The Tattered Cover in Lower Denver (aka LoDo). Even though I had to pay for parking (a hangup of mine),  I sucked it up, paid my parking fee and in we went. The LoDo Tattered Cover is in a historic building, where it takes up two huge floors of both new and used books. Complete with a small cafe that serves excellent coffee, tasty pastries, sandwiches and salads, and other treats, The Tattered Cover in LoDo frequently plays host to booksignings by authors of all sorts. The store's creaking floorboards and warm wood interior add to the atmosphere of the place, which is filled with various nooks where you'll find bibliophiles of all sorts perusing the racks or sitting in one of the many comfortable chairs, reading some new or soon to be new acquisition.

Bookstore stop #2 was Fahrenheit's Books on South Broadway. This small but very well stocked used bookshop lacks the bells and whistles and coffee of Tattered Cover, but its inventory and very reasonable prices more than make up for it. This was my second trip to Fahrenheit's, and it was just as enjoyable and productive as the first. I spent a fair bit of time making some very difficult choices before finally deciding what to buy.

Broadway Book Mall was next on the list. This dog-friendly, funky shop is part of a co-op of several booksellers in one store. Selling both new and used books, Broadway Book Mall also is stocked with quite a large number of signed and first edition books. Broadway Book Mall plays host to a significant number of book signing events as well as hosting monthly meetings of the Denver Science Fiction Association.

As an added huge, HUGE and unexpected bonus, local author Mario Acevedo stopped into the store.  Once I got over my shock (in a good way), I told him that I had his first book at home, and as I pulled a copy of what would soon be my second copy of The Nymphos of Rocky Flats off the shelves, I asked him if he'd sign it if I bought it right there and then. He graciously said that he would, so that became one automatic purchase right there and then, as did my Spanish version of Jonathan Stroud's The Amulet of Samarkand. While I don't speak Spanish, I do want to become fluent and literate in it, and so I have begun tracking down the Spanish version of specific novels.

After a bit more time chatting with the owners, we made our purchases, and headed up Broadway to the Denver Book Fair. Denver Book Fair is deceptive in the appearance of its size. It's a store with an impressive depth of size, and it is separated into several rooms of varying size. If you are looking for paperbacks or vintage magazines, this is the place for you. Stacked floor to ceiling with books, it's incredibly easy to get lost in the maze of paperback books...and that's not a bad thing at all.

Mutiny Now (no website, so no link, sorry) was stop number five. I walked in to hear the strains of A-Ha's "Take On Me" playing and realized this was the first bookstore I'd been to that day that had music playing. Hits of the 80s entertained us while we browsed the shelves of this bookstore and art gallery.  The whole store has a very laid back vibe to it, and the owner was certainly part of that. This was also one of the most spacious stores so far with a fair bit of room and space that didn't make it feel quite so claustrophobic as some bookstores can do (note: I don't view being crowded in by books to be a bad thing at all, but neither is having a little space between shelves).

After leaving Mutiny Now, we walked back to the car, hopped in and headed south down Broadway to Gallagher Books. (I had at one point considered doing this by bicycle, but after realizing the mileage needed to cover all of the stores I wanted to go to combined with the heat of a Colorado summer day, decided it just wasn't practical...and probably would have been downright stupid.) Gallagher Books has the look and feel of an old style library (one of my favorite places since I was a child). Aptly located in Denver's Antique Row district, Gallagher Books specializes in antique and rare books.

Just a couple of doors down from Gallagher Books is the Printed Page Bookshop. This store, housed in, well...a house built in 1892...has its own in store mystery for customers to attempt to solve in hopes of winning a gift certificate from the store. Browsing the shelves of this antiquarian delight exposes the customer to a wide range of out-of-print and rare books, some of which were in glass cases (an extremely rare and out of print version of Ray Bradbury's Fahrenheit 451 had me drooling, but the $500 price tag kept it well out of reach, at least for this lifetime). Similar to Gallagher Books, Printed Page offers slices of literary history for the serious collector.

Lunch was next on our agenda, and while on our way to our next bookstore, we found The Crushery, home of not only excellent panini and bagel sandwiches, but also of -321 Liquid Nitrogen Ice Cream. Yes, you read that correctly: liquid nitrogen ice cream. Customers place their orders for custom, freshly made ice cream after choosing from a list of options, then watch as the wizards behind the counter work their frosty magic utilizing liquid nitrogen to flash freeze the ingredients into the smoothest, creamiest, tastiest ice cream I've ever had. Ever. I created a chocolate cinnamon with sea salt ice cream that I just about fell out of my chair after the first bite, it was that good. (A full review of The Crushery will appear on my food blog soon.)

