A Sanctuary for Booklovers
At the back of this open space, take the stairs up to the elevated back room, which is stuffed with art monographs and coffee-table books. The collection of art books alone is huge, larger by itself than many smaller shops. If you arrive on a tight schedule, woe be unto you. At the top of the stairs sits an attorney's bookcase, with glass doors protecting some of the rarer volumes, and nearby, a chalkboard placard with a quote from C. S. Lewis: "You can't get a cup of tea big enough or a book long enough to suit me." Beneath this area is a similar space, mainly occupied by history titles, which are also found, along with religion and science sections, on the next level down, formidably called "Scholar Underground." Give yourself a lot of time down there. That's all I'll say.
A few steps up from the landing, a long, intricate iron railing protects distracted browsers from returning too precipitously to the literature alcoves directly below. This balcony area features travel titles as well as short-story collections and other anthologies. If you walk along the rail, you'll eventually reach the Gallery, the upper level at the storefront end. (This tour has basically moved you in one large horseshoe formation.) A gloriously large poetry section occupies the wall nearest you, in front of which sit a handful of unfinished pews. They remind me of that intense church scene in There Will Be Blood, where Daniel Day Lewis' character repents or converts or whatever he does, although the usual activity in this corner of the store is likely less harrowing. There's a lectern as well, and I would guess this is where the Midtown Poets and visiting versifiers give readings. (They are a lucky bunch.) In the middle and far end of the gallery, customers seeking a more comfortable place will find chairs and sofas, with a chessboard nearby. Don't miss, over your shoulder, the Yellow Wall Gallery, which is pretty much what it sounds like, with local art is on display.
I realize I have not mentioned a single specific book in this essay. That seems fitting, somehow, although anyone would find plenty at Midtown Scholar of sufficient interest, and much more. But then again, nearly any book you may find here could also be tracked down online with a few mouse clicks—indeed, you may even end up ordering it from Midtown Scholar. So the merchandise is not the essential reason to go, although there is a special pleasure in finding the right book in a special place. It is so much better, isn't it, than the laser-point efficiency of mere acquisition? And now we're getting somewhere: the massive accumulation of books may be what draws you to Midtown Scholar, but I doubt its stock is what you'll primarily remember about your time there. If books are treasured objects, then sometimes it is good to remember that those increasingly rare places devoted to them are treasures, too. They are places where art, music, and writing happen and are shared; they are also spots to be happily alone with yourself for awhile, for a bit of rest or reckoning, kicking back or deep introspection. Isn't it terrific that bookstores are so often both things at once? And the bigger the better, I say, even in these lean, uncertain times.
So book your ticket, and if you somehow manage to leave Midtown Scholar with any of your day remaining, turn the corner off Third Street onto Verbeke, and walk the few blocks (you'll pass Shady McGrady's on your right, another neighborhood gem) till you reach North Front Street. The Pennsylvania Governor's Mansion is farther along this riverside road, in the Uptown neighborhood, but there is no shortage of grand residences to view in the immediate vicinity. Even better, take a seat on one of the nearby benches and look out over the Susquehanna River. It is on a journey, too. Flowing by, it is already leaving you behind as you watch, sitting on its east bank at the end of summer.
Brett Foster is associate professor of English at Wheaton College. His first collection of poems, The Garbage Eater, has just been published by Northwestern University Press.
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