Monday, June 10, 2013

Sunday at the Bookcase

For a town of 13,000 to 18,000 -- depending on the season or who you ask -- Durango, Colorado sure has a lot of book stores. There are at least five, not counting the handful of thrift stores that also sell used books for a quarter each. Equally prolific in this transient, high desert town are interesting characters who could be found in the pages of a book themselves, and the combination of fascinating people hanging around funky bookstores makes it far too easy to lose track of time here, especially on a hot Sunday afternoon.

Last Sunday, sticking to my bike seat in the 90-degree heat, I rode to a tiny storefront called the Bookcase with the intent of asking the owner if I could take her picture. Quick in and out, I thought, then on to dinner with friends. But a tall lemonade, free book and hours of conversation later, the heat of the day had faded into cool evening and I was still there.

I fancy myself something of a bookstore connoisseur, having grown up in a part of Massachusetts that the New York Times once called “the most author-saturated, book-cherishing, literature-celebrating place in the nation.” My favorite bookstore in the world is the Montague Bookmill in Montague, Mass., but in my travels I've come across some other good ones as well. While I don't think much of the highly-touted Powell's City of Books in Portland, Ore.  (a bit overwhelming and lacking in character, if you ask me), the Old Inlet Bookshop in Homer, Alaska is completely my style -- disorganized, cheap, with an compelling and knowledgeable person behind the counter. So is is Observatory Books, a Juneau-based shop that specializes in old maps and Alaskana. Or Lion Heart Book Store in Seattle, or Back of Beyond Books in Moab. Finding these places is one of my favorite things about traveling. Everywhere I've been, from Brooklyn to Burlington to Berkeley, I come across these beloved, ramshackle shops, places with creaky floors and enough dust to cause an allergy attack; places that persevere against .99 cent books from Amazon and quietly retreat to back alleys when rents go up downtown; places that barely scrape by financially but invite you to partake in that modern rarity, browsing leisurely without knowing that you'll find.

Rarely, though, do my traveling companions have the desire to spend hours among yellowing books, so I often only get a taste of what these stores have to offer. Each one leaves me yearning for more -- wondering at its history, wondering what I missed hidden in that back room, wondering what possessed the owner to take up such an enchanting but financially disastrous enterprise. I've daydreamed of owning a bookstore myself someday, but when I talked to Minnesota author and Birchbark Books owner Louise Erdrich about it, she informed me that it's "not a viable business if you want to become a wealthy person at all."

"But when people want to be in a bookstore, they want to really be in a bookstore," she continued. "The thing that ... people really love about small, independent bookstores is you never know what to expect. They're eccentric, and every single one is different."

Here in Durango, Southwest Book Trader has the best selection, seemingly defying the laws of physics by packing an uncountable number of books into an incredibly tight space. But my favorite is The Bookcase, due simply to the charisma and generosity of owner Ann Perkins-Parrott.

On Sunday, when I showed up out of the blue and asked if I could aim my obtrusive camera in her direction, she wasn't fazed. She herself has a degree in "socially responsible journalism," she said, so she gets it. She showed me a stuffed owl her grandfather shot, and a clock topped with a lion's head that she thinks is just about the most interesting thing in her shop, besides the people who come in. She showed me her bookcase of DVDs, full of B-film classics like "Jesse James Meets Frankenstein's Daughter." Prior to receiving her journalism degree and buying the 30-year-old bookstore, she owned two video-rental stores with her now-deceased husband and loves old movies almost as much as she loves books, the weirder and more disturbing the better. "Disturbing's my middle name," she said -- shortly after mentioning that her singing voice could "curdle breast milk still in the teat."

"I'm from Texas," she added. "I can say things like that."

Though business is steady, Ann is at the shop seven days a week, so to stave off boredom she encourages friends and soon-to-be-friends to come hang out. She often takes care of a local disabled man who parks his motorized wheelchair in front of her open door, wiping his weepy eyes with her handkerchief and helping translate his contributions to a running conversation that flows like a river outside her shop. She flirts good-naturedly with a Vietnam vet who sits on the bench outside. She leaves a bowl of water out for dog-walkers who pass by. And lately she's given a key to the bookshop to a friend named Willie, a traveling musician who'd been living under a railroad bridge while trying to find a room for rent in Durango.

"It was loud and cold and dusty as hell with all that coal," he told me of his weeks of homelessness. Now, after Ann leaves for the night, he spreads his sleeping bag on a narrow strip of floor between bookshelves and heats up dinner in the bookshop's microwave. Days, he busks on street corners, playing fiddle and mandolin and guitar. He once sold a song to Willie Nelson. When his two daughters were growing up, he spent most of his time on the road and made enough money playing music to put them both through college, but now when he tries to visit them, he says, they close the door in his face. He's silent for a moment, then tugs on the brim of his worn leather cowboy hat.

"I hope they're happy," he says, looking at the sky. "I am."

Sitting against the sun-warmed bricks in front of the Bookcase, the afternoon slips away, and the talk is of horses and silver-inlaid saddles, Durango locals, the weather. We drink lemonade. A few customers drift in and out of the shop but don't buy anything. Ann takes trades as well as sales, and one young teenage boy seems to treat her sci-fi collection as an obscure rotating library rather than a place to actually make purchases. Ann doesn't seem to mind. The sole online review of her shop says this: "When the owner [Ann] was asked if she took credit cards, this was the answer: 'Plastic, cash, checks. We take everything. If you find something that really needs to be yours and you don't have the money right now, just take it and mail me a check when you get back home.'"

On this particular day, Ann reckons she hasn't made enough money to cover her gas to and from work, so I offer to buy a book just before she closes up for the day. It seems like the least I can do. When I push Aldo Leopold's Sand County Almanac across the counter toward her with six dollars on top, she carefully looks at it, puts the money between the pages of the book, and hands it back to me.

"This is a gift," she says. "Sometime, you come back to Durango and stop back in here and maybe you'll buy something. But I bought this book with my own money and now I'm giving it to you. I'm the owner, so I can do that."



  1. A visit to Ann shop is a must if you like the books (and antics!) and are visiting Durango!

  2. Ann is selling everything and closing The Bookcase. If you need a book and are near Durango, hurry over, buy a book, say "good-bye".


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