The Joys of Reading Local

I love curated bookstores that celebrate and pridefully promote local interests, local stories, and regional history. When I attended the Juniper Summer Writing Institute two summers ago, it was my first experience in New England and I LOVED how all the books were set there. It’s how I was introduced to An Arsonist’s Guide to New England (the title is a lot better than the actual content, in my opinion, but it was cool to read a book that hopped around a lot of places I had recently visited, like the Emily Dickinson house and the Mark Twain house) and several other books centered around the Salem Witch trials, the descendents of the Salem Witch trial participants etc. I’ve noticed that books specific to New England, the South, and the Midwest aren’t typically available in bookstores near me, unless they become national bestsellers.

Set in Savannah, Georgia, this book is sold EVERYWHERE in the city.

This is why I am magnetically attracted to local bookstores–and the corners of gift shops dedicated to books–when I travel. I never come home without at least one new book reminiscent of my vacation. In my experience, I’ve found that museum gift shops are one of the best places for a great collection of regional books.

I got this from a gold mine museum in (ironically) Golden, Colorado

I wish there were more books about my local area. I would love to read a book about Byberry Mental Hospital, for example. Until it was knocked down a few years ago, it was always looming next to the road on my way to the roller skating rink, and my parents would tell stories about how they used to be good friends with the former head doctor, a “good man” who honestly thought lobotomies were the best medical practice; everyone did, at the time. And stories about how my mom had to visit the hospital for a college psychology class and how the nurses had pointed out the door that led to the criminally insane patients corridor.

Admittedly, I do appreciate that Barnes and Noble tries to celebrate local-ness; at least, mine does. They give extra promotion to books published by local presses–Philadelphia is not the publishing capital of the world, by any means, but it is the home of Quirk Books, the publisher of Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, which gets a lot of local-pride attention–and they stock regional history picture books such as the Images of America series with volumes dedicated to Yardley Borough, Bucks County, historic Langhorne Borough, and Newtown.

I love that series, by the way. My Dad liked to drive my sister and I around to point out places and buildings associated with  his memories growing up in the 1930s and 40s, but a lot of things had changed since then so it was often hard to visualize his stories. The asparagus farm field where my dad had cut the vegetable–a nickel for a bunch–every morning before school, for example, has since become a cookie-cutter neighborhood development.

Now, skip forward to Christmastime 2010, with my boyfriend and I wandering through the local Barnes and Noble when I casually picked up the Yardley Borough book. I was flipping through and excitedly pointing out pictures of things I remembered from my Dad’s growing-up stories: there was a picture of the school hill upon which my Dad’s brand new scooter had denigrated–the wheels falling off and everything–underneath him, a picture of the teacher who used to beat him for being left-handed (yes, it was a public school), a picture of Yardley Borough’s first ambulance in the 1950s, the one he drove as one of the first members of the town’s first-ever EMT squad.

And then I found a picture of my Dad. No more than ten years old, sitting cross-legged on the floor in his Boy Scout uniform. Dad died in 2008 and suddenly seeing his face in a published book was more than special. It made it feel like he was important in history, not just my family. I don’t know how many copies of that book have sold, but the fact that he’s there, on other people’s bookshelves, in dozens, maybe hundred’s of homes . . .

Let’s just say I think reading local has its rewards.