Saturday, October 12, 2013

Why bookstores beat honey walnut cream cheese

This week, my mom -- perhaps sensing the desperateness simmering in my voice -- came over and watched the girls for a few hours so I could wade through growing mountain of assignments that are due in the next couple weeks. 

So usually I do all of my writing when the girls are sleeping -- naptimes or at night. It's generally pointless to try to do anything that requires high levels of brain activity at home while the girls are awake -- even if someone is watching them. 

Like the sun, mothers of young children have their own solar-system creating gravitational pull (although in a strange anomaly of astrophysics, we're not the center of the universe in our children's eyes, that job is already taken by themselves). Maybe it'd be more accurate to say that mother's are like giant, mangy magnets or vacuum cleaners or black holes. We push out the children, but they never go to far out of orbit lest they require a third reading of "The Berenstain Bears Trouble at School" or some "cheeeeeeeeese" or a hug after they learn that they won't be spending the remaining three hours of the day watching "cah-toons." 

When I sit at the kitchen table to do work, inevitably I acquire an assistant who contributes by pounding the keyboard while I write or else I have to listen to the tortured cries of "mama mama mama" from the living room as poor Brad attempts to occupy whatever child is despondent at that moment. 

Long story short, I have to leave the house.

I used head to Panera for off-site work -- they have an ample supply of outlets for laptop charging not to mention honey-walnut cream cheese (oh yeah and bagels, too. But let's be honest, the bagels are just a giant bready spoon for the real star of the show: the honey walnut cream cheese. If it were socially acceptable, I'd probably just ditch the bagel completely and order a bucket of honey walnut cream cheese and a spoon. Of course, then I'd worry about being on the precipice of Goldie Hawn's frosting gorging in "Death Becomes Her" -- I already have a small collection of cats started ...) Where was I? 

Ah yes, Panera. As much as I love Panera and its cream cheese, I have to say I always feel a bit pretentious working there. Not Lady-at-Starbucks-on-Her-Laptop pretentious, mind you. But significantly more pretentious than say, Guy-at-McDonald's-on-His-Laptop (even the super-fancy McDonald's they have nowadays that try to resemble swank coffee shops). Plus, when the lunchtime rush comes in I feel both pretentious and assholish for hogging a table while everyone else searches for a spot to set down their Creamy Tomato Soup, half a sandwich and fountain drink.

Mmm. Smell the possibilities!
So recently I've been going to Books-A-Million. While the chairs are kind of uncomfortable, and there's only one outlet in the entire cafe area that is rarely available, I have to say I kind of like it there. I think it has something to do with the smell. When you walk into a book store you get punched in the face with the smell of ink and paper. And if you're a wannabe novelist you suck in the smell and hope that you can absorb the surrounding literary brilliance and possibilities while also using the gleaming piles of books as motivation. 

You start to picture where your book would be displayed. It doesn't have to be a best-seller ... but, you know, something facing out on a shelf (a sign that multiple copies were ordered with the expectation that multiple copies would be sold). Maybe on table somewhere in the middle next to Wally Lamb or or David Eggers or Barbara Kingsolver. Hell, it'd probably be fine in the bargain section. Just so long as it's there. 

I've always loved bookstores. My first job was at a bookstore. The Crown Books in Greenbriar Town Center (once Borders and Barnes & Noble arrived with their coffee shops and giant selections, Crown didn't last too much longer). I spent Sundays there shelving, searching, organizing and reading (secretly because technically I was supposed to be doing more of the first three things and none of the last thing). 

I loved it. 

Loved picking up the picture books that were forever strewn around the children's section. Loved seeing all the potential vacation destination in the world in the Travel section. And I especially loved picking out the next novel I was going to read in the fiction section.

Bookstore patrons were an entertaining bunch as well. The regulars who came in looking for their sci-fi or romance or Western fixes. The mothers with their kids trudging behind in search of summer reading. The shady-looking guy who always skulked around the magazines. They were a nerdish, sometimes ill-kempt, but always passionate bunch whose true homes were anywhere those pages took them. My tribe.

When Crown went out of business, I got a job with Waldenbooks at Dulles airport. While the duties were the same, the atmosphere was totally different. Here the customers dashed in, grabbed the nearest New York Times bestseller, Tom Clancy/John Grisham/Dan Brown/Dean Koontz thriller of the week, latest issue of the Economist or sassy romance, and dashed out -- their rolling suitcases clicking the tiles behind them. 

The stores were tiny. The selection was limited. And it least one of the terminals, the floors and shelves were constantly blackened from the Diesel-fuel smoke wafting in from the mobile lounges. 

There was no getting lost in shelves. Or spending hours straightening a perpetually disastrous DIY section. Instead, I spent a lot of time feeling envious of people headed to destinations around the world while I was stuck behind a cash register. 

On the other hand, airports are like an endless casting call of unique characters and fodder for stories. It was heaven for an obsessive people watcher like me. So in the late morning and early afternoon when traffic had slowed, I'd write about them on pieces of scrap paper and the backs of receipts. There was no greater purpose for these bits and pieces of airport day-to-day. 

I just had to write. 

I don't think back then that I thought about having a career as a writer. I certainly didn't consider myself a writer. That term was saved for a worldly upper echelon of others whose table I never thought I'd sit at. Maybe never considered sitting at. 

But now here I am. 

And if nothing ever becomes of this hobby -- if I never finish that novel (or the ones after it); if no one more than my family, friends and random acquaintances sees anything I've written -- I still feel blessed. 

It is an amazing, indescribable feeling -- that invisible force driving you to the creative unknown. It's a gift.

And I have to believe it's buried in each of us -- ready to take you on a journey if only you'd listen to it. 

So thank you mom for all those trips to the library as a kid and for coming over this week so that I could go to the bookstore and be reminded about why I love bookstores and why I love writing and why I'm so lucky.

Photo courtesy of arwensouth/Flickr

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