Shopping, Reading, and Random Thoughts

I was going to stay home and nurse my cold today, but the weather was so pretty (after a dreary, rainy day yesterday) that I found an excuse or two to go out.  When I stopped by Office Depot for a box of my favorite pens, I found myself unable to resist buying a pair of 8 gigabyte flash drives, on sale for $9.00 apiece.  I don’t need them.  I have flash drives all over the place, in my purse, on my desk, little ones in a box, more on my desk at work.  I remember when the first flash drives (I think most people referred to them as thumb drives then) came out–they held 128 megabytes of data and cost a hundred dollars or more.  I had friends who carried them around like talismans, their novels-in-progress safely hanging from lanyards around their necks.  Heck, not too many years ago I was working on a computer with a hard drive that only held 2 gigabytes.  Nine bucks–how could I pass them up?

Office Depot is located next door to Half Price Books, and how could I pass that up?  I went in looking for a copy of Mary Norton’s The Borrowers, a book I remember fondly from my childhood (mumble mumble) decades ago.  A new movie version is just coming out, reminding me of the book  (although the movie, an animated Japanese film redubbed in English, is called, for reasons I can’t explain, The Secret World of Arrietty, after the protagonist of the book).  There were no copies of Norton’s books in the store, but I did stumble across a biography of L. Frank Baum, Finding Oz by Evan I. Schwartz, a bargain at two bucks, and I picked up another of Phyllis A. Whitney’s novels, Woman Without a Past.

Full shopping disclosure:  last week I ordered Deader Homes and Gardens, the latest comic mystery from one of my favorite authors, Joan Hess, from Amazon.  Being no fan of shipping charges, I found something else to buy (The Help on DVD) to bring the total up to the free shipping level.  Just made it, at $25.20.  Never mind that I’m working on a couple of Amazon gift cards that will keep me in books and movies for a while.  I’m still too cheap to pay for shipping if I can avoid it.  Yes, I know, I bought something instead, but it was something I wanted.  And we all know perfectly well why Amazon offers free shipping–so we’ll buy more stuff.

Sigh.  More books for the To Be Read Shelf.  You may have noticed I’ve had the same three books on my “What I’m Reading” sidebar for the last ten days or more.  I haven’t forgotten to update it.  I’ve really been that slow.  Busy at work, on day 50 of the current writing challenge (mostly editing on Bathtub Jinn lately, and I still need to work on that tonight).  The last book I finished was Haywood Smith’s The Red Hat Club, a funny, charming, and touching novel well worth reading. 

 We need a t-shirt, or a bumper sticker: She who dies with the most books wins.

Where Have All The Bookstores Gone?

No, that’s hardly an original observation.  It’s pretty clear to everyone who loves books that the world has changed, but I found myself thinking about it the other day, and making a list of those that have vanished from my corner of the world.

When Jack and I moved to this area, near the Johnson Space Center, between Houston and Galveston, in 1976, from a retail perspective we were in the middle of nowhere.  We were used to that–we’d moved from New Iberia, Louisiana.  We didn’t much care that the nearest shoe store was fifteen miles away, but we did set out to find books.

Back then there were two sources of new books nearby: a newstand with a substantial paperback rack (and paperbacks were pretty much all we could afford) and an independent book store, Allen Maxwell Books, located across from the Space Center.  Not surprisingly, Maxwell specialized in nonfiction and science fiction, which was fine with me.   We soon hunted down every used bookstore between Houston and Galveston, and there were a lot of them, ranging from paperback exchanges to permanent flea market stalls to serious dealers in military history (Jack’s specialty).

By the early 1980s Baybrook Mall sprang up like a giant mushroom and suddenly we not only had shoe stores nearby, we had bookstores, Waldenbooks and B. Dalton’s.  And then, oh joy, Bookstop moved in across from the mall, with a huge assortment of books, good prices, and even a discount program.  A few miles up the Interstate, MediaPlay opened a store.  MediaPlay not only had books, it had computer software (and I had a computer), music on tape and movies on video cassettes (hey, this was twenty plus years ago).  Heaven.

I think our local Half-Price Books opened in the mid to late 1980s, followed by a big bookstore that might have been a Crown store, but I don’t remember (and there’s an HEB grocery store there now).  That store never seemed to thrive, and didn’t stay around long, and that might have been an early sign of things to come.  By then I was hearing about a new source of books called Amazon.com.

So the Crown store, if that’s what it was, closed, and so did the MediaPlay.  But that didn’t stop Barnes & Noble from opening a store in the neighborhood–good.  But B&N also bought the Bookstop chain, and soon closed ours–bad, although you couldn’t really blame them.  Bookstop was practically on their doorstep, and had a better discount program.

