Thursday, March 23, 2023

LIVING IN A BOOKSTORE: Guest Post by Cathy Pickens

Cathy Pickens: 
Living in a Bookstore

What reader wouldn’t say yes! to living in a bookstore? 
On my one visit to Paris, I naturally made the obligatory visit to Shakespeare and Company, the legendary English-language bookshop in the shadow of Notre Dame, the place that Hemingway “liberated” after Paris was reclaimed by the Allies in World War II. The place where thousands of authors have camped on beds tucked between books or set up after hours on top of book tables, a place to live a while and to write.
But much closer to home, in the Southern hill country near where I grew up, is Shakespeare’s American cousin. In 1999, Katherine Willoughby opened Shakespeare & Co. Books in Highlands, North Carolina. This was no random knock-off of the name. In her younger days, Katherine lived with owner George Whitman in the Paris store. And he gave permission for her to use to name to create its echo tucked on a plateau at 4117 feet above sea level in the Blue Ridge Mountains.
Over the years, I stopped in every time I visited Highlands—a beautifully historic town with an interesting mix of wealthy incomers and those whose families farmed the area since the 1800s. In my experience, used bookshop owners and used bookshop habitués tend to be introverted folks, focused on books and respecting the space of others equally devoted. I exchanged greetings with Katherine as I checked out, but little more. I remember the books I bought there—favorites being Arthur Koestler’s The Act of Creation, discovered while I was locked away in Highlands working on my book CREATE!, and The Blue Guides England, with a spidery inscription: Margaret M. (her book) why?
In 2019, I decided to spend more time in the mountains. Summers in Charlotte feel increasingly hot and oppressive to me. Why not go home to the mountains more often, while I’m still able to race my Mustang up the winding roads?
On a visit, Stuart Ferguson greeted me from the desk at the front door. He introduced himself as Katherine’s viceroy. Over frequent visits, he encouraged me to renew my acquaintance with the charms of Golden Age mysteries. We talked about our personal histories around Highlands. And, when Katherine couldn’t return from Florida last summer, he invited my husband and me to live upstairs for the winter, to keep the place heated. 
Yes. Again, who wouldn’t say yes? 
About that time, my true crime book on the North Carolina Appalachian Mountains was published. And I was working on a Southern true crime book for Books-A-Million covering cases Texas to the Virginias. What a wonderful place to hide out and work.
At the store, we don’t have to sleep on the book tables. Katherine kept a spacious apartment upstairs. But one door opens directly into the children’s and history sections upstairs. And we’re allowed to roam around downstairs even at night if we run out of anything to read. 
When we finish reading a book that we don’t want to keep, we tuck it on the shelf in the store for another reader to find. As the wind blew or the sun lit up the sitting room or the day the snow fell (but, sadly, didn’t stick), we sat in front of the bow window, we read or wrote and enjoyed how magical it all was.
A mystery book club held its inaugural gathering in February, to talk about why we’re fascinated with mysteries and crime. In March, for a “read-around” of Agatha Christie, everyone chose one of her mysteries or a biography or her memoirs and we explored the Queen of Crime. Next, we’ll move across the pond to look at the origins of the hard-boiled detective.
As a writer, living in the bookstore has shown me up close the life of a bookseller. The people who exclaim, “I just downloaded that book to my Kindle!” Or who say, “Oh, that’s too expensive. I’ll check online.” Stuart stocks a small selection of well-reviewed new books—but what if no one wants to buy the new Putin biography? Or what of the people who’ve written a book and don’t understand that book signings typically end up costing the store money? Or the well-meaning folks who would be hurt if you didn’t take their donated truckload of old textbooks that you’ll have to haul off?
Even among readers, not many realize the difficult finances of the book business. The margins are small. In an expensive resort town, the taxes and insurance are high. The salaries are abysmal. But the chance to stop by on a cloudy day and talk about what you’ve read lately? Or to have Stuart find for you a lovely copy of the fantasy novel that started you on your life’s reading journey when you were a kid? Or to pick up a local history or a Georgette Heyer you’d forgotten? There’s magic in that, the kind of magic a bookstore—especially a used bookstore—offers.

True, not everyone gets to live in a bookstore. But everyone can visit. And everyone can help make sure those magical places are there for a while more.
Keep in mind the struggles—albeit as labors of love—of your favorite booksellers. Online and e-books certainly have their place. But the places that sell books—the places where you first found your life-long favorites or started your reading journey—those places need you to come visit. Maybe chat about books. Buy a book. Or a stack of books. You want that place to be there the next time you come to visit.

A former president of Sisters in Crime, Cathy Pickens’s Malice Award-winning series has been re-issued by Joffe Books in the U.K. She also writes a series for History Press on historical Carolinas true crime cases and is fact crime columnist for Mystery Readers Journal.


Anonymous said...

Sounds like you are living in a magical place where you can read about anything and everywhere you would want to go!

Anonymous said...

Hear, hear! Buy books!

Jeannie Chambers said...

Sounds like a dream life- IF I could read and read and read. I'd love to own a bookstore, but in the way of me saying, "I'd love to get some chickens and have fresh eggs." There's a lot of work involved of which I am not ready to commit. I want to scatter feed and gather eggs, and I want to discuss books and read all day. Those are the dreams of a person who respects the hard work of the real people who do the work.
I love Shakespeare & Company. Stuart is 'the real deal'.

Anonymous said...

I love the book store and Stuart’s wit and wisdom. I also enjoyed Cathy Pickens book club and her books. She and her husband are most interesting!