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.
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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