Bookstores in Omaha & a Ride on the T-Bone Trail

Old Market, Omaha

Old Market, Omaha

Omaha is our favorite city in the Midwest.

It’s not Chicago or Minneapolis.  It doesn’t try to be.

It is a good place to visit on the fifth of July.  After being kept awake by fireworks in our small city in Iowa on the Fourth–could there have been any more firecrackers?–we woke up bleary-eyed and decided to travel to Omaha for relaxation.

Sometimes you have to go to a big city to find quiet.

We  love the Old Market area, a lovely, hip downtown Omaha neighborhood with a world-class used bookstore,  an artists’ co-op, antique shops, many restaurants with attractive verandas, and a lawn ornament shop that sells iron sculptures of pigs.

We do have a sense we’re in a real city here.  We always feel rather unhip:  It’s a little more bustly than we’re used to.  When we first went to Omaha, I informed my husband I wanted to live there.  It might have been a bit of a commute, though.

Jackson Street Booksellers, Omaha

Jackson Street Booksellers, Omaha

Naturally we spent a lot of time at Jackson Street Booksellers, the used bookstore.  I recently promised myself I would buy no more books this summer, but darn it!  What you do when you intend to break your Bibliophiles Anonymous pledge  is park your husband in an easy chair and then spend 40 minutes in the literature section.  AND THEN YOU BUY FOUR BOOKS AND PAY FOR THEM YOURSELF.   In retrospect, I wish I’d bought five books.  There was a novel by the Southern poet Alan Tate. Where will I ever see that again?

Then we went to the Bookworm, an independent bookstore in a strip mall way out on Pacific St.   I love this store.  Every summer they have attractive displays. A couple of years ago, intrigued by a flapper dress next to  piles of an appealing book with a cool blue cover, I discovered Laura Moriarty’s  engaging novel, The Chaperone, the story of a demure 36-year-old Wichita housewife who is coerced into chaperoning 15-year-old Louise Brooks (soon to be a film star) one summer in New York.  Last summer they displayed Dante’s Inferno with Dan Brown’s Inferno. (I went for the Dante.) Now they’re revving up for Erika Johansen’s The Queen of the Tearling (to be published July 8), the Number One pick on the IndieNext list this month (an organization of independent bookstores).  I quite like fantasy, and might very well like this novel, but it is a bit odd to have a display without any books.

And then we rode our bikes.  Not in Omaha, however.  We drove to Atlantic in Western Iowa (it’s on our way home, anyway) and rode the T-Bone Trail.

The T-bone Trail, Atlantic to Audubon, Iowa

The T-Bone Trail, Atlantic to Audubon, Iowa

The last time I rode the T-Bone, Nov. 13, 2011, I had a ghastly time.  As I wrote at my old blog:

The temp dropped five degrees in 15 minutes, according to the bank clock, and then we rode into the wind. It was very difficult to make any progress at all. I put my bike in low gear and leaned over the handlebars, but it was very, very cold. After an hour’s riding like that into the wind, I sat down on the trail and rubbed my legs.

But today it was warm and we only rode for two hours. It is absolutely flat, an extremely easy ride unless it is too hot or windy.  Cornfields, woods, prairie, small towns, and finally we rested in a gazebo in Ira, Iowa.   To be honest, I was glad to turn around, because one of my sandals was rubbing against my foot.  Sandals are not good biking shoes.  What was I thinking?

So I’m home, surrounded by lovely books, and I’ll chime in with what I’ve been reading soon.

Happy Long Weekend!

Things I Haven’t Done Before My Trip to London

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Photo op: at the library

Things I Haven’t Done Before My Trip to London:

1.  I didn’t lose any weight. Go on Weight Watchers…lose five pounds…gain it back…lose five pounds…gain it back…lose five pounds…decide you can’t live on an apple at dinner, which is the only way you’ve lost five pounds…  Then cook a colossal dinner of Mollie Katzen’s macaroni with mushrooms and spinach for your thin husband, the only one in the house who has lost weight on your diet, and he informs you that you are not going to have a swimsuit photo op in London.   And so I’m back to cooking dinner again.  “Thank God for that!”  he says.

2.  I didn’t dye my hair.  I thought briefly of dyeing my hair.  Yes, I was going to be thin in London…with dyed hair.  When it came right down to it, all I could stand at the salon was having my hair trimmed.

3.  Read a lot of London bloggers so I can have contact with the London blogging community.  News flash: I read no London bloggers.  None!  How did this happen?  Fortunately all the American and English bloggers have been to London and have given me excellent advice about everything. .. especially bookstores.

