#TheCrawl

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I moved to San Diego in 2012 under duress. I didn’t want to move to San Diego, I wanted to stay in the Bay Area, but I had taken a career risk in the Bay Area and it didn’t pan out and I ran out of money. My brother and sister-in-law lived north of San Diego and I moved in with them. I’m always and forever grateful that they took me in, but I resented San Diego.

“But why hate San Diego?” I got if I even hinted that I didn’t care for it. “The weather here is wonderful!” And that’s where they usually stopped, which annoyed me beyond everything else. “Look! Endless sun! Why leave?” Every night on the news the anchors would make it worse by exclaiming that sun thing without any provocation whatsoever. San Diego: AIN’T WE GOT SUN.

I resented San Diego for reasons both valid and irrational. I hated that relentless sun. I hated the fact that there was so little shade, or even places to walk (our first apartment was stuck at the end of a road where the sidewalk came and went, and the closest business was nearly a mile away). I resented the lack of mass transit and resented the traffic and resented the heat (even though “gee, but it’s a DRY heat!” except in May and June when it wasn’t dry but this clammy form of dry), I resented the Santa Ana winds, I resented the massive amount of breweries, I resented the lack of bookstores, I resented the lack of cafes…

Seven years later I’ve found ways to make that lack a definition of luxury. I still hate the sun, but now I can use that as a reason to avoid melanoma and write in a coffee shop, which San Diego has a lot more of now. I have found places to have craft cocktails instead of IPA ALL DAY. And I have found my bookstores.

For the last three years, every year on Independent Bookstore Day (the last Saturday in April), San Diego bookstores have done a literary “crawl,” like you would find as a pub crawl in a neighborhood in other big cities. The first year there were three bookstores; the last two years there have been nine bookstores all over San Diego. I see it as San Diego as a booming book town…in hiding. I don’t meet many readers, particularly in bars. I wish I did. I wish I could grab a beer and a bite and read a book, instead of having to watch whatever sport is on the fifty televisions on the walls. Even San Diego’s coffee shops get a little nervous if you read at a table for longer than your coffee is warm. But I’m grateful for these book shops and their book clubs and their events; I’m less lonely and less resentful and more grateful for a few minutes.

The Crawl, this year, included the following bookstores:

  • Mysterious Galaxy – This bookstore is built into a strip mall in the Clairemont Mesa in the middle of San Diego. From my apartment it takes a train and a bus to get there (unless I feel like spending a fortune and getting a rideshare), so I only visit it for the crawl. I do follow them on social media, and they have author events and book clubs all of the time, as well as releases of new books every Tuesday with the rest of their new books. They also have lots of other items that aren’t books: pins, bags, t-shirts, etc. This year I picked up an enamel pin with a worker motif that says “Fight Evil, Read Books” around the circumference of the pin.
  • UCSD Bookstore – I miss university bookstores since graduating from college in 2000. While I’m not drawn to the Triton material, I love the stacks and stacks and stacks of books, and the possibility that students are reading these books for class credit. This year The Crawl had an Illustrator Ambassador, Susie Ghahremani, and she was working on her next book, painting in person, at the UCSD Bookstore when I was there. I picked up another one of her buttons (I have quite a collection of her enamel pins, all of them animals, some of the animals holding books or art tools or musical instruments) and a book wrapped in brown paper with a description of the book on the outside, the experience of a “blind date with a book,” which I love.
  • Warwick’s – Warwick’s is the oldest independent bookstore on the west coast. When you think about the implications of that, the store takes on more weight, even though half of the retail space there is not books or book items at all, but random gift items. I picked up the latest novel by Jess Kidd in paperback (Mr. Flood’s Last Resort). The ride from UCSD Bookstore to Warwick’s is the most beautiful bus ride on The Crawl; it’s a cliff-side view of La Jolla.
  • Run For Cover Bookstore – This bookstore is the newest store in the collection, opening in the fall of 2018. The store is a cozy little space in the Ocean Beach area, and they had old-time jazz and blues with live musicians out on the sidewalk when I stopped by. I picked up a book that was pure silliness there, The Field Guide to Dumb Birds of North America by Matt Kracht, a goofy version of bird guides.
  • La Playa Books – This bookstore was the quietest and calmest of the group. It wasn’t that they were empty, but the neighborhood in Point Loma was lazy and calm, and that seemed to play out in the cozy bookstore as well. There I picked up a copy of Francisco Cantu’s memoir of working for the Border Patrol, The Line Becomes a River.
  • The Library Shop – I probably go to this store the most of the group outside of the crawl because it is the closest shop to my apartment. The Library Shop probably has the lowest count of books in ratio to gift items, but I understand: they are next door to thousands of free books on loan. I met up with Susie again there, and she was signing her book that will come out in October, Little Muir’s Song. She signed my copy and we got to chat again about what her enamel pins have meant in my life.
  • The Book Catapult – This little shop in South Park is my second-most go-to bookstore since they have a book club that I could easily attend while I was still working. (They also have a lovely Indian fusion restaurant across the street from them, so book club is more and more of an event for me.) I picked up a copy of Bookshops: A Reader’s History by Jorge Carrion and a sticker of the bookstore’s logo to put on my laptop.
  • Verbatim Books – Verbatim is a used bookstore with a wonderful sense of funkiness, located in North Park. They have books, zines, stickers, toys, buttons; I picked up a used copy of Barry Lopez’s Crossing Open Ground and a pack of funky stickers for my daybook.
  • Bluestocking Books – This is the bookstore that I have been visiting the longest in my tenure in San Diego County, a bookstore of used books, vinyl, bookmarks, magazines, etc in the Hillcrest neighborhood. For my last stop I picked up a copy of Amor Towles’s novel A Gentleman in Moscow in paperback, as well as a couple of stickers for my journal.