The next bookstore stop on the list made me sad, and not because it was a bad bookstore; it was just the opposite as a matter of fact. Murder By The Book is a beautiful store and well stocked with mysteries from nearly every author you can think of, but unfortunately it is going out of business on July 29. It is precisely this issue that I hope to address next year with a project I'm working on (more on that much later), but it causes me almost physical pain when a bookstore closes, double that when it is a wonderful, quirky, locally owned, independent bookstore. The towns in which I spent my childhood are bereft of bookstores; the closest one is approximately 60 miles away; a bookstore is far too important and precious a resource for a community to lose even one, no matter how many exist in that area. The loss of Murder By The Book is truly a crime indeed (pun intended, but not really meant to be funny in this tragic situation). If nothing else, if you are in the Denver area, stop by and thank them for their efforts in combating illiteracy for as long as they did.

 The Bookies was our ninth (!) bookstore for the day. The Bookies specializes in children's literature (including juvenile and young adult literature) as well as resources for educators (which gives them some serious points from me personally right there...ha!). They do stock books for anyone and everyone, however, so there's no excuse for not visiting this store. The staff was friendly and eager to help, and I was led directly to both of the books I asked about without even a moment's hesitation. Rather appropriately, the store has a feel of a constant buzz of energy about it, much like a classroom where learning and education are valued and appreciated. Unfortunately, we weren't able to spend quite as long here as we would have liked since it was getting close to 5:00 p.m. at this point (breakfast was at 9:00 a.m., we headed to the stores around 10:00), and our next destination closed at 5:30. We had to hustle.

Shortly after 5:00, we arrived at The Hermitage, another store specializing in a variety of specialty books, including first and signed editions. Located in the Cherry Creek shopping district, this beautiful store is one of the most elegant stores I've been in. The owner, Robert Topp, captured a special place in this educator's heart when he told me about his other project, Read Me A Story, Ink: a collection of printable stories, lists of book recommendations and the like for teachers, parents, and students with the focus on reading these stories aloud to young people.

Shortly after leaving The Hermitage, we realized we weren't going to make it: we still had four stores on our list, and three of them closed at 6:00 (including The Bookery Nook, which we had planned on perhaps hitting at the end of our day). We also had all but reached our saturation point for the day, and so we decided to save The Bookery Nook, Capitol Hill Books, and Park Hill Community Bookstore (no website) for another day. Instead, our day would end as it began: with The Tattered Cover (though the one on Colfax, this time).

And so our 11th and final stop for the day was The Tattered Cover on Colfax. Even though it shares a name with the LoDo location on 16th Avenue and the store in Highlands Ranch, this store is as different from the others as if it were a completely distinct and separate store. This branch is located in a historic theater that was preserved, restored, and remodeled to house the bookstore. This store also houses a coffee shop, albeit a smaller version of the LoDo store. The other plus of this store vs. the 16th Street location is the free parking garage next door, so that makes me particularly happy. Also containing two stories (well, two and a half, depending on your point of view) of books, this branch of the Tattered Cover is able to please just as much as the first.

After making our final purchases for the day, we opted to go home and recover rather than stop anywhere. We were happy yet exhausted. We had visited 11 bookstores in one day, each one unique and possessing a completely different feel and personality of its own. And therein lies the strength of the locally owned, independent store. Each of these stores reflected not only who the owner is, but also who the neighborhood is and who the larger community is. The major chain bookstores lack this in abundance. A Barnes and Noble one place is a Barnes and Noble anywhere else. Amazon isn't anything but a website. While both of these can offer discounts on books and other merchandise, and McDonald's, Burger King, and the like can offer cheap food, there is something that none of these can offer: a glimpse into the soul of a city.  The restaurants and bookstores we visited gave us a glimpse into Denver like we'd never really seen before. Yes, you can and may pay more for a book or a meal or whatever by shopping locally and making purchases from smaller, independent places, but aside from the simple economic fact that more of your money stays in your community by shopping locally, there is nothing that can replace a conversation with someone who actually cares about their business because they own it and have a stake in not only their business, but in their community as well.

I've long believed in shopping locally and buying from independent businesses first whenever possible. This only confirmed it.

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