The independent bookshops and the paperback exchanges were already falling by the wayside by the time Borders built a big store directly across the street from Barnes & Noble.  That never made much sense to me, but I shopped there from time to time.

But not all that often.  I had been a member of at least two of the Doubleday mail order clubs for decades, buying mysteries and science fiction from them since our New Iberia days, and over the years I bought more and more books on line.   Specific used books were easier to find through sites like Alibris than by searching used bookstores, although Jack and I enjoyed recreational book browsing, something that really doesn’t work on line.

Last year the Borders closed.  I didn’t realize it until I started thinking about this, but both of the mall chains, B. Dalton’s and Waldenbooks, are gone.  Most of the independents and paperback shops in this area have disappeared, although some survive in Houston: Murder by the Book, Katy Budget Books, and Blue Willow Bookshop, for example, all of which do business on line as well as in store.

I still belong to three Doubleday Book Clubs, science fiction, mystery, and romance.  I order from Amazon often, and not just for my Kindle.  But sometimes I want to wander through a bookstore and search the shelves for books I never knew I wanted.  Out here in the southeastern corner of Harris County, we have a thriving Half Price Books, and Barnes & Noble.  And not much else.  Yes, Wal-Mart and Target and Kroger carry books, and I’m glad of it, but it’s not quite the same.

The RWA chapters I belong to give away little prizes now and then, for various accomplishments and contributions, traditionally B&N gift cards.  It’s been suggested recently that we should switch to Amazon cards.  I love Amazon cards.  But I’m going to hold out for B&N cards.  We’re writers, and we don’t want to see any more bookstores disappear.  Do your part.  Buy a book now and then.  At a bookstore.

Yes, I made another pass through Borders.

No, I haven’t read the books from the last two trips, but sixty per cent off is too much for any book junkie to resist.  The Borders in my neighborhood is clearing out, but there were still plenty of goodies to be had, and I came away with two hardbacks and five trade paperbacks, about $100 worth of books for which I paid $40.  How could I resist that much shopping fun?

I started in the World History alcove, with an eye out for a book I didn’t find, and picked up two there.  The first was another “blame it on NPR” book, Pirates of Barbary by Adrian Tinniswood.  That goes on the stack with other books Public Radio interviews have turned me on to:  the fall of the Comanches, the history of Prohibition, and that scholarly biography of James Tiptree Jr.  Further down the shelf I found An Edible History of Humanity by Tom Standage.  Several decades ago I majored in anthropology and archeology at Florida State University, and I’ve always been interested in the history of foods and their connections to culture.  (I do have a couple of books about edible humanity in my library, from a project involving an Aztec background.)

In the mystery section I spotted a novel by Georgette Heyer, They Found Him Dead.  This is not one of the Regency romances Heyer is most famous for (I have a couple of those, as yet unread, on my Kindle), but a mystery first published in 1937, one of a dozen or so she wrote.  Somehow when I was reading my way through British mysteries of that era, devouring the works of Agatha Christie, Ngaio Marsh, Dorothy Sayers and Margerie Allingham, I missed Heyer.  I haven’t read anything by Alexander McCall Smith, either, so I picked up The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency, the first in what has become a very popular series.

On the science fiction racks I found an anthology called Chicks Kick Butt.  The title pretty much says it all.  Some of the names I’m familiar with, some I haven’t read, and the stories should be a good introduction to some new authors.

Not far down the shelf I found a recent edition of a book I have read a number of times, Alas, Babylon, by Pat Frank.  Of all the Cold War era after-the-nuclear-holocaust novels, this was one of the best, and my personal favorite.  Written in 1959, when I was a kid being told it was possibly to survive an attack by hiding under my desk, and set in Florida, where I lived at the time, Alas, Babylon is a story of survival and hope.  The copy I found on my shelf when I got home wasn’t quite as far gone as the Wyndham novels I recently replaced, but it was printed in 1970 and cost 95 cents.  It would stand up to another reading or two, but the pages are yellow and the print is small.  I’m glad to have another copy, and I’ll read it again.

I may never read Günter Grass’ The Tin Drum again, but when I saw it on the bargain rack near the front of the store I picked it up.  Put it back.  Picked it up again.  The Tin Drum is a long, dense, complex German novel, written in 1959 and still hugely popular when I was in college in the late 60s.  My friends and I had quotes from the book on our dorm walls.  This edition is a new translation sponsored by Grass himself in time for the novel’s fiftieth anniversary.  It cost me $1.50, in hardback.

Bookshelves were going three for $100.  I was tempted, but I drive a Toyota.  Toyotas have big trunks, and I can fit a lawnmower in my Corolla, but I had to pass on the bookshelves.  I’ll just have to make more space on the ones I have.

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