A Writer Reads: Finding Favourites

(a post from guest author, Mary Burns)

book storeA favourite book store in New York City is the Housing Works Café Bookstore, a social enterprise that is part of the Housing Works non-profit.  It is staffed for the most part by volunteers, and the profits from sales go to alleviate homelessness and treat HIV, particularly in the homeless population.  So it feels worthy to shop there, but the pleasure only begins with the knowledge that you’re doing good.  The ambiance is wonderful, classic.  Situated on a street of warehouse-type buildings on Crosby Street in Soho, the store is lined with worn-smooth dark wood shelves reaching the ceiling. Glass cases near the front display first editions and art books.  The café at the back offers hot and cold drinks and light snacks, and there are tables on the second floor where no one minds if you sit down to read for a few minutes or few hours while savouring the aroma of brewing coffee and old paper.

Since my friend, the photographer Allan Ludwig, first introduced me to it, Housing Works Bookstore has become a regular stop when I visit New York.

MadelineLate in August I was searching for an original edition of the children’s classic, Madeline. I have a new niece and her mother adores Paris.  What a perfect book for a tiny girl who will probably see Paris before her first year is out.  Well, I couldn’t find it on the obvious children’s shelves, and being out of touch with children’s literature since my own daughters grew up, I thought, perhaps it is not fashionable anymore.  Wrong.  I had to laugh at the reaction of the three women at the counter when I asked if they knew the book I was looking for.

           Madeline? Ah! I loved that book!

We fans could almost recite it from memory: “In an old house in Paris that was covered in vines lived 12 little girls in two straight lines.  The smallest one was Madeline.”

At least I think that’s it, and I can’t check, because one of the staff volunteered to look downstairs, a space I didn’t see but which obviously housed books that had not been shelved yet, or might not appear on the main floor until they were inquired about, and she found what I wanted, or near enough, and my niece now has the large-format hardback.  Not an original, but a fifty-year old copy in near mint condition that will start out her library with something special she can perhaps one day pass on to her own children.

The Round HouseOf course it took awhile for the eager and helpful volunteer staff to find the book, but what a place to wait.  I browsed the contemporary novels not far from the counter and found one of my favourite writers, the prolific Louise Erdrich.  I first came across her work when I was reading short stories almost exclusively.  Analyzing writers I admired is how I learned to write.  I kept seeing Erdrich’s name in the “Best” collections and really enjoyed her first novels, Love Medicine and The Beet Queen. But, with all the other writers to try, new books to open, I had not read Erdrich in a number of years.  There in the bin at the Housing Works Bookstore I found The Round House, with its National Book Award Winner sticker, and as soon as I started to read I was engaged.  I described it to my brother as suspenseful, sexy, funny and profound. Like the place I bought it from, The Round House has a social purpose too, the author’s motive in part being to make readers aware that one in three native woman has been raped.  I love social issue novels, but only if my face is not rubbed in the issue.  I want the same values I look for in all novels, well realized characters, fine writing, an interesting plot, and Erdrich does her usual excellent job with those, just as the social enterprise bookstore provides customers with a warm and satisfying book browsing experience.  A bit of a detour around New York’s delightful madness and a favourite store I walked away from with two favourite books.


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