A tale of two bookstores, with a digression concerning Maryland’s Eastern Shore

June 2, 2010 at 1:07 pm (books, Literature for young people, Local interest (Baltimore-Washington), Maryland, Music, Mystery fiction, Travel)

Recently I went to a Big Box bookstore, looking for two easy picture books. One was The Lion & the Mouse, Jerry Pinkney’s gorgeous Caldecott winner; the other was Yoko’s Paper Cranes by Rosemary Wells. I had seen them both at the library and simply had to have them for the forthcoming grandchild (Oh…Haven’t I mentioned…? She’s due in early October.  There will be plenty of time then for kvelling – don’t think there’s a word for this in English –  so for now, on with our story…)

Here are the books in question:

Admittedly, I have spent very little time in the area of this store devoted to children’s literature. Even so, I found it a confusing place. A surprisingly small space was allotted to what we in the library trade call easy picture books. They were primarily shelved spine out. Keep in mind, these books are  very thin. I had trouble making out the names of the authors and illustrators. And while there was a bay labeled “Newbery Award Winners,” there was no analogous location for winners of the immensely prestigious Caldecott Medal – or none that I could see, at any rate.

I looked around for a staff person and saw none. I then went to the customer service desk – no one there. I roamed freely, looking for anything resembling a sales associate, and still came up empty handed. I had a paperback and a couple of magazines, so I decided to check out at that point. There was a line, this being Memorial Day and the store being fairly crowded. My turn  finally came. Often when you check out at one of these stores, the sales clerk asks if you found everything you were looking for. This time, the clerk did not ask me that question.

He should have. I had my answer ready!

I returned home and ordered the  books from Amazon. They’re on their way to me, even as I write this.

Meanwhile, two weeks ago, in the matter of bookstores, it was a different story entirely.

Mystery Loves Company is located in the exquisite small town of Oxford, on Maryland’s Eastern Shore.

A word – actually several words –  of explanation first. The region known as the Eastern Shore is the part of Maryland that is East of the Chesapeake Bay. To get there, you cross the majestic William Preston Lane Jr. Memorial Bridge, more commonly known in these parts as the Bay Bridge (US  50/301).

When Ron and I go to the Eastern Shore, we stay at a lovely establishment in St. Michaels called The Inn at Perry Cabin. It is right on the water – the Miles River, to be exact, although strictly speaking the Miles is not a river but an inlet of the Bay. From this pleasant staging post, it is an easy task to reach Oxford. You  drive to tiny Bellevue and hop on board the Oxford-Bellevue Ferry. Established in 1683, it is believed to be America’s oldest privately owned and operated ferry service.

As ferry boats go, it is a small vessel, able to accommodate up to nine vehicles.

We went as walk-ons.  The three-quarters-of-a-mile distance is covered in about seven minutes. I dearly wished it were longer. It feels so wonderful to be out on the water. That particular water, by the way, is the Tred Avon River, the name of which, Wikipedia informs us, is a corruption of “Third Haven.” The Tred Avon is a tributary of the Choptank, which is in turn a tributary of the Chesapeake Bay.

(I had never heard of the Choptank until I read – with astonished wonder! –  John Barth‘s  magnum opus:  .)

Ferries have such a long reach back in human history, both real and mythic, all the way back to Charon, who, the ancients claimed, brought the dead from the land of the living across the water to the underworld. This thought put me in mind of The Isle of the Dead, the title of both Arnold Bocklin’s painting and the tone poem by Rachmaninoff. The two are brought together in this video clip:

Happily, our little ferry trip took us to a beautiful land of the living. Officially founded in 1683,  Oxford is a jewel of a town. As we walked along North Morris Street, we passed several beautifully tended homes and gardens. Several, though private residences,are designated historical landmarks.

In short order we attained Mystery Loves Company Booksellers.

Within its modest premises – it occupies a former bank building – can be found a veritable treasure trove of crime fiction titles and back issues of such magazines as Mystery Scene, Crime Spree, and the late lamented Mystery News. Was I in hog heaven? You betcha!

While I was blissfully browsing, another customer came in. He and the proprietor/owner, Kathy Harig, got into a lively discussion of the novels of Icelandic author Arnaldur Indridason. I read Silence of the Grave, I put in, but was not crazy about it – too much angst involving the detective’s personal life. Now Karin Fossum – she is truly superb!

We mystery mavens live for spontaneous discussion outbursts like this one. And are we possessed of definite opinions? Speaking only for myself -indeed so! And yet  – we are always hungry for recommendations from other mavens.

I was especially pleased to see that Kathy stocked a goodly number of titles from Felony & Mayhem. Here’s what I bought:

Because I’ve long been curious about this Golden Age classic;

Same with this title, and I loved The Moving Toyshop;

Because I really liked The Accomplice;

Because I thought Thunder Bay was outstanding, and because Marge gave a particularly compelling book talk on this title at a recent meeting of the Usual Suspects.

So: in the space of two weeks: a bookstore virtually devoid of staff (on a major holiday!), the staff that was actually present being bored, oblivious, and treating books like any other commodity; and a tiny little shop in a tiny little town on the water, filled with volumes known and loved by customers and owner alike.

Draw your own conclusions about what we are currently lumbered with, and the precious commodity that we’re in danger of losing.

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times…

Permalink 4 Comments