How seeking out used bookstores helped me find my way through unfamiliar cities.
In Unnameable Books in Brooklyn, the shelves are tall and crammed with paperbacks. Between them, there’s barely room to move; people turn and shrink themselves to let others pass by. I’m among them, crouched low, scanning the fiction section, looking for nothing in particular.
There’s a certain way of moving through a used bookstore. Walk in, nod to the owner. Have no expectations about what you might find. Don’t ask: where’s the fiction? Where’s the poetry? You’ll find it. Go slowly. Pull out the spines that interest you. Read the back covers. Search through the bottom shelves, the stacks on the floor (especially the stacks on the floor). Read the fliers on the wall; read everything. But most importantly, just look.
I’ve lived in six cities in as many years. In Dublin and Oxford, I learned to turn my head in the opposite direction to check for oncoming cars. In Philadelphia and Manhattan, I felt strange when I said “stand in line” instead of “on”; I learned what the West Coast chill of my hometown, Oakland, meant through the lack of it elsewhere. Moving that often, I’d get presumptuous; I would think I had a city figured out after just days or weeks of being there, only to break down when I’d miss a turnoff biking home at night, lost without brightly lit landmarks.
But inside a bookstore, I always knew where I was. They absorb the cities around them: fliers advertise local bands’ performances and events with hometown authors passing through on tour. But at the same time, from place to place, they are overwhelmingly, comfortingly, the same. The smell: woody, maybe a little damp. The stacks: cramped, overflowing onto the floor, religiously alphabetized if not proudly haphazard.
That consistency marks something essential about how I grew up, what is important to me. I depend on it to remind me of where I come from. But to what extent, exactly, I hadn’t realized when I left home for the first time, for college. My dad did, though. Sometime before dropping me in front of my dorm in Philadelphia, he told me: always find the bookstores.
When my twin brother and I were young, our dad would pile us into the car and drive ten minutes north from our house, to Berkeley. On Telegraph Avenue, we’d go into Moe’s Books and Shakespeare and Co across the street. Sometimes we would buy books, but often we wouldn’t: we’d leave and maybe go to the record store across the street or get soft serve at Yogurt Park, then drive home. The routine was the point; I couldn’t count how many times we did this. Visiting bookstores was habit so ingrained that when it came time for me to leave California, it was not among the things I thought to bring with me. But when my dad said that, I listened.
To say I didn’t fit in at my college in Philadelphia would be an understatement. I went there to write and make art, and found myself vibrating with anxiety in the midst of a business-focused place whose tree-lined paths Donald Trump once walked. The frat parties were loud and the bars were hostile and I struggled to find a place where I felt anything like the person I left behind in California: someone who was curious about the world and trusted her thoughts. The Last Word Bookstore became that place. The bookstore itself was ugly, with its dark green, musty carpet and too-bright lights. But there was a chair by the front, close to the windows, that I made my own. The owner, Larry, grew to recognize me and would throw the occasional recommendation my way: that copy of The Member of the Wedding by Carson McCullers still sits on my shelf.
After I graduated, I moved to Dublin for a month to live in a hostel. I had studied abroad there as a junior in college and loved it, but being alone in a once-familiar city is very different than living there with a cohort and structure. A whole month on my own began to seem interminable. For each week there, I decided, I would finish a book. I found them at a cavernous store ten minutes from where I was staying. The top floor was all used volumes, and it would take me an hour to sort through them all. There was no logic to what I picked; my choices ranged from Love in the Time of Cholera to Let the Great World Spin. But book in hand, I felt a new license to explore the city; I’d carry my new purchases on long walks across the river and into unfamiliar coffee shops, where I could sit for hours with more than adequate companionship. That way, the month passed, and I left Dublin that time perhaps less enchanted, but much more grounded.
I live in Brooklyn now. This summer, I will have been here for two years: an eternity compared to the handful of months I spent living in other cities. I moved here with permanence in mind; this is the first place I’ve lived since California that I intend to truly make my home. When I first arrived in June of 2014, the geography of the borough confused me. I’d lived in Manhattan for a summer during college and the grid-like streets were excitingly simple, but Brooklyn felt different: there was no logic to it. So remembering what my dad said, I created my own, by looking for the bookstores.
When I have an afternoon to myself, I look up a shop on the map, and set out for it. I learn the streets that will get me there. The first store was Molasses Books, a tiny place just a fifteen-minute walk from my Bedford-Stuyvesant apartment. It’s in the middle of an entirely unremarkable residential block; there’s no other reason, really, to go there. But in the countless times I’ve made the trek there to pick up a book, I’ve memorized the layout of that tiny section of the map. Seeking out Hullabaloo Books on Franklin Avenue led me on an hour-long walk south to Crown Heights—a neighborhood frustratingly inaccessible to me on public transit, but one that I now know almost as well as my own.
And there’s Unnameable Books, in Prospect Heights. Inside, it’s almost indistinguishable from the shops I grew up on in Berkeley, like the dusty Shakespeare and Co, which closed its doors last year. But it’s the neighborhood around Unnameable, I’ve found, that keeps me coming back. Prospect Park sits just a few blocks south, and across the street is Mitchell’s Soul Food, a tiny, easily-overlooked restaurant with the best cornbread I’ve ever eaten. And there’s Ample Hills, the ice cream shop that was the first place I biked as soon as spring arrived in New York this year.
Seeking out bookstores was my attempt to translate a pattern from my past onto my new city. And it’s true that each time I walk into a bookstore in Brooklyn, I’m comforted: I feel like I’ve arrived somewhere I understand. But it’s not an act of regression. By searching for these pockets of familiarity in an unfamiliar city, I’ve brought the whole borough closer to me, and every day it feels more like home.