A Love Letter -- to Us! -- from Stacey Kohut
We've just received a love letter! Its writer is Stacey Kohut, a dedicated reader and a somewhat tentative writer, who lives in San Francisco. Thanks so much, Stacey!
More Real: My Love Letter to The Booksmith
As a voracious (some would say rapacious) reader, I enter bookstores with the anticipatory appetite and greedy eye of a gourmand on the threshold of Chez Panisse. Thankfully, the level of excellence of San Francisco’s independent bookstores rivals that of its best restaurants. I try to distribute my love, and disposable income, around and support as many of them as possible; most shops tend to have a unique flavor and there is always something to discover in each one. Yet, even within this embarrassment of literary riches, The Booksmith has become my primary bookstore, a standout among standouts.
At first, it was a neighborhood thing. Located halfway between my job and my home, The Booksmith seemed a logical weekly (and, during unusually rough weeks, daily) stopover – my reward after a long workday. De-stressing among the stacks, I was impressed by the depth and breadth of the contents of the store’s shelves. Depending on my mood, I could dig into a story from Tin House, one of my favorite quarterlies, enjoy the latest Annie Liebovitz celebrity photo shoot in Vanity Fair, or get lost in the funky esoterica of Caviar Izquierda, a culture-jamming collection of essays and photographs from Mexico. And that’s just the periodical section.
For such a relatively small retail space, The Booksmith really packs a wallop in terms of variety. From graphic novels to murder mysteries to cutting-edge experimental fiction, there is always something extraordinary tucked away on a shelf or on display at the end of one of the brightly lit aisles. I have a personal letch for the poetry section, where Lisa Robertson’s Magenta Soul Whip and Rilke’s Book of Hours sit cheek to jowl. The children’s and young adult sections are also particularly impressive, thanks in no small part to the wonderful Lauren, who is always more than happy to guide me towards something special for my six-year-old niece, or simply help me to recover the joys of my own childhood by pointing out an E.L. Konigsburg book (The Outcasts of 19 Schuyler Place) that I had never known existed. And, just as Lauren predicted, I loved it even more than my hither-to favorite children’s book of all time, From the Mixed-up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler.
As lovely as Lauren is, she is not alone. The warmth and intelligence of The Booksmith’s staff is unparalleled. Even before I became a regular, I always felt surprisingly comfortable asking for help and recommendations. The staff’s willingness to do more than sell is apparent; there are no tight corporate smiles or vacant “Have a nice day”s. Everyone behind the counter and on the floor is smart and ready to engage prospective readers with genuine interest. Visit after visit, it is apparent to me that these folks are truly passionate about books and reading, and I value their informed opinions and unique perspectives. If it hadn’t been for wry and witty Camden’s enthusiastic endorsement, I may never have discovered the gem that is Kjersti A. Skomsvold’s The Faster I Walk The Smaller I Am. And without Cynthia’s guidance, backed up by her years of experience in the publishing world, there are endless quality books that never would have made it to my shelves, among them Robin Black’s intense and highly satisfying short story collection, If I Loved You, I Would Tell You This.
I can’t mention Cynthia without discussing her most important role, that of the indefatigably cheerful bartender at The Booksmith’s Bookswap. Cynthia’s heavy-handed pour and insouciant grin spell both high enjoyment and just a bit of trouble for the intrepid Bookswapper. Hands down my favorite of all of The Booksmith’s extremely well-run readings and events, Bookswap must be experienced in order to be truly appreciated. Picture twenty to thirty enthusiastic readers in circulation with each other, not to mention one or two local authors, discussing and debating their favorite books of all genres without pretension or prejudice. Usually adorned in platform heels and a fabulous dress, Amy, The Booksmith’s event coordinator extraordinaire, is just bossy enough to keep things moving along without a lag or a dull moment. A bit like speed dating without the pressure, the swap culminates in a white elephant-esque book exchange where stealing is encouraged – just pure fun. After three years, I have never emerged from a Bookswap without a pile of fantastic books and a head full of compelling discussions and recommendations.
Some of my most interesting and valued friends started out as Bookswap acquaintances, and it is the only cultural event in the city that I absolutely refuse to miss. The most important gift The Booksmith has given me is a pronounced sense of community. In a culture that is swimming more and more in virtual connections, The Booksmith is where I go to feel more real, a welcoming physical space where I can connect with my tribe and immerse myself in the beautiful, tangible reality of ink on paper.
And the tribe is growing. When Praveen Madan, who co-owns The Booksmith with his wife, Christin Evans, told me a few months ago that he and Christin would be joining forces with other business and community leaders to reinvent and revitalize Kepler’s in Menlo Park, I did a little dance of joy in the middle of the store. Kepler’s was my first independent California bookstore, one of the few treats I permitted myself when I moved to the Bay Area fourteen years ago and was living on AmeriCorps wages in nearby Redwood City. It is one of my sacred places, and in recent years it has pained me to see such a vibrant and important cultural icon struggle to stay afloat. Now, bolstered by local support and Praveen and Christin’s talents, I have utter confidence that Kepler’s is going to thrive, joining The Booksmith in maintaining a space where readers and writers can reach across an expanse of infinite pages to create real connections, literary, cultural, and personal.