There are a few different barometers that I judge cities, towns, and villages by when traveling. However, without fail, I always keep my eye out for local bookstores and coffee shops. These are my third spaces, where I go to connect, to observe, to be. Hidden just beneath the surface is a part of me that believes that, if I find these spaces in a new town, I could be happy there...that I would find my people.
For a town of its size, San Angelo* is virtually replete with bookstores. We never warranted a Borders or Barnes & Noble (remind me to tell you about my first visit to a BN in Austin a bit later), but the local mall did have what would later be their smaller subsidiaries, B. Dalton and Waldenbooks. I spent many hours here perched on step stools reading through the teen paperbacks. Neither of these stores survived my teenage years.
Perhaps the most cherished bookstore (and bookstore memory) of my youth is Hastings. It will always be the cool, independent bookstore where I first discovered Smashing Pumpkins (Siamese Dream) and could spend hours browsing all of the books. I yearned to be cool enough to belong in that store. Even though I've outgrown Hastings' local book selection and the store itself has outgrown the label of small and indie, it remains on my visit list when I head home.
Local book culture seems to be hanging on (perhaps even thriving?) in San Angelo. In 2012, the county spent $12M to refurbish a vacant department store downtown and turn it into the new Stephens Central Library. Rita's Book Exchange and Ye Ole Fantastique Book Shoppe are used bookstores that have been around for years. And, during this trip, I finally made it into Cactus Book Shop.
There is something special about a bookstore that can build a space and community around a niche topic (think Reiter's Books and their focus on scientific, medical, and technical books in DC). The Cactus Book Shop does just that with its focus on Texas and the Southwest. My experience with reading westerns only extends as far as Lonesome Dove by Larry McMurtry (fantastic) and last year's reading of The Sisters Brothers by Patrick DeWitt. I am, however, a huge proponent of soaking up the local culture of wherever you happen to travel, and bookstores provide an awesome opportunity to learn about new authors and topics.
Even though I grew up in San Angelo, I got caught up in the heady possibility of immersing myself in the culture almost immediately upon walking in the door. My mom might have thought I was a bit touched (Texan for crazy) when she spotted me picking up title after title, but she's nothing if not supportive and bought me the Rivers of Texas you see pictured above. I also picked up The Time It Never Rained by Elmer Kelton (local western hero) and Crossing Rio Pecos by Patrick Dearen (Modern Farmer came from Hastings). Clearly, I was also letting my river nerd flag fly.
Do you ever visit local bookstores when you travel? Share some of your favorites!
* where I was born and grew up