The first bookstore I loved wasn't a little independent gem nestled in a neighborhood: it was a modest Waldenbooks in our local shopping mall.
This was back in the mid-1980s, when going to the mall was a fairly typical way to spend a weekend afternoon, at least in the suburbs of Pittsburgh. Our mall of choice was the nearby Century III Mall -- a perfect example of the excess of the decade, with not two, not three, but five anchors. It had three levels, all opening onto a wide central courtyard with blue-tiled fountains. It had rambling staircases that forked in mid-descent, as if the mall were a choose-your own-adventure story, with too many options for just one path.
We went to the mall for many things -- to buy a new set of socket wrenches at Sears, to pick out my sister's prom dress at Deb, to treat ourselves with an Orange Julius. But mostly, we went to visit the bookstore.
My parents used books as bribes: if I got straight A's on my report card, they would buy me one book. This was completely unnecessary, as I always got A's and they bought me books all the time anyway, and we all knew it. We would drive to the mall and head straight to Waldenbooks, where I'd make a beeline for the children's section in the back, plop down on the industrial carpet, and begin reading. We'd stay for hours, and we virtually never left without a book.
Often, after we left Waldenbooks, we would go directly across the mall to B. Dalton, where we'd repeat the process -- except there, the children's section was in a different location, and the floor was parquet. These were the first bookstores I remember visiting, and I grew to love those tiny spaces, hardly bigger than newsstands but -- like the wardrobe in Narnia or Dr. Who's TARDIS or, really, books themselves -- much, much bigger on the inside.
Now that I have a child of my own, I'm in awe of -- and deeply grateful for -- the time my parents spent in taking me to bookstores. They could have said they were too tired (which was probably true). They could have told me to go watch TV (which like most kids, I loved) or that books were expensive (which they were). They could have hurried me out of the store after five or ten minutes.
But instead they took me to the bookstore, every week, sometimes more than once, and let me linger. I discovered many favorites -- Roald Dahl's The BFG, Cynthia Voigt's Homecoming, Diana Wynne Jones's How's Moving Castle -- simply by pulling books from the shelf and leafing through them. More importantly, I got the message my parents were trying to send: books were important. They were worth taking time for. And so were bookstores.
Waldenbooks, along with its parent company, Borders, has gone out of business now, as has B. Dalton. The Century III Mall has fallen into decline and stands more than half-empty, and the very idea of a bookstore in a mall seems quaint. Even the super-bookstores that replaced those little mall stores -- the monster Borders and Barnes & Nobles, with cafes and CDs and gifts and games -- are fewer and farther between.
But I still take my son to the bookstore. We are lucky enough to have a bookstore right in our neighborhood, the wonderful Porter Square Books. We go to the children's section in the back corner and play with the puzzles and pat the giant bear who lives there, and we read books. And inevitably, we leave with a book, too. With each visit, I hope my son sees that a bookstore is different from a hardware store or a grocery store, where you run in because you need a screwdriver or a gallon of milk, then leave. I hope he's learning that a bookstore -- whatever the size or location -- is a place where you explore and encounter new ideas. I hope he understands what I learned in that long-gone Waldenbooks in the mall: that books are important and worth taking time for, and so are bookstores.
This post is part of a series produced by The Huffington Post and the Morristown Festival of Books (Morristown, NJ, September 26-27, 2014). For more information on the festival, visit their website here.