BOOKSHELF: In praise of bookstores

"My Ideal Bookshelf," edited by Thessaly La Force,

"My Ideal Bookshelf," edited by Thessaly La Force, art by Jane Mount (Little, Brown; 2012) (Credit: Handout)

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Brick-and-mortar bookstores and the physical, printed books they sell may be (choose your verb -- challenged, endangered, threatened) by online vendors and e-books. But if they are going down, they are not going down unloved and uncelebrated.

A spate of new books celebrate bookstores and books themselves.

In "My Bookstore: Writers Celebrate Their Favorite Places to Browse, Read, and Shop" (Black Dog & Leventhal Publishers, $23.95), more than 80 writers, including some big names, celebrate their local bookstores.

"I'm old-fashioned. I believe that one should have a personal doctor, a dentist, a hairdresser, and of course, a trusted bookstore," Isabel Allende writes of her store, Book Passage in Corte Madera, Calif. John Grisham praises That Bookstore in Blytheville, Ark., one of the few stores to sell his first novel when he was an unknown writer. Henry Louis Gates Jr. confesses to losing count of the number of books he's purchased at his local shop, the Harvard Book Store in Cambridge, Mass.

Milwaukee novelist Liam Callanan tells a sweet tale of how Daniel Goldin, the owner of Boswell Book Co., opened the store early so Callanan's 3-year-old daughter, who didn't yet grasp the concept of store hours, could get a book.

"My Bookstore" also inadvertently reflects the fragility of the bookstore world: It includes a piece by writer Lesley Kagen about Mequon's Next Chapter Bookshop, which closed not long ago.

"Read This! Handpicked Favorites From America's Favorite Bookstores" (Coffee House Press, $12) grew out of a series of blog posts by Hans Weyandt, co-owner of Micawber Books in St. Paul, Minn. Weyandt asked independent booksellers from around the country for personal recommendations: "Name fifty books you love or love to pass on to other readers."

Boswell bookseller Stacie Michelle Williams is one of the contributors. Her wide-ranging list of 50 books includes Richard Adams' fantasy novel "Watership Down," Margaret Atwood's "Cat's Eye" and Alaa Al Aswany's "The Yacoubian Building."

Royalties from "Read This!" will go to the American Booksellers Foundation for Free Expression.

Jen Campbell's "Weird Things Customers Say in Bookstores" (Overlook Press, $15) also grew out of a blog. London writer and bookseller Campbell collected anecdotes from other booksellers of the hilarious and occasionally stupefying interactions they've had with customers. For example, consider the customer who walked into a store and said: "I'm looking for some books on my kid's summer reading list. Do you have Tequila Mockingbird?"

Lanora Haradon, owner of the lamentedly closed Next Chapter Bookshop, contributed this anecdote:

Bookseller: Can I help you find anything?

Customer: Yes. Where are your books with words?

"My Ideal Bookshelf" (Little, Brown, $24.99) from editor Thessaly La Force and artist Jane Mount is not about the shelves but the books on them. They asked each of the well-known writers, musicians and cultural gadabouts included to select a small handful of books they love that would go on a special display shelf.

This is also the most beautiful book in today's roundup, as Mount has painted an illustration of the selected books nestled together for each of the entries.

Judd Apatow's shelf looks and reads like the books this filmmaker might read, with works by comedian-writers Albert Brooks and Steve Martin; literary fiction by Saul Bellow, F. Scott Fitzgerald and Dan Chaon; Crystal Zevon's oral history of the late, great Warren; and Pema Chodron's book of Buddhist wisdom, "When Things Fall Apart."

Novelist Michael Chabon's bookshelf reflects his passion for merging literary and genre fiction, not to mention his love of humor. Proust sits next to Frank Herbert's "Dune"; David Mitchell's "Cloud Atlas" snuggles up with Sherlock Holmes.

"My Ideal Bookshelf" doesn't include Joe Queenan, perhaps because this cranky critic, columnist, essayist and writer (quaintly described in the press material as "humorist") would need a whole book full of painted bookshelves to represent the ones that matter to him. (In a recent Wall Street Journal piece, he copped to reading at least 6,128 books so far.) Queenan's "One for the Books" (Viking, $24.95) is his reader's memoir of a lifelong passion for reading, with more than a touch of jeremiad about the state of the today's book world.

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