This morning, Helen sent me this picture of The Ashford Affair at the B&N on 86th Street– and it started me off on a spate of nostalgia about the bookstores of my youth.
That particular B&N wasn’t there when I was little, but there was always a B&N on 86th Street. The B&N of my childhood was between Lexington and Park, in the building that’s now a Chase bank, with a wonderful, arched doorway with glass panels at the top, ceilings that seemed to stretch into infinity, and a cheerful clutter of new book racks (which I since learned were called “dumps”) at the front of the store. General Fiction & Literature started on the wall to your left as you walked in and snaked down the side of the store, with Margaret Atwood way up at the front and Joan Wolf’s The Road to Avalon at the back, where the Fiction & Literature gave way to Mystery. Romance was right up front, on the perpendicular to fiction and literature. There must have been other sections– non-fiction and so on– but that L-shaped axis of Fiction, Romance, and Mystery was my domain.
Most of the time, I paid for my purchases in quarters and nickels. I had a half-fare bus pass, since I was just far enough from school to need one, but not far enough, by city regulations, to get full fare. At the fare price of the time, that meant I had to pay fifty-five cents. Somewhere around fifth grade, it occurred to me that (a) if I walked instead of rode, the B&N was right on my route home, and (b) that fifty-five cents, twice a day, five days a week, meant a new novel a week. (It was the late 80s; the price of a mass market paperback, including tax, was somewhere under five dollars.) They were very nice about my paying in clanking piles of change.
To be fair, there was some competition for that bus money. There was also a Hot & Crusty on my walk to school, smelling deliciously of hot baked goods on cold mornings, so, from time to time, some of those quarters and nickels would be diverted into blueberry or chocolate chip muffins– or into packs of Combos (pizza flavored) at the bodega two blocks away from school.
That B&N moved around. When I was in Upper School, that old B&N on 86th Street became a specialty branch of the bookstore, children’s books only, while the adult section moved a block over, to Lexington between 86th & 87th. This was a long, low ceiling-ed store, dark and cool even in summer, which gave it rather an Aladdin’s Cave effect. It was in that treasure trove of a store that I found Diana Gabaldon’s Outlander and stumbled across Julia Quinn well before the Bridgertons. I can still remember picking up How to Marry a Marquis, where it stood on the rack, the pale shade of the cover against the dark wood shelves.
And then it moved again. At some point while I was away in college or grad school, a snazzy new B&N opened between 2nd and 3rd. This one had– amazement!– two floors and a cafe, a hitherto unknown luxury. It was large and sleek and light and busy– and I didn’t like it. (Although I did find Eloisa James’s Potent Pleasures there, just out, in hardcover, with a woman with a floaty skirt on the cover.) Interestingly, the old B&N on Lexington stayed open, despite its new rival two blocks away, and it was there that I gravitated still, to the calm, quiet, dark of the old store, until it closed several years later and the big new B&N became my only option, with fiction scattered about between two floors and the romance section shoved into a corner on the second floor near the bathrooms.
Four B&Ns on 86th Street later…. A few years ago, the big, snazzy new B&N closed, and the bookstore shuffled down the block again, to 86th between Lex and Third, to a new, subterranean location right off the subway– just a street crossing away from the Chase that was the home of the B&N of my youth. The picture you see way above is from that new B&N.
I haven’t formed the same sort of personal relationship with that store that I had with the old ones, but my hope is that, way down that escalator, in the new subterranean B&N, there’s a little girl in a school uniform who has hoarded her school bus money to buy books– and who will always remember the books she bought there, in the bookstore of her youth.
What were the favorite bookstores of your youth?