A Sanctuary for Booklovers
Is there a better way to capitalize on the end of summer than to fly to Pittsburgh, secure a vehicle, and make your way to Harrisburg? You may be left wondering what sort of rhetorical question that may be, and under which degree of delusion it is spoken. Truly, I mean it, and I would like to recommend it to any bookish types possibly itching for one last excursion before the busy days of fall prevail. Here's why.
I should admit up-front that I have my personal reasons for this suggestion. Flying to Pittsburgh means I get to visit the Laurel Mountains, just to the south and west. The driving is pleasant—as long as you avoid the city's tunnels and bridges around rush hour. Once you've reached Donegal and exited the turnpike, you begin to ascend the mountain. Frank Lloyd Wright's serene Falling Water is nearby. The temperature drops several degrees, and the world feels different. I usually get to visit family there, and most recently, I enjoyed falling asleep, for one night at least, to the sound of water cascading and converging from Fall Run and Blue Hole creeks. (In western Pennsylvania, that last word requisitely rhymes with "fiddlesticks," a favorite word of my great grandmother's; her bath-robed, Stoneys-beer-carrying ghost still haunts the mountain, I'd like to think.)
Then there's the more general reason, the reason for this little report-cum-panegyric, and really one of the few reasons to cut short the above respite and the next morning continue along the turnpike to Harrisburg: Midtown Scholar Bookstore, in the old-and-revitalizing Midtown section of Pennsylvania's capital, across from the historic Broad Street Market. The owners say they have the largest stock of academic books between New York and Chicago, and, having visited twice now, I see no reason to doubt this claim. Their large, well-decorated, incredibly inviting ten-thousand-square-foot space is packed with 100,000 used, out-of-print, and scholarly books, with multitudinous others available online. (In fact, I first discovered Midtown Scholar when it kept appearing as a seller of books I was searching for on the Web—no matter how obscure the title.) Despite its name, Midtown Scholar has a great selection of more general titles, and is very family- and community-friendly to boot. I feel confident in calling it one of the best independent bookstores in the country today.
Let me set aside, for a minute, the browsing that awaits you. The space itself is remarkable, a throwback to better, more extravagant times when storefront bookselling, like so many other things in the country, was not yet damaged, diminished, or seemingly on the skids. First, you may not make it through the front door for a half an hour, thanks to the eleven library carts with dollar books marshaled along the sidewalk, as well as the full displays in the windows, above which stands a marquee. Bright blue letters flash "MIDTOWN" within an aluminum façade. It feels like you're standing at the front of an old-fashioned cinema, and there's a reason for that: the building began life as a theater in the 1920s, becoming a department store in the 1950s, and then an antiques shop decades later, when Harrisburg's boom had officially passed. As you enter, you'll be immediately impressed by a sense of space and openness ahead of you. It is easy to imagine the prior theater's grand stage or screen, and it feels a bit as if you're looking into the great hall of a Renaissance manor house, complete with large wooden beams dividing up the rectangular ceiling high above.
On the afternoon of my most recent visit, a group of students clustered at the front of a long coffee bar off to the right, sturdy with its dark, dignified wood, as if from an old saloon. Behind this space, known as the Famous Reading Cafe, a grand iron staircase, recovered from a hotel in Baltimore, rises over the bar to the second floor, and beyond it, there is a modest computer station for searches of online inventory, followed by a lengthy stage area for literary readings and concerts. The tall shelves at the back of the stage house a large run of Everyman volumes, all half price, and the children's books, which explains the kids' table, beanbag, and pop-up toys inhabiting one area of the stage. To appreciate better the scale of the place, take in the mural above these shelves, stretching out across the top of the side wall for nearly eighty feet. Events scheduled for the weeks after my visit included a folk concert, book signing, reading and writing groups, an artist's reception, and a performance by an improv troupe. I think the pertinent phrase here is "multi-purpose stage."
Across the store, on the opposite wall, you'll find three alcoves of shelves full of literature titles, arranged alphabetically by author and ranging from older, revered figures (Austen, Bronte, Dante, Shakespeare) to more recent authors (Toni Morrison). The outer edge of each alcove features handsome literary portraits (including the new, purported "Cobbe" image of Shakespeare) and panels with brightly elegant stained glass. Also noticeable are 19th-century engravings, old newspaper pages, and various signs, one promoting the NEA's "Big Read" program, and another in which Harrisburg Magazine declares Midtown Scholar the city's best bookstore, to which I say, "Duh." Below this artwork are tables with books by and smaller photographs of local authors, many of whom have read their work on the stage across the room. During those readings, the wide floor is full of chairs for audience members, but during a normal day, you'll find just a few wrought-iron bistro tables, taking up just a little of the wide-open space all around them. Above, skylights and an impressive verdigrised bell, brought from England, sit amid the beams, while a ceiling fan slowly chops the air.