I keep a guitar in the writer shed. It’s the oldest of my two acoustics, a Yamaha I bought in the early 1970s with money I made from selling newspapers when I was in high school. The nicks and scratches, and the worn wood near the pick guard are tiny reminders of all the places I’ve played and the people I’ve played for—friends at parties, late night bar goers, brides and grooms, college coffee houses patrons. The guitar still sounds wonderful after all these years. And sometimes when I play it alone in the shed, like today, that old guitar is the soundtrack to my thoughts, helping me consider dreams.
It’s afternoon in the shed. The rain falls on the roof. I’m picking the strings of a D, C, G chord progression and thinking about how this guitar, in a small way, has brought people together—strumming and singing around campfires, crowds offering up a chorus in a dark tavern. Guitars do that. They are a community of song; they create an atmosphere, a certain attitude. The guitarist does not have to be superbly talented, although that helps. He only has to be open to all that’s around him, making those who come to listen feel welcome.
Creating art of any kind is meant to be shared. It’s communal. Even the solitary work of writing, eventually becomes a work people experience, individually and collectively. Keeping art to yourself is not art; it is only the practice of art. You have to share it.
I add an E-minor chord to the mix and begin a soft strum.
Yet, despite that belief, I am here in the shed alone. Still, the guitar is doing at least part of its job, assisting me in dreaming of possibilities. And at this moment, with all the books I keep here in the shed surrounding me, I dream of a bookstore. My own.
I don’t know a single writer who has not entertained the idea of owning a book shop. It’s that quiet, warm atmosphere, all those titles, all that passionate talk about books. For some, it is a fleeting thought, a dream that may not have been shared with anyone else. For others, however, the dream is very real.
Ann Patchett, Larry McMurtry, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, and other famous writers own or have owned bookstores. Others have had jobs in them. Patti Smith famously worked at Scribner’s Bookstore in NYC, even slept there when she had nowhere else to go. But working in one is nothing like owning one. Those who buy and sell businesses say the person who truly considers buying a bookstore does not do it for the money. That would be foolish; they’ll never make much. Maybe 5-7% profit at best. Go do something else if you are trying to generate cash. Owning a bookstore is closer to a hobby than a business investment. And bookstore buyers are a different breed. I would not include myself among that breed, but, boy, the dream is the same.
I tune the low E string to a D and pick through a bluesy progression.
And my bookstore? It would include the one ingredient every bookstore I love has: bringing people together. Not unlike playing the guitar.
I don’t mean to suggest some higher-ground, new wave motivation here, as if a bookstore or some late night guitar strumming can change the world. But what contributes to a meaningful night of music and a great afternoon at the bookstore, are the exact same things: a love of art and a communal sensibility. Community. Sharing.
A year or so ago, a bookstore in Wigtown, Scotland—a village considered Scotland’s National Book Town—began offering opportunities for people to come and run the shop for a week or two, a bookstore-owning vacation. Those who dreamed of owning a store could put their toes in the water, so to speak. And who wouldn’t at least consider it in a village along the sea where on a clear day one can see the Isle of Man in the Irish Sea. The idea might lure even the most skittish. Plus, this idea takes the community aspect of a good bookstore to a new level, gathering like-minded people from all over the world.
I like what I’m playing here in the shed and I want to remember it. So I click on my phone’s recorder and run through the chord progressions again. Someday, I just might share this song. And that’s exactly what my bookstore would be about. Sharing.
I would handpick every title to reflect memorable prose, beautiful writing, meaningful stories that tear you apart and put you back together again. I would read every book in the place no matter how long it would take, so I could entertain any comment, any question from all who come to ask. I would offer coffee and tea because both complement the beautiful verses inside the poetry books on the back shelves, and fuel conversation about the one line from W.B. Yeats that always makes you cry. There would be stacks of used books in the aisles and the art of local painters on the walls. Big overstuffed chairs in small corners. Children sitting on the floor turning the pages of Kenneth Grahame’s The Wind in the Willows. Grownups hiding away in cramped corners for hours on a Sunday afternoon, reading Hemingway’s The Nick Adams Stories or Alice Munro’s The Moons of Jupiter. And when the sun goes down and it’s time to call it a workday, I’ll invite a handful of customers in for a nip of sherry or a glass of cabernet, and we’ll talk and talk about paragraphs from books that have shaken our hearts so fully that they must be shared.
My shed is off limits to reading daily emails, paying bills, taking phone calls, or making to-do lists for the everyday tasks of life. Only writing, reading, and guitar. Today, the old guitar did its work. It allowed me a fantasy that is not likely to come true—that cozy, communal bookstore on the hill of a tree-lined street in a small town of book lovers.
Ah, to dream.