Closing the book on a bookstore

Sometimes, when I think of a bookstore, I envision more than the books. I think this is true for many people. After all, we have a totemic relationship with pulp and ink that transcends our relationship with (for example) clothing or cutlery or shampoo — items we are likely to purchase at other kinds of stores. We know where we were when we first read “To Kill a Mockingbird” or “Johnny Tremain,” and the image on the cover or the words on the side can instantly catapult us back in time. We don’t merely remember the plot or the dialogue: We remember who we were, where we were, and, perhaps, the state of our families and friends when we first cracked the book’s spine.
It’s similar to our relationship with music, and the highly personal, deeply idiosyncratic images that specific songs conjure for most of us. In other words, a good bookstore — like a good library — is far more than a mere roomful of books.
Deerleap Books, a good bookstore in Bristol, will close at the end of this week on Saturday. In Deerleap’s bay window, the front of the store where books once were displayed face-out on vertical stands, is a tremendous sign with bold red letters: STORE CLOSING SALE!
It’s not merely the books I will miss when the doors shut for the last time. It’s the memories. When I think of Deerleap, instantly in my mind it is 1997 and one of the storeowners’ three daughters — at the time an elementary school student, now a young woman in her first year at college — is giving my even younger daughter piggyback rides around the shop. Not just the children’s section: The entire store. I recall a reading I once gave there in 1995 for six incredibly kind folks (John and Rita Elder, Peter and Ann Straub, Alice Leeds, and Rick Ceballos), as well as a reading I gave there in 1997 for well over a hundred people.
Mostly, however, when I think of the store, I think of the children’s section and the way it marked my daughter’s inexorable transformation from toddler to child to adolescent.
Deerleap first opened in 1990, a labor of love managed by Cheryl Eling. Tom and Carol Wells bought it in 1996. My daughter was born in 1993. In a family history, the dates are all-important.
The other day I stood wistfully in the Deerleap children’s section in the same way I once stood in my daughter’s kindergarten classroom on the last morning she was a kindergartner, or the way I toured the whole elementary school on her final afternoon as a sixth-grader. I studied the store’s painted walls with their vibrant jungle motif and spied Curious George. I knelt before the tiny table with its two tiny chairs. All I had to do to evoke instantly my daughter at any age was see the names on the spines of the books. Lois Lowry, the author behind Anastasia Krupnik; Barbara Park, the creator of Junie B. Jones; or Kevin Henke, who gave us Lilly and Owen and Wendell. Each book represented a different phase in my daughter’s life, and a different series of reminiscences.
If I had a son, of course, the litany might be different, but no less meaningful. Such is the power of pulp, even now in the digital age.
While my first reaction to the store closing was an ornery combination of sadness and frustration — How, I thought to myself, could Bristol have supported two video stores for most of the decade and a half that Deerleap was around, but not a single bookstore? — I have come now simply to appreciate the remarkable blessing that we had a bookstore at all for most of my daughter’s childhood. That was a great gift that Tom and Carol gave us.
And so when Deerleap is gone a week from now, I will walk past the storefront and remind myself — and anyone else I should happen to meet — of a quote from Theodor Geisel, a.k.a., Dr. Seuss: “Don’t cry because it’s over. Smile because it happened.”
(This column originally appeared in the Burlington Free Press on December 24, 2006.)

Chris Bohjalian

Chris Bohjalian is the author of nineteen books, including his forthcoming novel, The Sleepwalker. His other novels include the New York Times bestsellers Midwives, The Sandcastle Girls, The Guest Room, and The Double Bind.

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