Bookstore Resurrection



First, there was the faint, distant smell of a chocolate croissant warm from the oven on a busy corner in Chicago. A blue-sky day. Spring maybe just around the corner. And not a bakery in site. Just the smell.

The Borders Book Store. Empty shelves. Selling off fixtures. Wrinkled rows of greeting cards for holidays we never needed. Splattered stacks of books like stains on empty boxes once crammed with our culture, our memories, our dances with dreams.

He smells that chocolate croissant again. Picks up a book laying face down. Back jacket blurbs by Carl Reiner, Larry Gelbart and Kinky Friedman. Thinks, “Geez. Whoever wrote this had some high powered friends.”

Opens it up. Starts reading. Laughs out loud 3 times in the first 5 pages. People shoot him looks. Bad form to laugh at funerals. The epigram at the front of the book,

“Boy meets girl. So what?”
-Bertolt Brecht

He turns to the cover. “Millard Fillmore. Mon Amour.” The author: John Blumenthal.

He walks up to the skinny, pierced cashier. A sentry for the funeral party. And as he starts to hand the book over to be scanned, and gets his money out, there is this tiny flicker of motion that runs down his arm and into his hand and he does not want to let the book go. Silly. He hands it over. Gets it back. And as he clutches it tight, walking out of the store, there is something like a binding electrical current between his hand and this bound together sheaf of paper. A connection almost physical. Brought alive through the turning of the pages.

He is an admitted Kinddleholic. Imagines meetings in dank church basements. Faceless people sitting in a circle. “Hi, my name is Roger. I’m a Kindleholic.” The droning chorus from the group.

“Hi Roger.”

The 30 second thrill of a “book” appearing in his hands late at night. A transaction so quick you almost forget money is involved. He likes the Kindle a lot. Like he likes chocolate éclairs. And, as he walks away from the empty shell of what once was Borders, west past what once was Barnes and Noble, the touch of the real book. The feel of the paper. The completeness of that bond begins to take him away.

He again smells that chocolate croissant fresh baked in the wind and he’s no longer on West Diversey in Chicago. He’s in the 5th arrondissment in Paris’s Left Bank.

This time in Paris it’s different. Twice before he’d been to Paris. Both times alone. But this time, this time, he finally got to go back in love.

“This is it!” he tells her. “C’mon! This is Shakespeare and Company! Can you believe it! It’s like it’s always been here. Like it was waiting just so I could show it to you!” It’s a bookstore that never went away!

He reigns in the excitement, careful not to reign it in too much, and start blathering on like a bored history professor. “This isn’t the original one that Sylvia Beach started. The one where Hemingway, Joyce and Ezra Pound and well everyone,” he pauses to make sure he’s not babbling, “the one where they all hung out.

Sylvia Beach. She was from New Jersey you know. Imagine being the person who published Ulysses. Imagine writing Ulysses! Bringing it in here. Little guy from Ireland with really thick glasses. I wonder what he said when he first handed Sylvia Beach the manuscript?’

“This is really hard to read?” she laughs.

“Hah! Could be.”

“So why isn’t this the original store? What happened?”

“Little thing called World War II.”

“That would do it,” she says.

“But then they came back. After the war. Another guy. George Whitman. He opened another English language bookstore in 1951. And when Sylvia Beach died, this store got the name. “Shakespeare and Company.” And a whole new generation of writers. The Beats. Corso, Ginsburg. This is where they hung out. This building? It goes back to the 16th century. It was a monastery.

“That’s perfect,” she said. Then for uncounted hours, the two explored the bookstore that came back. Their journey through the store was like a chance to pick up history and hold it in your hands.

And as the lapping waters against ancient stone riverbanks of the Seine faded, the Paris sky turned to dusk. As wine and a smoky jazz bar up on Montmartre where the saxophone memory tunes of Coleman Hawkins calmed the coming night; Paris faded.

Back on a Chicago street, he passed an empty storefront.

Looked inside and envisioned a new Shakespeare and Company. Stocked the shelves. Swept the floors. Made it into something that would last. Even through World Wars.

An empty storefront in the Chicago spring.

“I wonder if I should talk to my commercial real estate friend,” he thought.
How can anything break the bond with the book? How can that just disappear? Shakespeare and Company came back. So you can come back.

I know retail. I know independent bookstores in general are hurting. I know starting up an independent bookstore now would be crazy on about 15 different levels.

Of course the printing press was pretty crazy in its time too”

But then he smelled that just warmed chocolate croissant again. And he thought of the song by the great Bonnie Koloc. That song where she started:

“I’m gonna look out my window.
Gonna let in the sun.”

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