Today’s post is by contributing writer Feliciano Vera:

I did not notice her when she boarded the bus. She was nondescriptly dressed, as was her friend.  Not quite hipster casual, nor professional. I still have no idea what she looked like. Cute, I imagine. In all likelihood she worked at either Pixar or Novartis or one of the myriad number of companies that call Emeryville, California home. Maybe it was my old-fashioned commuter etiquette – wherein one keeps to oneself – but she could easily have been one of a thousand other women that were taking the train or bus that afternoon. Chattering away with her friend, the only thing I remember about her was that she had a copy of Herman Hesse’s Siddhartha open, and divided her attention between the book and her friend. I imagined asking her about Schopenhauer’s influence on Hesse, but as our bus neared the BART station, the impulse quickly faded.

Hesse, and the anonymous woman on the bus for that matter, was less on my mind that day than another reader – one whose enigmatic tastes ran more towards Hunter S. Thompson and José Saramago. At the time, she was engrossed in Hemingway’s Nick Adams Stories. With a few hours to kill after heading to a brunch that day, I decided to wander through a number of bookstores with no particular purpose in mind other than to browse for an appropriate gift. We were slowly developing a friendship that was based on a patchwork quilt of shared musical tastes, dissections of cinematography, and random conversations about topics that ranged from art to her occasional misanthropic tendencies. I had no choice but to browse, and to dive deep into past conversations in order to figure out what she might enjoy.

It was a task that would be tough to accomplish in Central Phoenix these days. With no bookstores worthy of the appellation, I would never be able to dedicate the amount of time necessary to finding the right book without decamping to Changing Hands in South Tempe.  Hell, even the last of the corporate bricks-and-mortar bookstores, Barnes and Noble, doesn’t have any locations near Central Phoenix.

Apparently there aren’t enough readers in Central Phoenix.

Or are there? The most literate Phoenicians I come across outside of the academy have aggregated in and around its core, or at least have an affinity for the place-making project that downtown Phoenix has become. For them, intellectualism is neither anathema nor something to be disparaged; it does not consist of idle spectatorship, but rather engagement with the messy realities of the world as it is. Their literacy recognizes the limitations of their own knowledge and experience, consciously seeking to expand that knowledge and experience of the world through the act of reading. Their literacy is neither content to accept a statement at face value, nor unwilling to adapt as circumstances change.

I am not suggesting that the balance of our fair city (and state) is comprised of illiterate naïfs. I’ll leave that presumption to the rest of the country, especially given the damage done to our collective reputation by a few of our elected officials.

I am, however, going to go out on a limb and suggest that being literate is a hell of a lot sexier than having a great spray on tan. Our bodies will age, despite what your favorite Scottsdale plastic surgeon/witch doctor may tell you. But feeding those synapses with a good book on a regular basis will keep your brain supple long after your bits sag.

I eventually accomplished my goal of finding the right book, only to eventually find that my reader friend already had her own copy of Bolaño’s 2666. But as I was browsing that morning I knew that the gravitational pull of her character was less about her physical characteristics (she remains devastatingly beautiful) and more about her curiosity, intelligence, and entrepreneurial drive. Of equal importance, I realized how deep a void one could be left with absent literacy.

All of which is to say that I have been in a rather despondent mood lately, as I impatiently wait for the Venue Projects guys to start working on the Beefeaters building. I may even start a collection for Changing Hands Bookstore so they can finish their tenant improvements without compromising the breadth of their book selection.  Anything so we can get a bookstore back to Central Phoenix.

Hurry up!

After all, I still have some browsing to do.

Photo Credit: Photo courtesy of the author.

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6 Responses

  1. Donna says:

    Frankly, I find the best place to browse for books is at the Burton Barr Library. There I can look for a particular book, glance at what is situated on either side & above & below. Perhaps there is something more interesting in those spots. I can take it off the shelf. Read the back cover about the author & the facing page about the book itself. Look at the bibliography if it is nonfiction.

    I can sit and enjoy it in one of the comfortable chairs. Of course, I do have the option to check it out, read it, & then return it all the while I can rave about the book or let it slowly fade in the sunset if it’s not what I imagined. Saves me a lot of money. And then there are the book exchanges I have with friends & family plus needing to save up for the VNSA book sale in February.

    So while I agree with you that it is sad we don’t have a good bookstore downtown (and I prefer used to new), we do have an excellent library. I simply can not afford to buy all the books that I want, but I’m never without a book wherever I go. And this way I am supporting a portion of where my tax dollars do some good.

  2. Dan says:

    How about Bard’s Books, I’ve not been yet but have heard only good things. I usually find myself making the trek to Changinghands to take in an author event and pick up a few titles.

  3. Sarah says:

    As mentioned above, I just camp out in the early morning outside the VNSA book sale with a cart and a hundred bucks and I’ve got the vast majority of my reading for the next year. If there’s a book I must absolutely have, there’s the library, or Bookman’s, or Amazon, or if I didn’t have this paper and ink addiction, the Kindle.

  4. Kerry says:

    Donna, that’s exactly what I was going to say.

    Frankly, I find this pompous decrying of a lack of bookstores in Central Phoenix to miss the point. If you’re a big reader and intellectual, there’s not enough bookstores anywhere for you. And Phoenix Public Library in an underrated public resource for the community. Frankly, the library is the real community center; it’s free. Librarians like to describe the public as the one socialist institution in America, the one place where a collaborative sharing of resources takes place, open to all. And Phoenix Public Library has great resources–not just books, but databases and digital media, ILL for the items they don’t have, friendly and responsive staff, and targeted programs for different age groups.

    AND, what about Bard’s Books at 7th & Osborn? Or Lawn Gnome on 5th?

    Finally, I don’t know what public transportation you’re riding, but I see people reading on the bus and light rail all the time. Maybe their reading choices don’t impress you, but as a person who has worked in a public library, I tell you you cannot judge people by what they choose to read. Intelligent, lively people are not confined to the borders of downtown/central Phoenix. Maybe you should venture out more.

  5. Feliciano Vera says:

    I am glad that we have passionate readers willing to stand up for their favorite libraries and bookstores!

    To clarify, I have an equally ardent love affair with my library system, and habitually haunt any bookstore. If there is reading material available, even if it’s something as droll as a technical manual or cheesy as the Song of Fire and Ice, I will read it.

    I could tell you the story about the time that I nearly got hit by a car while chasing down the No. 17 bus from Central and McDowell, because I lost track of time while in the Arizona Room at the old Central Library, or that my name is probably on a watch list somewhere because of special orders placed at the Waldenbooks and B Dalton Booksellers at Park Central, as well as the original Changing Hands. But those are for another time.

    Let’s just say that I have a minor ambition to have Phoenix crack Amazon’s list of the Twenty Most Literate Cities in the country. And in order to do that, we need more than the handful of booksellers that we have, as well as better investment in our public library system.

    If Miami(!) can make that list, why can’t we?

  6. jose602 says:

    Props to Donna and Kerry for mentioning Bard’s Books and Lawn Gnome. While I’m excited about Changing Hands opening up in the Beefeaters building, I’m grateful for what Bard’s and Lawn Gnome have added to their respective neighborhoods and Central Phoenix.

    Is there anything better than being able to purchase a used copy of a great book and then sliding over to a nearby coffeehouse (whether Urban Beans in the same plaza as Bard’s or Jobot across the street from Lawn Gnome) to enjoy it?

    It would be great to have more than a small handful of bookstores in Central Phoenix, but that can’t happen if we don’t support the bookstores that we currently have.

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