Stacey Lewis, the marketing director for the decades-old, beatnik-infused City Lights bookstore in San Francisco, once received an unforgettable letter from a customer. The patron wanted to inform the staff that following her father’s death, she had surreptitiously placed his ashes in various nooks and crannies throughout the poetry room. “She said it was her father’s favorite place in the world and she was comforted by knowing he was there,” Lewis added.
Lewis’s recollection is one of 75 stories that appear in Bob Eckstein’s illustrated volume, Footnotes from the World’s Greatest Bookstores: True Tales and Lost Moments from Book Buyers, Booksellers, and Book Lovers ($22, Penguin Random House). To compile the book, Eckstein, a cartoonist for The New Yorker, solicited stories of beloved bookstores from friends and acquaintances across the globe. His colorful, impressionistic paintings are overlaid with quirky anecdotes from shop owners or regulars.
In a sense, Eckstein’s book serves as an especially niche travel guide. Many of the stores in the book can be found in New York; Eckstein’s project initially began with a 2014 assignment from The New Yorker to illustrate the city’s endangered bookstores. But the book ranges far. In Detroit, Eckstein painted John K. King Used & Rare Books, where one can find a first edition of the Book of Mormon for $100,000. In Tokyo, Eckstein depicted the “book town” of Kanda-Jimbocho, where around 150 tiny shops struggle to draw young manga fans to secondhand novels. And Moe’s Books, the Berkeley, California store where I spent my childhood weekends, appears with an anecdote from the novelist Jonathen Lethem, who worked as a clerk there in the 1990s.
Eckstein tried to visit as many of the shops as possible, but capturing bookstores in places as far-flung as Scotland and India was a logistical impossibility. For those he couldn’t reach, Eckstein worked from images and Google Earth wanderings. Often, Eckstein would paint a store three or four times before he was satisfied with how he captured its essence.
Footnotes from the World’s Greatest Bookstores explores quirky particularities. Eckstein relays the how the staff of the Vancouver Island-based Munro’s Books once struggled to capture a crow that took up residence in its 24-foot high ceilings—a development that was followed closely by the local news outlets. From Brooklyn, Eckstein brought the story of a bittersweet Craigslist missed connection that originated in the fiction aisle of the WORD Bookstore, whose owners then tried, to no avail, to reunite the admirers over Twitter.
Eckstein did not shy away from the more aloof stores: Myopic Books in Chicago rebuffed Eckstein’s repeated request for stories, yet appears in the book anyway, with an addendum from Eckstein, who said that the shop’s silence “only made me think of them as even more special, like that girl in high school who wouldn’t speak to you.”
Eckstein’s book is punctuated with sadness for stores that have shuttered their doors. Jay Moore, the owner of Moby Dickens Bookshop, which closed in Taos, New Mexico in 2015, described how online retail overwhelmed the small store’s business in an economically fragile town. Before Moby Dickens closed, Moore told Eckstein: “People are happy when they come in, but want you to have the resources and pricing of online or they won’t buy.”
But to Eckstein, you can’t buy the experience of walking into a bookstore. “It’s not just like buying groceries,” he says. “Bookstores are communities: they’re where you to find intelligent, like-minded people—that’s the key to their survival. They provide something that Amazon can’t.”
Footnotes from the World’s Greatest Bookstores, $22 at Amazon.