by Allison Hill (President/CEO of Vroman’s & Book Soup)
This was originally posted on Huffington Post on 6/30/2016
David Bowie’s passing hit me hard this year—the way it does when a celebrity you grew up with passes—and I was suddenly aware not so much of my own mortality but of the logistics to be considered when I die; I’m not dying, but I am by nature a planner. It occurred to me as I listened to it for the 50th time that week that I want “Space Oddity” played at my funeral. “Space Oddity,” the Prelude from Bach’s Cello Suite No. 1,” and “Amazing Grace.” Those three songs feel like the perfect holy trinity.
And I want a reading or two—a poem by Mary Oliver, maybe that quote from The Secret Garden about magic being everywhere, and something by Kurt Vonnegut. Anything by Kurt Vonnegut. A blown-up photo of me raising my arms in victory on the Great Wall of China, a fingerprint guest book, as seen on Pinterest, cheese and olives—I’m a big proponent of snacks at funerals—and no lilies; I’m allergic to lilies. For someone who’s pretty easy going and low maintenance in this life, I have a lot of demands in the next one.
The big decision though, the logistical whopper, is what to do with my body. Since I’m a little claustrophobic I find the idea of being placed in a box, buried underground, and left there forever disconcerting at best so cremation is a good alternative. When my sweet husband dies he wants his ashes scattered at sea off the coast of his beloved Hawaii, reunited eternally with his spiritual home. Marvel Comics writer, penciller, and editor-in-chief Mark Gruenwald had his ashes sprinkled into the ink for one of his comic books. And a bookselling colleague of mine had his ashes poured into the waters of the Pirates of the Caribbean ride at Disneyland. There are a lot of options. I can take or leave a visit to Disneyland and I’d prefer to leave behind a different type of literary legacy, but I’d never turn down a trip to Hawaii even after I’m dead so that plan sounds good to me. The truth is no matter where my body is laid to rest, my heart will be elsewhere. As Tanya Donelly sings: “Bury my heart separately. It’s something that don’t belong to me.” My heart belongs to bookstores.
It was love at first sight. The first one, a small, indie bookstore—now long gone—was located in San Francisco. I was four years old and I loved books more than anything in the world but I hadn’t even imagined such a heavenly place as a bookstore. When my parents, after dragging me into the drugstore, the dry cleaner, the hardware store, led me into a shop filled with thousands and thousands of books, I swooned. There were floor to ceiling books; booksellers, my people; and what’s this? story time?! And I can take the books home forever?! Unlike the library with their cruel insistence that I return their books, I could keep these books, write my name in them, dog-ear the pages, read and re-read to my heart’s content.
Scientists might call this an “imprinting,” like in the animal kingdom: an early encounter that provided me with information about who I was and who, or what, I find attractive. I hold a more romantic view. I would call my love of bookstores a Great Love, one recognized by the feeling that you are more yourself than you have ever been.
The store in San Francisco was the first of many. There was the used bookstore near my house in Dallas that I would walk to with my weekly $5 allowance, returning home with a Nancy Drew mystery. The dusty thrift shop my grandma and I frequented in Henrietta, Texas—three Judy Blume paperbacks for a dollar! There were the bookstores I discovered in airports and train stations and the ones I stumbled upon while on vacation—the tiny converted cottage on Cape Cod, the kiosk of romance novels on the beach in Costa Rica, the bookstore teahouse in Beijing. I learned to travel with an extra bag.
And the love that was already great but that perhaps I had begun to take for granted was reignited my first day as a bookseller. I had left my job in publishing—we loved each other; we just weren’t right for each other—and was hired as a part-time bookseller. Now surrounded by thousands and thousands of books every daythe great thrill came when I realized that I could play matchmaker. It was my second shift when a customer asked me to recommend a page-turner to occupy the long hours ahead on her international flight home. My body tingled and my brain flooded with the names of my favorite books. As I placed a copy of The Secret History in her hand I had an epiphany: bookstores didn’t exist just for me and my book needs; they were a place where I could help readers find books, find meaning, find themselves, thus taking my relationship with bookstores to the next level.
The decades I’ve spent working, playing, reading, communing within the four walls of bookstores have shaped me and defined me. And lest you think this relationship merely platonic, let me tell you, bookstores are sexy. Readers who shop in bookstores rather than online, read print rather than digital, talk about how much they love “the tactile experience” as they stroke book covers and caress pages, amble the aisles and inhale the scent of ink and paper. They lose themselves in bookstores, hold books closely, seek pleasure, connection, and escape in their pages.
My own bookstore love has gone through so many stages over the years. What may have seemed like puppy love and infatuation in the beginning grew into the kind of groupie love that Bowie fans will recognize—collecting bookstore bookmarks, surfing bookstore websites late at night, planning trips around bookstores as destinations—then deepened and matured over time.
A love like this can last a lifetime. “Mrs. K” is 93 years old. She has shopped in my store since she was five, sometimes daily for years at a time. I’m sure Mrs. K has had many loves in her life but her 88-year relationship with my bookstore has most likely been the longest and I would presume one of the most meaningful.
You may wonder what the secret is to a long-term relationship such as mine. Like all relationships, it’s actually simple: respect the relationship and actively invest in it. Which in this case means that I faithfully support brick and mortar bookstores with my time and my money. As everyone who loves bookstores should, lest we all wake up one day to find them gone, ourselves alone.
There are fewer and fewer bookstores and I fear that a decline in their numbers will mean a little less love in the world. (Even if you think you love Amazon.com, let’s be honest, you’re just settling for a cheap version of the real thing. Don’t you deserve better?)
As I reflected on Bowie’s death, and my own someday, I recalled a memorable story of author Mary Shelley (Frankenstein) and poet Percy Shelley. They were married for eight years until Percy’s death. His “funeral wish list” rivals my own and the story goes that he requested not only that he be cremated, but that his heart be removed from his body and bequeathed to Mary so that she could “hold” it in death as she had in life. And so it was that his heart stayed with his great love, which for a Romantic poet is probably where it belongs.
As for where I belong, I’ll echo Bowie’s sentiment about his wife, Iman: “I stumbled onto bliss. And I have no intention of finding my way back out.” And so it is that my husband and I will “retire” together to Hawaii when the time comes, many years from now; I can’t imagine my life or my death without him. And my heart, metaphorically anyway, will remain with my other great love: My heart belongs to bookstores.