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On The Road: Midwest Indie Bookstore Tour 2013

Greg Zimmerman

Staff Writer

Greg Zimmerman blogs about contemporary literary fiction at The New Dork Review of Books and holds down a full-time gig as a trade magazine editor. Follow him on Twitter: @NewDorkReview.

Over Labor Day weekend, I crossed a significant item off my bookish bucket list. I spent the weekend driving 1,200 miles, through four states and five cities…all for books! I visited eight different independent bookstores along the way, and I did this for no other reason than that it was something I’ve always wanted to do. What follows is a chronicle of my adventures. Enjoy!

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(Note to the reader: In most cases, the hyperlinks are to Flickr for photos I took on the trip. You can go here for a list of and links to the bookstores I visited.)

Friday, August 30th

11:30 am — I’m off! Man, am I excited! I climb into my trusty blue Honda Civic, armed with the Google maps app, four apples, two bags of trail mix, two Gatorades, and Reza Aslan’s Zealot on audiobook. I head west!

2:30 pm — I’m crossing the mighty Mississippi…at 5mph. Stupid road construction.

4:05 pm — I arrive at my first stop — Prairie Lights Books in Iowa City, IA. Wow — my first thought as I walk in is that I hope all of my stops are as awesome as this one. Prairie Lights is near the campus of the University of Iowa, and clearly caters to a student crowd — indeed, two comely coeds were in line in front of me, asking about books for a psychology class. But Prairie Lights has a huge fiction section, too. I look around for awhile, then I earn a wary glance from a clerk when I take out my phone and snap a photo of the super cool old-school refrigerator door with bookish magnets. So I pick up a hardcover copy of Elliott Holt’s novel You Are One Of Them, and beat a hasty retreat.

5:30 pm — It’s 102 degrees. I’m hoping the trusty blue Civic makes it. And it does! Here’s the second stop of the day, Beaverdale Books in Des Moines, IA. This is a tiny store situated in a shopping plaza on the west side of the city. The selection here is meager, but the store has one full wall of shelves dedicated to Iowa authors and books, which is cool. There’s also a bin at the front of the store that offers shoppers a free Advanced Reading Copy with purchase. Very cool. I buy a paperback of Adam Langer’s Crossing California (he has a new novel out 9/17 titled The Salinger Contract, which I’m really excited about!), and head out to find some food.

7:00 pm — I check into my budget roadside motel in west Des Moines. I find a liquor store, buy a bottle of scotch, and return to my room to continue reading the new Jonathan Lethem (Dissident Gardens, out 9/10). I feel like Jack Kerouac. Or Charles Bukowski. Or Hunter S. Thompson. I keep telling myself that.


Saturday, August 31

9:45 am — I gas up at a Kum and Go station, suppress a giggle, and hit the road!

1 pm — I drive through downtown Kansas City, head west, and arrive in Lawrence, Kansas. My first stop is a used bookshop called The Dusty Bookshelf. The place is swamped with what appear to be professor sorts — one man has situated himself in the “classics” section on a chair and appears to be simply sitting there gazing lovingly at the books. This goes on for awhile. I butt in, scoop up a copy of Jane Eyre, pay $2 for it, and head out.

1:30 pm — Right around the corner from The Dusty Bookshelf is The Raven Bookshop, a tiny store, but with a deceptively large fiction selection. The woman in line in front of me at The Dusty Bookshelf is here, too. We nod at each other — a mutual booklovers’ acknowledgement. I browse for just a minute, and pick up a hardcover copy of Max Barry’s Lexicon.

2:30 pm — I have very few non-bookish plans for this trip. But visiting Allen Fieldhouse on the campus of the University of Kansas is one. I’m a fanatical college hoops fan, and this is an essential stop — Allen Fieldhouse is one of the oldest and most venerable college basketball facilities in the country. I approach the building on Naismith Drive (as in Dr. James, the inventor of basketball), park, and walk across a large grass field to snap a photo or two. It’s quiet, there’s no one else around. I’m wearing a Marquette University tshirt (my beloved alma mater). I’m trying to exorcise the demons of the 2003 Final Four. Somewhere, Dwyane Wade is smiling. I keep telling myself that.