Sebastian Barry

Sebastian Barry

4. Figure out how to go to the Oxford Literary Festival to see Sebastian Barry one day and Margaret Drabble on another day.  The festival goes on for a WE-E-E-E-KKKKK and I don’t see how I can possibly go both days. But, wait,  I just found out there is something called the Daunt Books Spring Festival right in London.  Perhaps I can buy tickets for BOTH LITERARY FESTIVALS  just in case.  CAVEAT: You’re not rich, and you’ve seen Borges, Toni Morrison, John Updike, Joyce Carol Oates, Tom Wolfe, Bobbie Ann Mason, Ann Beattie…for free in the U.S.

5.  I didn’t reread all of Dickens, or any Dickens.  I’m going on the Dickens tour, right?  Well, probably.  For some reason I am reading Trollope this winter.  I don’t think there’s a Trollope tour, though.  Too bad…

6.  Travel with unstained clothes.  See that lovely spring sweater (above:  photo of me at the library)?  I spilled coffee on it .  It was nice to have coffee at the library…and then it spilled and I had to rush to the restroom and apply soap on a wet paper towel.  I don’t see a stain, do you?  I caught it in time. But I may be turning into Enderby, the tea-stained hero of Anthony Burgess’s Enderby books.

AND NOW I NEED ADVICE. Where do I buy groceries, i.e., lots of vegetables in London?   Grocery stores?  Co-ops?  I know about the markets from my guide books, and I can always find Starbucks…  But it might be nice just to buy some stuff quickly at a store and make sandwiches.

Backlisted!

Illustration of bookstore from "Globe and Mail"

Illustration of bookstore from “Globe and Mail”

“If we take this money here…and put it here,” my cousin said, “it might work.”

“I don’t have the faintest idea,” I said.

And I don’t.

I’ve talked about it forever:  my ambition as a young girl to open a bookstore, and I spent Career Week shyly hanging around The Paper Place.  Then there was Cattleman’s Books:  just about the time I’d arranged everything, the Cattleman got sick and his relatives pulped the books.

When my husband said I should blog less, after a marathon of writing featurettes on the pros and cons of blogging, I wistfully came up with the idea of opening a bookstore called Backlisted!   I would carry no new books, only books on publishers’ backlists and used books.  I would order remainders and discount NYRB books. I would buy books at estates.  I would cozy up to writers who live in a 150-mile radius and insist they give readings, and get people to attend with promises of drugs (kidding) or champagne cake from that really good bakery.    I would have Cult Fiction week:  A Confederacy of Dunces , H. D., and Jane Gaskell’s Atlan fantasy quintet. To please the Persephone Junta  and the Virago Junta (and I’m joking: I’m a MEMBER of the Persephone and Virago juntas), I would wear a frilly apron over a skirt, twin set and fake pearls.  Not to mention Dalkey Archive week.  What a good small press that is!

I’ve been sidetracked from my bookstore plans by doing the expected thing:  I taught after being a T.A. in grad school (“You’re a born teacher,” my mom said-ha!), and later writing and editing for various publications (“You’re a good writer,” said a professor of mine gloomily; he didn’t otherwise think highly of my skills. I had to explain that my friend and I turned up at the Boethius lecture because we had read Boethius; heavens, why else would anyone go to anything so boring?).

There are drawbacks to opening a bookstore.  Fourteen or fifteen bookstores have gone bust here since the ’90s. What could I possibly do that they couldn’t? We have to drive 100 or more miles to Iowa City or Omaha to get to a good bookstore.  And even then I’m not sure the stores are thriving.

Here are three fun pluses of opening a bookstore.

1.  You can invent a whole new image of yourself.  New hair, new clothes, smart new glasses:  I see myself playing the intellectual and reciting speeches from the salons in War and Peace.  But I know how these things go.  I’m much more likely to look preppy and sound ditzy than intellectual (the new preppy ditz look!), and even though I’m not ditzy, I might be a little bit preppy, though it’s usually spoiled by a blouse coming untucked.

2.  You can have your own book group.  Naturally you make use of your connections or no one will come:  your cousin and her friends, your friend Janet who lives 200 miles away (“Why CAN’T you come?”) and her friends, and those truly horrible people in the Great Books club.

3.  Let everyone list their favorite books in a beautiful leather notebook and once a week post “So-and-So’s favorite book!” and a small display of one or two copies.   We’re not snobs.  Let it be what it is.  Wuthering Heights or Mistress of Mellyn.  It’s a book!

Minuses or Things to Avoid:

1.  Do not live in your store, microwave Italian dinners so the whole place smells like Stouffer’s, or tell anyone that  you shower at the neighborhood gym.  The very thought of your hanging around sitting on the floor because you can’t afford chairs, or using a box as your desk is enough to sadden anyone.

