On Tour With 36 Booklovers

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Bookstore Tourism, a grassroots effort to promote and support independent bookstores by marketing them as tourist destinations, has caught on fast. The term was coined by Larry Portzline, a Harrisburg-based writer for the Pennsylvania State Senate. In 2003, he organized and sold out the first tour from Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, to New York City's Greenwich Village. Since then he has successfully organized more than a dozen "bookstore adventures," sponsored by the Community Education Center of Harrisburg Area Community College, to New York City, Washington, D.C., and within Pennsylvania. Portzline "loves independent bookstores" and developed Bookstore Tourism to raise their visibility.

Larry Portzline

In September, Bookselling This Week had the opportunity to join 36 booklovers on a tour from rural Pennsylvania to Greenwich Village, where 22 independent bookstores are concentrated in one, very literary, square mile.

The trip started at 5:00 a.m. in Harrisburg. Portzline kindly waited until the tour had stopped for the first coffee break before standing, microphone in hand, to discuss bookstore tourism and the plans for the day. He talked about the ultimate Bookstore Tourism destination -- the Welsh town, Hay-on-Wye, but mentioned how the concept can be brought to any town with a "nice selection of independent bookstores." His book, Bookstore Tourism: The Book Addict's Guide to Planning & Promoting Bookstore Road Trips for Bibliophiles & Other Bookshop Junkies (Bookshop Junkie Press), describes how to get started, as does the Bookstore Tourism website, www.bookstoretourism.com.

"A lot of independent bookstores have closed," Portzline told the tour group. "I'm not here to say you should boycott the chains, but if you want your independent bookstore to stay open, you have to support it." He added, "If other people start doing this and having as much fun as we will, we'll really raise awareness of independent bookstores."

Portzline asked everyone to take out their maps, which listed the hours, locations, and brief descriptions of the bookstores. After the group was offered some practical tips (for example, which bookstores would allow them to store their heavy bags for the day), the group got off the bus at the bottom of Fifth Avenue, within sight of the Washington Square Arch. There was a high level of giddy book lust as small groups scattered, maps in hand, into the bright, early fall day.

BTW tagged along with Kim McClure, her mother, Janet Ackerman, and Kim's mother-in-law, Joy McClure, as they made a beeline up Bleeker Street to the Biography Bookshop. Fortified with Magnolia Bakery's famous cupcakes from across the street, the three ladies began their book-buying, holding a meandering book discussion, at the sale table outside the bookstore.

Kim pointed to the Hungry Ocean by Linda Greenlaw and said that she had enjoyed Greenlaw's The Lobster Chronicles: Life on a Very Small Island. Janet proclaimed that she loved Mary Renault, but picked up a book on Marie Antoinette, while Joy McClure asked us if we had read Under the Tuscan Sun, which she displayed. Making their way inside the red-brick building, Kim spotted a Jon Krakauer title and said, "I love everything he's written."

Joy deliberated over Walter the Farting Dog, and on hearing that it ranked as a Book Sense Pick, took a closer look. "I try to add a little levity," she said. As she stuck it in her to-buy pile, she commented, "I'm probably a bad grandmother."

Within 15 minutes, the three women bought a dozen books, including Akhenaten: Dweller in Truth by Naguib Mahfouz, Blue Blood by Edward Conlon, The Hidden War by Artem Borovik, and The Last of the Wine by Mary Renault.

After a little window-shopping, we headed east to Three Lives & Co. As we walked in, Kim turned and whispered, "This is a really nice store." Three Lives, with its red French doors, dark wood floors, and bookshelves is a really nice store, and an understandable New York favorite. Owner Toby Cox said that he'd already seen several Bookstore Tourists with maps that day, adding that Bookstore Tours are "always good for us."

Joy picked up copies of David Rakoff's Don't Get Too Comfortable and Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress by Dai Sijie, while Kim toted around Disgrace by J.M. Coetzee, Fraud by Rakoff, and The Cabin Book by Linda Leigh Paul.

After about half an hour at Three Lives, the trio had bought another dozen books and were starting to stagger under the weight of their purchases. Toby said he was happy to ship their books home for them. "That helps a lot!" said Kim. Freed of their packages, they were ready for more. We then visited Bonnie Slotnick Cookbooks, Twelfth Street Books, and moved on to the eight miles of books at Strand Bookstore.

BTW then checked in with a few other indefatigable bookstore tourists. Jodi Mason, from Elizabethtown, Pennsylvania, said that she had wanted to join a bookstore tour since she first saw it advertised two years ago. "Everyone's heard of the Strand. I knew there were a lot of other great bookstores, and I wanted to find out about them."

Shakespeare & Co. was one of the day's discoveries and highlights. "They had many books I don't often see, including a great section on English drama," Mason said. Her total was 10 books, including My Aunt's Rhinoceros by Peter Fleming (brother of Ian).

Don Dupes, from Camp Hill, Pennsylvania, was on his second bookstore tour and planned to come back for more. He was taking home 11 books, including The Lemon Table by Julian Barnes, and named Three Lives as his favorite of the day.

The tour-goers, book-laden and a bit worn out, headed back to Pennsylvania with a stop in New Jersey for a view of the Manhattan skyline, dinner, and a discussion about the day's book haul -- about 250 books.

Portzline told BTW, "As I walked from table to table to see how everyone was doing, I heard a lot of discussion about the bookstores people visited, the books they bought, various things they'd seen in the Village, etc. Quite a few people mentioned how much they enjoyed specific stores such as Strand, Three Lives and Co., East Village Books, Bonnie Slotnick Cookbooks, and McNally Robinson." The day's bestsellers, according to Portzline, were Saturday by Ian McEwan, The Mermaid Chair by Sue Monk Kidd, Blink by Malcolm Gladwell, and 1776 by David McCullough.

Portzline reported that at the dinner he overheard a frequent complaint of bookstore tourists. "There was some disappointment from folks who'd wanted to visit a particular store, but ran out of time, and then had to hear how wonderful it was from other people at dinner," he said. "It happens every trip, and I always find it amusing.

"When I described the offerings at Skyline Books on 18th Street -- signed first editions, rarities by famous authors -- one woman groaned and said she'll have to go back to New York to see for herself. That's a common theme at dinner -- 'I have to go back and visit the rest of the stores!'" --Karen Schechner

To find out about more about Bookstore Tourism, go to www.bookstoretourism.com.