I grew up in Baker County, Oregon and visited the bookstore Betty’s Books on town trips. Betty’s Books sits squarely in the middle of downtown Baker City, on Main Street. It has been in operation since 1979 (when I was three) and is my original model for the magic bookshop.
What is a magic bookshop? It’s still hard for me to define, but I think we all know when we’re inside it: we feel at home, but also a sense of wonder, a certain tinge of mystery. You feel that anything could happen, that some book you unexpectedly find in this place might entirely enchant you. Crucially, the place itself feels like a place you don’t want to leave, and that you want to return to again and again.
When I was little, we didn’t buy many books. We didn’t have much money, and we checked out huge boxes of books at the library.
Occasionally, we made a well-considered purchase, usually of a book that was already a favorite, like The Lord of the Rings. I’m sure we spent a lot of time browsing and often left without buying anything. Nevertheless, what I remember about Betty, the original owner, is that she was always warm and welcoming. She got to know our family and our book preferences and sometimes suggested books we might want to “look at,” as she put it. Sometimes we ended up buying these books, partly because Betty put no pressure on us.
To me, these are two components of the magic bookshop. You can browse as much as you want, and the staff gets to know you. This is, of course, much more likely to happen in local independent bookstores.
In every town I’ve moved to, I’ve quickly found the bookstores and visited them, searching for the one where I can recapture the original magic I felt in my childhood bookstore. In Fort Collins, Colorado, I found a small, darkish used bookstore tucked in a corner of Old Town. I believe it was called the Old Curiosity Shop, which was the beginning of its charm. Inside, dusty books crammed the shelves and overflowed into stacks on the floor. The shop owner sat behind her desk, reading. Now that I’m a bookseller, I wonder how on earth she had time to sit there and read. At the time, I decided I wanted to work in a bookstore when I grew up, so I, too, could sit and become immersed in the magic of a book.
How wrong I was! When at last I landed a job at Paulina Springs Books, a shop where I’d felt the magic of wandering undisturbed for lusciously long periods of time, I learned the bittersweet paradox of working in a place you love: it becomes, in some ways, less magic. No longer can I wander through the store, browsing and looking as long as I want at books. I have work to do!
I know creating the magic bookshop in my store is partly up to me. Sometimes I feel annoyed if a teenager is sitting on the floor reading a book, squarely in the middle of where I want to shelve. But I remember having my nose stuck in a book as a teen, and I find something else to do and come back to shelve in that section later. I might feel irked when I have to straighten the children’s section and re-shelve errant books for the fifth time in one day, until I pause to remind myself that this means children are in my store, making themselves at home—which is part of what makes a bookstore magic. When I feel tempted to get annoyed with the “looker-walkers,” the people who come in, browse for a long time, then leave without a purchase, I remember that when I’m a customer, the store that is comfortable with me doing that is the one I’m likely to return to and buy something later.
So, what makes a bookstore magic is you, booksellers, who carefully choose the books, make the store physically inviting, and get to know your customers: what they like, who they are, when they want to be left alone and when they want to talk. And it’s you, readers, who come in and infuse the place with your passion for books. And in some odd, mystic way, I feel it’s the bookstore itself, the building, the community, and what has happened in the store through the years.
Haunting Jasmine by Anjali Banerjee takes place in a delightful magic bookshop, haunted by the ghosts of dead authors, where books fall off the shelves when they want to go home with customers. Although I have to work harder than that to pick out books and hand them to customers, I think we all know the feeling that a certain book is “jumping out” at us, and I bet a lot of us have felt that an author is “standing in the spirit at your elbow,” as Dickens says of himself in A Christmas Carol.
Whenever I visit Betty’s Books, now owned by Betty’s daughter Carolyn and her husband Tom, I feel the magic again. Carolyn greets me warmly, genuinely happy to see me. I wander through the store looking as long as I want. Now that I’m an adult with my own income, I always buy something, because I always find something I like, and because I want this magic store to keep being here.
Sometimes, when I’m lucky, or especially aware, I can feel the magic in my own store. Maybe it’s a quiet day, and I have time to get lost in looking at books as I shelve and straighten, or even—gasp!—to sit behind the counter and read! Maybe a customer comes back to tell me how much he or she liked a book I recommended two years ago. At these times, I feel the magic rush over me, and I pause and think to myself, “Here I am, in the magic bookshop, and I get to work here.” My childhood dream has come true.
Amanda MacNaughton sells books at the magic Paulina Springs Books and helps her husband with the vegetable CSA they operate out of their large garden. Although she is too busy to read as much as she’d like in the summer, she is currently reading The Alpine Tales by Paul Willis, Eva of the Farm by Dia Calhoun, and Can You Drink the Cup? by Henri Nouwen. Next on the docket is Jana Bibi’s Excellent Fortunes by Betsy Woodman.