4:00 pm — I’m back in Kansas City. It’s started to rain, appropriately, just as I pull up to Rainy Day Books. Heartbreak! It’s closed for the Labor Day weekend. Gah! So I go check into my hotel, and walk around the Country Club Plaza area, where there’s a three-story Barnes and Noble. It’s pretty awesome. I spend an hour there browsing and buy a paperback copy of Nelson DeMille’s The Panther.

8 pm — I’m in my hotel room reading. I’m not in the mood for Dense Lethem right now, so I read Jonathan Dee’s A Thousand Pardons. I’ve never read Dee before, but this novel seems…purposefully obtuse? As one example, the following passage: “Holding the phone with her shoulder, she Googled his name and hit Return.” Hit Return?! Is she Googling on a typewriter? This reminds of me that Senator from Alaska who thought the Internet was a “series of tubes.” This, and other similar silly passages, throws off my reading mojo, so I retreat to the bar next door for barbeque and beer. Boulevard beer is very good.


Sunday, September 1

12:30 pm — I’m driving from KC to St. Louis (middle Missouri is beautiful!), and I decide to take a break from Aslan to rock out for a bit. “Pardon me…while I burst…into fla..” SHIT! TIRE IN THE ROAD! /Swerve /Regain control /Briefly hyperventilate. I go back to Aslan.

2:30 pm — I’m at Main Street Books (no photo, ’cause it was pouring) in historic St. Charles, Missouri (a suburb of St. Louis). The best and probably only way to describe this tourist-oriented bookshop is Cute (yes, with a capital C). It’s tiny with creaky wood floors, and a steep staircase that leads to an upstairs used and children’s section with a fireplace and all. The street out front is even made of red bricks. I feel like I’m in an episode of Little House on the Prairie. The fiction selection here is small, but the store has a sign that reads “Browse here, find it here, buy it here, keep us here.” I love that — it’s sort of the theme for the trip (and the mantra for all indie bookstores). I buy a hardcover copy of Wilton Barnhardt’s Lookaway, Lookaway.

3:00 pm — Holy shit, it’s raining very, very hard. The gods are angry, my friends.

3:30 pm — I arrive safely at Subterranean Books in St. Louis, near the campus of Washington University — it’s a long, narrow bookstore with a huge fiction section. But the first thing I notice when I walk in is that they’re displaying Margaret Atwood’s MaddAddam — which is exciting because I didn’t think it was available for three more days. I buy a copy. I also love this wall of bookish tshirts near the entrance to the store. On the walk back to my car, I literally stumble on a William Burroughs star on a pseudo-star-walk-of fame.

5:00 pm — I check into my hotel in downtown St. Louis, near the Arch, and walk to the last stop on the indie bookstore tour — Left Bank Books. I really love this place — it’s all hardwood floors, and open plenum, and with a really industrial/loft feel. I browse for awhile, and then chat up the guy at the register about the other Left Banks location in the Central West End part of town, which, he tells me, is actually the original store. He says it’s a little bigger with a bit better selection. But I like the selection here, too. I splurge a little, since this is my last stop, and buy a hardcover copy of Chimamanda Ngozie Adichie’s Americanah and a paperback copy of Scott Hutchins’s A Working Theory of Love. I leave the store, and I’m little sad. I go visit the Arch, and call it a day.


Monday, September 2

1:30 pm — About halfway home, I finish listening to Zealot. I give myself a high-five, as this is my first ever audiobook — no longer am I an audiobook virgin!  I enjoyed the experience, with a few reservations — but more on that in a later post. Also, Zealot is really interesting. I’d highly recommend it if you’re into religion and history and such things.

3:30 pm — Sweet home, Chicago. What a trip. Here’s my final haul. Time to get to work reading!

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