With the possibility of me moving to the Bay Area in a little while, there are other things I have grown to love here in San Diego: friends, food, The Old Globe, the public library. But The Crawl gave me the chance to see slices of this town as “literary” and artistic. I did the entire crawl in one day, on San Diego’s mass transit (which I don’t recommend, but maybe someday the weekend service will improve so that I can), and every time I got on a train or a bus I was brought suddenly back to the reality of San Diego, a car culture that held very little store in books out in the world, but maybe those stark, opposing views of the city set me up for San Diego’s possibilities as well. Maybe, I thought, I could think of the bookstores in San Diego as more of the little oases of salons of old, as speakeasies of words and stories.

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#WhosWho

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Last week I finished a memoir by Reyna Grande entitled A Dream Called Home. Grande is a naturalized U.S. citizen who journeyed as a child from Mexico to join her parents in Los Angeles, only to discover that her parents and her siblings weren’t too keen to have her there. A Dream Called Home picks up where the memoir of her childhood (The Distance Between Us) leaves off, when Grande finishes community college courses and leaves Los Angeles for her next university adventure at the University of California in Santa Cruz. Grande, who feels far from polished and lonely with no family support, journeys to find her “writing family” in both her remaining years in college and after she graduates and returns to Los Angeles to start her career as a writer.

I picked up Grande’s memoir in the bookstore recently because I could relate to her isolation; I’m not an immigrant in the traditional sense of the word, but I’ve always felt like an outsider (and a burden) in my own family. In the memoir Grande writes of how she finds her family in a world of writers; for years I have been trying to find a family of readers in the city of San Diego, and with the help of my therapist and my community of beloved book stores I finally grounded myself in that “reader family” last year. Now to find the writer family, which, when I thanked Reyna for her inspiring memoir on Twitter, she reminded me was still somewhere out there:

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*****

When I was a kid one my favorite books was a little-known novel of Beverly Cleary’s called Dear Mr. Henshaw. The book follows the story of the son of divorced parents who writes to his favorite author in hopes of connecting with him in Henshaw’s writing and taking that writing to save himself from his situation as a latchkey kid. I thrilled at the idea that writers could save their readers through the back and forth of letters; later, when I was in college, I wore out my VHS tape of the movie Shadowlands, where the fictionalized account of the romance between Joy Gresham and C.S. Lewis depicts more literary redemption.

That romanticized redemption served only as a foothold, though. I found out soon enough through my professors in college that many who love to read aspire to write, and many who aspire and actually succeed at writing for publication love to read. Beginning in college, when writers would have author events on campus, or after college when I would go to author events at bookstores and theaters, I found my question that I loved to ask every author and/or author panel:

What do you love to read?

I’m surprised how often authors are surprised by this question, but even though it surprises them it often delights them, too. They spill the beans, both in titles and authors and in relaxing a little…suddenly the room isn’t full of disciples beaming at a messiah but it is instead a room full of a family of readers. Authors have transformed for me as a group with that question as well; even though I am still star-struck about meeting someone who has written a book (even better, written it WELL), I feel like their readership of other authors makes them human, and as human as I am.

