My recent blog posts are related to a course I am taking through Bay path University for my MFA in Creative Non Fiction
A Forty Year Affair
As I reminisce about the independent bookstores I spent time in over the decades I remember the enthusiasm, comfort, and nooks and crannies where discoveries were made. I think of relationships to the books, to the people in the store, and a growing relationship to myself. So many books holding authors’ words, thoughts and energies. I think of my journeys to get to the bookstores, and the journeys I took within the shop walls; once through the doors my eyes roamed the shelves, my fingers reached out for books that spoke to me. Sometimes I sought out specific titles, other times I waited for my intuition to guide me to a book. When that happened I would pull it off the shelf, randomly open it to a page and see if something on that page spoke to me. It often did, and so a sale was made. Going to the bookstores wasn’t just about the books, it was about immersing into the personality of the indie store and how I felt in it. It was about the way life slowed amidst all those books.
Four plus decades ago I discovered The Odyssey Bookshop in South Hadley. As we got to know each other the bond grew into a long endearing relationship. Just as additions and remodeling have changed our home over the decades, so has the Odyssey changed in both structure and its offerings. In the early years of our connection, the Odyssey suffered two fires. It was hard to witness the loss of the bookstore we knew and took our young children to. Hard to learn it was a young man who lived in our neighborhood who was responsible for both fires. Yet the Odyssey survived and was rebuilt into an amazing bookshop.
We were so happy to bring ourselves and our children to the new store at the South Hadley Commons. On good weather days we walked there from our home. Yet for me the most special trips were the ones I visited the Odyssey alone. My favorite sections to explore were literary fiction, poetry, cookbooks, and the shelf of blank journals in hopes of finding the next one to write in. Sometimes, I would curl up in a comfy corner chair and just be. I got to know Joan Grenier the owner. For a period of time I volunteered at the shop helping to catalog books into a new data base. When the store struggled and came close to going out of business during the overwhelming challenges posed by the arrival of Amazon, and Barnes & Noble, the Odyssey community from near and far rallied and our local bookshop survived changing times.
Some special friendships started there. It was in 1996 that I met Suzanne Strempek Shea at the Odyssey. It was the evening she had her book signing for her first novel Hoopi Shoopi Donna. What an evening that was! After Suzanne’s reading, her mother served pierogis and other Polish foods. It was especially meaningful because of our shared Polish heritage. Suzanne became an inspiration to me. We stayed in touch and she was and continues to be supportive and encouraging of my novel Hattie.
Over the years, I attended many Odyssey author events. I loved hearing writers read their words. I loved asking questions. I loved participating in what felt deeply connected to my being a writer. In some ways the Odyssey was a home away from home. Then in 2012 it became even more special. I had my Hattie book signing there. I cannot begin to describe the exhilaration, the heart swell, the support felt as the shop filled with many friends, family and others to standing room only.
Just as my love of writing is in my blood, so my love affair with the Odyssey continues. Whenever I step through its doors I look for Joan to say hello, I make my way from the top level to the lower level trying to take everything in. At the bottom of the stairs as I look into the children’s section, I wonder if I will spot something for our ten year old grandson, who like our children when they were young loved hearing us say, “Let’s go to the Odyssey.” On the other side of the room I scan the literature and poetry books to see if something catches my eye. Before I leave, I peak at the shelf where my book Hattie sits to see if there are still copies available.
In recent years when I visit indie bookstores, I bring along a copy of Hattie and gift it to the store as I ask the manager or owner to consider carrying my literary novel. I am grateful to have visited many indie bookstores around the country before business for many of them changed. Once in a while, when I come across a store bookmark lodged inside one of my books, I am reminded of those journeys. The last one I found was from City Lights in San Francisco from a trip back in the early 1990s. Another one was from Elliot Bay Books in Seattle. Both of these indie stores are still in business though many others did not survive the changes and financial pressures created by book selling giants. Fortunately, Joan Grenier’s determination and hard work, and the support and love of her staff, her customers and Mount Holyoke College, keeps the Odyssey Bookshop’s heart beating. I hope in ten years my love affair with the Odyssey will still be going strong.
* The Odyssey Bookshop was one of many independent book stores featured in My Bookstore: Writers Celebrate Their Favorite Places to Browse, Read, and Shop, 2012.