Want to Know the Heart of a City? Visit the Local Bookstore
Whether you’re relocating or visiting a new city, here’s why the local bookstore should be your first stop.
Over the past decade, Millie Whalen, an attorney from Brooklyn, made several trips to Great Falls, MT, to visit friends and enjoy the great outdoors. As a ritual, she’d stop at Cassiopeia Books on her way out of town, grabbing a paperback mystery from the local bookstore to read on her plane ride home.
Then, in 2019, the bookstore went up for sale. On a whim, Whalen purchased it, and, four months ago, she moved to Great Falls. It’s fitting to say this downtown bookstore is the scene for her next chapter.
While owning a bookstore is what bibliophile dreams are made of, simply becoming a regular at your hometown bookstore can help you take the pulse of a new place: one of the very best ways to become acquainted with a new city is via its local bookstore.
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“When you walk into Cassiopeia, you immediately get a strong sense of Montana,” says Whalen, who, at present, is reading “Winter Wheat,” a coming-of-age tale set in the 1940s on a wheat farm in Montana. The front of Whalen’s bookstore is a homage to her new home state, proudly showcasing books written by Montana authors, as well as guidebooks that come in handy for those eager to explore the area.
Learn the lay of the land through the perspective of local authors. Connect with others in your new community at author talks. Pick up a local cookbook and learn how to incorporate your farmers’ market bounty into delicious dinner dishes. Peruse the staff picks to get a feel for what issues and topics are of particular importance in your neighborhood. Local bookstores are where it’s at; they’re like an all-knowing concierge, helping you navigate a new city.
Here, eight more reasons why the local bookstore should be the first place you visit in a new city:
1. You’ll Learn About The Community’s Values
Many local bookstores also have charitable and social justice missions.
Take, for instance, Semicolon Bookstore & Gallery, a black woman-owned independent bookstore and gallery in Chicago with a commitment to nurturing the connection between literature, art and the pursuit of knowledge. With a goal of helping raise literacy rates, the store invites Chicago Public School students in every month to #CleartheShelves, when, free of charge, students can take home whatever books they’d like.
In Lawrence, KS, the Raven Book Store began a “Book Benefactor” program. Make a donation, and the store will send a surprise stack of books to those who could really use them. “It’s not going to solve the world’s problems, but it’ll surely brighten someone’s day,” the bookstore says. The store also curates reading lists that are in sync with movements, including antiracist and black power reading lists.
And, in Manchester, VT, Northshire Bookstore has made a name for itself as a community gathering place, says Retha Charette, who wrote about the store on her blog Roaming Nanny. The shop has a “leave a coat, take a coat” rack.
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2. The Buildings Have Interesting Back Stories
The Book Loft in Columbus, OH, is one of the country’s largest independent bookstores — in fact, you might want to pick up a map before winding through this literary labyrinth. It has 32 maze-like “rooms” within its walls, which, in the past, have housed general stores, a saloon and a Nickelodeon theatre and more. Take your time; the store in the German Village neighborhood has more than a half million books.
Down in Tupelo, MS, the birthplace of Elvis, it’s no surprise you’ll find a whole section dedicated to the “King of Rock n’ Roll” inside Reed’s Gum Tree Bookstore. The bookstore is a part of Reed’s, a dry goods outlet that opened in 1905 on Main Street. Elvis’ mother, Gladys, famously worked here and you can find her in a picture (pregnant with Elvis) in a mural in the department store.
3. You Can Connect to a Place Through Its Books
Before even stepping foot into a new city, you may have visited in your imagination while reading a novel.
Take Savannah for instance. One of the main reasons this genteel Georgia city is such a draw for visitors is because it was made famous by the book “Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil,” says Erin Clarkson, the author of Savannah First-Timer's Guide. Stop into E. Shaver, a local, independently owned bookstore where the cats have literary names (like Bartleby) and, Clarkson says, you may stumble upon a signed copy of the book.
“While you're in the area, you can also stop by the Mercer Williams House, which was featured heavily in the movie, and then grab a bite to eat at nearby Clary's Cafe, which was a favorite spot amongst the actors,” Clarkson says.
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4. The Customer Service Goes Above and Beyond
Book store owners are passionate about literature and are often eager to help you pick out your next favorite book or find one for you to gift.
But, at some stores, the service doesn’t stop there.
In Colorado Springs, at Poor Richard’s, the store’s co-owner Richard Skorman transforms into a “parking elf” every holiday season, paying off meters in front of his shop to save local shoppers from parking tickets. He and his dog Lucy patrol the meters, and, every season, pump about $800 to $1,000 into the meters.
5. They’ve Been Nimble During the Pandemic
Bookstores are hubs for creativity, and it’s probably no surprise that they came up with some smart pivots amid the coronavirus pandemic.
At Whalen’s Cassiopeia Books in Great Falls, the number of guests attending a local author talk was limited due to social distancing protocols. So, a local radio station broadcast the talk to broaden its reach.
Riffraff, a bookstore in Providence, RI, began putting together book care packages that are curated based on a questionnaire customers fill out that asks about their favorite books and genres. The store’s site also has a “Get a Recommendation” feature that allows you to share your preferences and get personalized recommendations in return.
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6. They Bring Communities Together
“Our goal is to bring the best and brightest literary talent to Kingston, to introduce our community to new voices and viewpoints, and to give visiting writers an opportunity to experience the city we love,” according to Rough Draft.
Visiting writers stay at a restored 1735 stone townhouse step’s away from the shop.
7. They Have Good Taste
Many bookstores double as cafes or breweries. You bet their menus are creative.
At Books & Brews in Hamilton County, IN, signature beers on tap include Charlie and the Chocolate Stout, a Cream and Punishment cream ale and Clifford, a big red Irish style ale. At Book Bar in Denver, the menu is arranged like a table of contents, starting with a prologue and ending with acknowledgments.
Read It & Eat, a culinary bookstore in Chicago’s Lincoln Park, pairs culinary experiences with books and events. Pre-COVID, the store regularly hosted events including author and chef signings, discussions, demonstrations, tastings and hands-on cooking and baking classes.
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8. Lastly, You’ll Feel at Home
Of course, the very best bookstores have a knack for making you feel at home. Dawn Head, of Go Green Travel Green, a sustainable travel blog, points to Turn the Page, a bookstore in Westfield, IN, that’s located inside a renovated house.
“With natural light streaming through, you’ll find reading nooks, comfy couches, coffee and tea, a children’s area and a welcoming staff,” Head says. “You’ll feel like you are in a treasured friend’s home.”