2.  You want a nice cat in your store, not an attack cat.  After years of loving every cat I met at bookstores (especially Martha at Brookfield-Murphy Books),  I finally met one at a used bookstore that jumped on my bare legs.  I never went back there.

If someone would give me a bookstore, I’d run it.  And, yes, if I don’t open a bookstore soon, I never will.

Amazon is the bookstore of the future.  Or the present.    Who knows what the future holds?  For now, only the online thing can make money, if it can, and I’m not sure of that.

What kind of bookstore would you open if you had a chance?

Friendly Persuasion: Why It’s Okay to Have an E-Reader

Photo by Sarah Mackinnon; GETTY IMAGES

Photo by Sarah Mackinnon

On a recent journey, I was much occupied with my new e-reader.   Like many of us in the electronic age, I spend as much time with “e”-things as I do with human beings. My e-reader feels like my friend.  It is basically a small computer that supplies me with infinite choices of books; allows me to open my email and surf the web; plays music; and provides me with crossword puzzles. It is tactile.  I have my hands all over the screen every day.  I tap, click and drag, swipe, and read.

I told everyone recently that I didn’t need a new one.   “What do we need with all this new electronic crap?” I was haunted by images of e-waste I saw in a 60 Minutes story in 2008:  computers, phones and other electronic devices burning  in a dump in China where old computers and other electronic devices were sent to be “recycled.” One expert told Scott Pelley that these devices leak toxic chemicals like lead, cadmium, mercury, chromium, polyvinyl chloride.

I was horrified.  I want to make my e-things last.

But then my e-reader broke, and I had to replace it.  Call it Kindle, Nook, Kobo, Sony Reader: all of them are genies.

On Saturday, while my driver listened to Bob Dylan on the radio, I clicked on my e-reader and looked at the screen.  My device informed me that the temp was 36 degrees, and that on the basis of  recent library activity, which it semi-literately refers to as “picked for you based on recent library activity,” I might enjoy James Salter’s Burning the Days or Zadie Smith’s White Teeth.

I am indulgent of my e-reader’s faults, such as recommending books I already have, like Smith’s book, one of my favorite novels.  It is like having an encounter with a bookseller.  I might appreciate Burning the Days.

Suddenly the  screen dulled to gray because of the glare.  At first I wasn’t sure what was happening. Then I realized, “It’s so smart! It’s making it easier for me to read.”

Here is a short digression about my reading.   You probably think I was reading Disraeli’s Sibyl, or some other obscure 19th-century text available for download free from Project Gutenberg.

drowning-girl-caitlin-r-kiernan-paperback-cover-artNo, I was reading a new book I could just as easily have found at a bookstore:  Caitlin R. Kiernan’s strange, lyrical, fantasy-cum-psychological novel, The Drowning Girl.

Did I feel guilty that I hadn’t bought the paperback?  Not on the journey.  I was too fascinated by the poetic voice of the heroine, Imp, who is schizophrenic, like her mother, grandmother, and great-aunt, and who is writing a ghost story, about ghosts of mermaids and wolves.

She says:  “Sure, I’m a crazy woman, and I have to take pills I can’t really afford to stay out of hospitals, but I still see ghosts everywhere I look, when I look, because once you start seeing them, you can’t ever stop seeing them.”

I was guilt-free about my e-reader until we arrived in Iowa City and browsed at independent bookstores.  Why wasn’t I supporting Murphy-Brookfield Books, Prairie Lights, or Iowa Book & Supply?  Well, they’re too far from home.  I order books online,  books or e-books, because they are not available at physical bookstores in my city, where at least 12 independent bookstores have closed since the ‘90s.

Murphy-Brookfield Books

Back in the car, after buying a book, I immediately loved my e-reader again.  THE SCREEN LIGHTS UP IN THE DARK. I could read my e-book in the car.  I had to wait to read my paperback till I got home.

E-readers have their disadvantages.  At the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a study tells us that most e-readers have the capacity to track our searches and monitor our reading habits.  We mostly ignore that.

Lulling us with e-readers and computers, encouraging us to post our thoughts on Facebook,  Twitter, and e-mail, is fun for us, but great for surveillance, should it come to that, and provides employers with data to fire employees or information for divorce lawyers to prevail in court. In a strange kind of way, it also prepares us for the apocalypse, not Triffids, as in my favorite science fiction book, The Day of the Triffids, but perhaps for The Day of Climate Change.  We are indoors so much–except in Kindle ads–that we should be less panicky if it comes to the point where we can’t go outdoors.

Meanwhile, our e-devices are our friends. My e-reader is a female friend.  Does anyone else have a feeling like that?   And we sincerely hope our e-things will never jeopardize us.

Carpe diem while we can!