Living & Learning in Bookstores

Sonya Chung

I’ve lived my adult years in two very literary cities — Seattle, where I attended graduate school and lived for several years, and New York, where I live, write, and teach now.

Prior to that, I grew up in suburban Maryland and New England, where my literary education was weirdly sparse and uneven: my parents were immigrants whose first language was not English, so reading was not a part of our family life; my high school was so “progressive” that a required canon was jettisoned in favor of multi-culti electives and “individualized study”; and my college years were shamefully wasted (by me) on shallow skim-reading of Masterpieces of Western Civilization (Don Quixote, I hardly knew ye!). By the time I emerged into young adulthood, I blinked my eyes hard and wondered what the hell had happened; eight years of elite education, and I had not yet learned to read.

The independent bookstores I love in New York are literary havens, the soul-nourishing equivalent of your grandmother’s Sunday-afternoon kitchen. What I mean is that a beloved bookstore is more than just a smart place, it’s a warm place. Over the years, I find that I’ve come to frequent independent bookstores primarily to boost my spirit; and when I walk out with a book or two that happens to blow my mind (which is more often than not the case), I count myself an extra-lucky girl.

At McNally Jackson, adorable and erudite Dustin – events coordinator extraordinaire – sat down for a half an hour one evening with my fiction students (we were discussing “publishing”) in a quiet corner of the store to wax passionate about the curatorial and community-building roles of independent booksellers. For a year, when I worked and volunteered at Housing Works (waist-deep in that unnerving time of unpublished novel-writing), I spent early mornings baking scones and quiches for the café while chatting about books with (then-store-opener, now Wall Street Journal fiction columnist) Sam Sacks. The staff at Book Culture – my current neighborhood joint – won me over with their dogs-welcome policy (along with the many biscuits they’ve offered my pup), not to mention their unfailing helpfulness when I’m looking for weird stuff (the Thomas Carlyle translation of Wilhelm Meister, anyone?).

Last but not least, at The Corner Bookstore, a darkly bearded young man once piled six or seven books (including stories by the amazing Francisco Coloane, previously unknown to me) into my arms, when I asked, “So what have you read lately that you love?” And 33-year owners Lenny and Ray launched my debut novel on an early spring evening in 2010 with wine, fruit and cheese, and a benediction I will never forget: Your future as a writer is clear to us, may it unfold as beautifully as your novel.

On the other hand, the bookstore that comes to mind when I think of “most influential on my literary education” is a strip-mall chain store in Seattle’s university district called Half Price Books. On its face, it was an unremarkable place, a convenient cheap-used-books spot for the general book browser. It didn’t hold readings, was nothing like a “literary center”; in fact its fiction section (back in the late 90s, that is) was neither extensive nor particularly literary. It was a good place to look for, say, used cookbooks or Yoga for Dummies or James Patterson hard covers, or to sell off your own stock of unwanteds for spare change.

I needed that spare change back then. I was in graduate school, wondering how I’d managed to get accepted to an MFA program, when I’d written so little and read even less. I was there because I had a vague feeling that I was a late-blooming artist of some kind, and because the kindly chair of the program thought I had a “good ear for language.” All this to say that I had a lot of catching up to do, literarily speaking, and little money with which to do it.

Half Price Books was the perfect candy man for this remedial book fiend. They had an abundant clearance section with books in shitty condition and editions with the ugliest covers.  It was a students’ dumping ground that became my gold mine. And I never had to worry about running in to classmates or professors (they were all at Elliott Bay Book Co.) and having to explain why I was buying a stack of 15 books for $12 that most people had read in high school or for undergraduate lectures. Half Price Books kept me in mass market paperbacks of Faulkner and Hemingway, George Eliot and Edith Wharton, Virginia Woolf, Twain, Steinbeck, the Brontes, Dickens, Zora Neale Hurston, D.H. Lawrence, Emily Dickinson, James Baldwin, Emerson, Henry James, Toni Morrison, Flaubert, Tolstoy and Dostoevsky. I hope my parents, who labored to support my institutional education, aren’t reading this: for pennies on the dollar, at Half Price Books, my true life of learning began.

Sonya Chung is the author of the novel Long for This World. Her stories, reviews, and essays have appeared in the publications Threepenny Review, Sonora Review, FiveChapters, and BOMB magazine, among others. Her essay on meeting James Salter can be found in the current issue of Tin House.