My first writing assignment in college for English 101 asked us to visit a local library branch or a bookstore. You can tell a lot about a city by their library or bookstore, our professor claimed. Ever since then, the library is one of my first stops when I move to a new city, and I frequent bookstores often for discovering—mostly discovering the stories with no words and no binding.
So I’m at Borders right now, thinking about how difficult it is to learn a lot about a city in a pre-packaged bookstore where the shelves and carpet and coloring in San Diego have twins in Charleston. It’s best to discover a city at Ma and Pa bookstores. I walked into Bookman/Bookwoman, a used bookstore in Hillsboro Village, shortly after moving here. You smell Nashville when you go inside. It’s on all of the pages of books that used to live on the shelf or in an attic of a Nashville home, soaking in the scents of their owners’ food, animals, perfumes. The store’s owners share Nashville’s secrets with flyers and announcements for local book groups, bands and neighborhood events. They greet you and welcome you like a neighbor, not a customer.
It’s not impossible, however, to discover a city at Borders. Here, you have to be even more silent and listen closely to the tales the book browsers share. I watch the woman who picks up Food Politics as soon as she walks into the store. She walks strolls around the entire store—even the music section—checking out all of her options while clutching Food Politics beneath her arm. She finally settles down on one of the benches and reads her first and only choice.
Or there’s the woman with 7 Colorado travel books sitting in front of the tall glass windows overlooking Centennial Park. With a pen tucked behind her ear in case she wants to take notes, she carefully turns the pages of each book with her wrinkled fingers, pausing at the maps and photographs and lists that tell of Colorado’s unexpected or hidden treasures. She tells me that she’s going to buy one of the books, but she wants to be sure to get the right book. She’ll narrow it down to “the ones that are worth drinking a cup of coffee on,” she says.
Then there’s Grandma who carries several pop-up books and holds the hand of Grandson, who squeezes a fuzzy Elmo doll (50% off its original price). The future Colorado traveler graciously offers her prime seating to Grandmother and Grandson so that they can have a cozy place to read. Grandmother opts for the table behind us and says to the toddler, “Come on, let Grandma read to you.” She goes through the books, altering her voice to show the excitement of each character. All the while, Grandson stands in the chair, whining, “I wanna play with my car. Let me play with my car.” He pauses every few minutes when a picture catches his attention just enough to give him 20-second amnesia about his toy car.
There’s the teenage overachiever browsing the local schools required reading section. Summer break began for Nashville students last week.
A crowd grows around the new books and magazine sections, where browsers stand and read excerpts from each book or periodical that tickles their fancy.
A woman with a giraffe-patterned oversized bag sits on the floor of the arts book section looking through books featuring symbols, signs and borders. I wonder what beautiful pattern she dreams of creating.
A man in black wears his shades indoors by the Seattle’s Best coffee area. He lounges in the comfy chair, no coffee in hand. His guitar, in its black cloth case, leans against the chair next to him. Waiting. It’s Music City, after all.