Twitter, for all of its dumpster fires, is still the best place for me to interact with authors, outside of the author events. Since I also write book reviews (and my book reviews are written to point out book strengths and not beat up on the traditional nit-picking aspects) I often reference the author and/or book in my review posts, and sometimes that creates dialogue. Other readers and reviewers that I follow on Twitter may recommend a book in a post, and I’ll read their recommendation and follow the author. Am I still asking the question on Twitter? Not so much…most of the authors have done interviews for the promotion of their books and I can get that information from those interviews (particularly The New York Times “By the Book” series or most Guardian interviews). But also in following their feeds I see which writers render them star-struck, and I read those writers, too, and suddenly I’m recognizing more and more writers on the book store or library shelves, and my reading family gets bigger.

Hopefully, someday, they will be my writing family, too.

#BookBusiness

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All my life I have moved toward living in a community with bookstores. If I were to get picky, the bookstores would be independent, not this chain garbage, although I can’t tell you how many times Barnes & Noble and, back in the day, Borders, saved my life because I didn’t have the luxury of being picky.

When I was kid in Northwest Ohio it was the chain Waldenbooks at the Defiance Mall. We had an independent in neighboring Bryan, Ohio, but I don’t recall it having more selection than my mother did (my mother had amassed enough books over years to almost hold up the walls).

When I was in college it was Barnes & Noble and Borders in Springfield, Missouri, if it wasn’t the university bookstore or a library book sale.

My introduction to the You’ve-Got-Mail, truly independent with a heritage kind of bookstore, was in the Bay Area. Independent bookstores were part of my decision to leave Southwest Missouri; when I left most of the independents were Bible bookstores. When I visited the bookstores in the Bay Area I got to know each one like a personality: Alexander’s on Second Street in San Francisco would have African American literature, Stacey’s would have lots of writerly and readerly accessories in addition to books and journals, Green Apple would stash the books in the stair bannisters, City Lights would be all about the beats, the renegades. I loved them all, and still love them all. I remember a quest to bring in a copy of Desert Solitaire by Edward Abbey to Green Apple, I remember getting a copy of Tales of the City at Alexander’s.  I remember the day Stacey’s closed, and I still have a tote bag from there.

San Diego, happily, also has a wonderful collection of bookstores. People who are from cities like New York and San Francisco can roll their eyes at the limited number of San Diego independents, but I am eternally grateful to them in any number. San Diego doesn’t like to set itself off as a readerly city (San Diego is mostly known as a brewery town), but when there are literary events the readers come out in a packed collective (would the noun here be “a chapter/book of readers”?). There are author events here, too; local authors come out en masse in August to meet readers at the two-day reader event sponsored by the Union-Tribune, visiting bookstore booths as well. In April the bookstores hold a Litcrawl, the bookstore equivalent of a pub-crawl all over the city (and San Diego is a sprawling city) for three days of book binging. And then there are the events that happen throughout the year by bookstore concoction and by author publication events: Warwicks has probably the largest number of author events, but authors also frequent South Park’s Book Catapult and North Park’s Verbatim (Verbatim is a big proponent of poetry and zine writers). The University of California San Diego bookstore has a cafe in the first floor, and The Library Shop has new books to buy if you don’t want to check them out on a deadline. Bluestocking Books in Hillcrest donates books to kids’ organizations and holds themed specials every month (with February they are discounting a small collection of titles on co-dependency), and LaPlaya Books in Point Loma (as well as the aforementioned Book Catapult) have book clubs that meet once a month.  Most of the stores send out emails of what’s new; Book Catapult also holds a once-a-month coffee session with the new suggestions on discount that day.

What’s the difference in a San Diego indie and a San Francisco indie? This could just be my personal experience; I’m so gun-shy of scaring people with my passion for reading that I try not to be a gushing groupie to the person behind the counter. My experience in San Francisco matched that fear; most of the booksellers I’ve met in San Francisco prefer to be left alone unless you’re desperate, with the exception of Green Apple, who I always enjoyed a conversational relationship with in the shop and on social media. But San Diego booksellers…my experience is that they will draw you out.  There’s not a time where I have walked into them without someone asking me if I needed help finding something; my standard response is that whatever I’m looking for usually finds me, and then the bookseller nods and laughs and realizes that I’m an avid reader without being scared by my passion. Some of them even ask about my reading habits and we are both at ease (Book Catapult knows I review books as a side gig, so we do a lot of talking shop in a safe space).  I’m not sure if in San Francisco the majority of booksellers know that they are in a literary town and therefore don’t encourage the groupie mindset (I’m reminded of the scene in A Tree Grows in Brooklyn when Francie finally gets up the courage to ask for a book recommendation for the girl she used to be and confronts the librarian for not even looking up), but San Diego booksellers seem to relish any patron with a love of books who wants to talk.

San Diego, as a readership, seems to be grateful for the indie bookstore.