You would think that by now I would know better than to pack all of my flying into the can of worms we call “Summer.” Jam-packed airplanes, glass-ceilinged terminal buildings that simmer like crock pots, unaccompanied kids in droves and cancellations galore, and for some reason, I stack my schedule like I don’t want to miss a single minute of it. (Santa Fe spas are awesome, after all, but they ain’t free.) But Summertime flying is a topic for another post. (Or “series of rants;” we’ll see where that takes us.) Hard as I’ve been hittin’ it the last couple weeks, though, it hasn’t been all bad. As I’ve mentioned in posts past, I am a mad fan of the downtown layover, and of all of the diversions they provide, and I have lucked into a few of them lately. Cute cafes and boys in shorts are but the first two things that leap to mind as being more plentiful and more fun in a City Center than at airport-adjacent lodgings, and my pro-cafe, pro-boys-in-shorts stance is longstanding and unambiguous. But last week, on an unexpected and uncommon trip with not one but two downtown layovers, I reconnected, at long last, with one of the best things about being a writer who flies: America’s Bookstores.
When I travel, I love to explore bookstores in other cities and countries to see what people read. To see what people are talking about; what topics are of interest, at least to the people running the bookstores, who reach out, in their hand-lettered recommendations, to share these with their neighbors; what ends up on the Clearance table. I love to scope out the Local Authors section. Maybe because I use it myself to relate to my world, fiction gives me a feel for a new place in a way that no guide book, political tome, or local history does. Cities like San Francisco, London, and Mumbai fairly unfold before your eyes under the pens or madly-typing fingers of hometown writers. Besides gripping plot points and scandalous misadventures, you get a glimpse of what people eat, where people go, and how they get there. Cultural mores and taboos are illustrated in context, and occasionally a local author will let you in on an inside joke. It’s like I didn’t just go to a bookstore and a Thai restaurant on my layover, but I followed a private detective or a gay hustler or an unlucky-in-love magazine editor (why are they always magazine editors?) around town, lurking in alleys, tiptoeing out of ramshackle apartments, and meeting all the wrong broad-shouldered men. (That’s how you know it’s fiction — in life, is there ever such a thing as the wrong broad-shouldered man?)
San Francisco is the hands-down winner for Best Airport Bookstore, at least until the Tattered Cover comes to D.I.A., which should at least spice up this otherwise no-brainer category. Rare indeed in an airport, the SFO branch of indy local fave Books Inc. has the same spectacular Clearance section to which the other Bay Area locations lay claim, and holds the distinction of being the first bookstore in which I ever saw a book (Shane Allison’s erotic antho Brief Encounters) with one of my own stories in it.
Just last weekend, on a long San Diego layover, loving cafes and boys as I do, I hurried to Hillcrest, where I thrilled to discover Bluestocking Books. One of two independent bookstores the neighborhood supports, it had an extensive gay fiction section (here I come!) and the largest specifically-lesbian fiction section I’ve ever come across. I scooped Carrie Fisher’s Wishful Drinking off of the vast Featured Used Books! table, and was unable to resist a “Read a fucking book!” sticker. An ebullient and hospitable woman whom I took to be the owner bade me a speedy return to her shop, and it will be my first stop on my next San Diego layover, not just because I’m hoping that the same hot-jock-lookin’ bookworm will still be glued to the History section when next I visit.
After-Words in Chicago is handily located next to my favorite Panang curry in town, and sends me coupons in my birthday month (thus ruling out any possibility of a downtown Chicago layover in June, but that’s just how the crew desk operates). They have a small “New” section and cool kids books on the main floor, and millions of used books in their giant basement. Their Writing section is pretty big for a used bookstore, and I’ve scooped up a few gems from among the useless last-decade’s Writer’s Markets, and I’ve found some crazy fiction there, including Rita Rudner’s comedy novel debut, which I know you didn’t even know existed. Afterwords is also the name of the bustling cafe attached to Kramerbooks in Dupont Circle in Washington, D.C. When I was there last Sunday, the line for brunch accounted for most of the people in the bookstore, but they mostly crowd into non-fiction. Steps from most of the Embassies, they have a huge travel section, and of course every political yawn-a-thon ever to roll off even the creakiest printing press, but their fiction section is curated by a story-lover with a taste for the unordinary, and their anthology selection is quirky and diverse, ever-ready to introduce a new genre or gang of genius writers.
And then there’s Powell’s. The City of Books. The Vatican, the Taj Mahal, the Mecca of bookstores. At least in this country. At least for me. Sprawled across what feels like blocks of downtown Portland, Oregon, Powell’s Books might be one of the ten awesomest things I’ve seen, and I can easily and quite happily wile away an entire layover in its thrall (as I have just finished doing — I’m posting from Portland). From the downtown hotel it’s walkable, and from the airport hotel we can get there by train, but if an anti-bookstore super villain devised a way to put hot coals in shark-infested waters between us, I would trudge across them for the chance to buy more books than I can carry home from Powell’s. The first few steps inside are almost overwhelming, even to the initiated — books everywhere! — but you gotta power through. Up these stairs, down these others; through this giant room and across that one; new books, used books, common pulp and rare gems — it’s one of the few layover experiences where the cafe and the hot boys (and Powell’s has both) are little more than an agreeable bonus. Just being in the midst of this much output is inspiring to me as a writer, an artist, and a man. I’ve visited revered temples in Asia, celebrated cathedrals in Europe, and world-famous gay bars in dozens of cities, but never have I experienced a holier place than the Gay Fiction section here. Extensive, yet tucked away, it invites both a leisurely browse and undisturbed meditation. Classics of the genre nestle among gay mysteries, slapstick romances, and new and well-worn copies of books you never knew were out there, and seeing such a number and diversity of queer voices marching across shelf after shelf moves me in a way no mere church ever could. A spark of purpose is reignited in me on each pilgrimage to this section of this store; a need to dig through my heart and listen to my spirit for stories, and then to tell them. To tell them well or badly; to tell them at length or in five hundred, one hundred, fifteen words; to concoct them or to dutifully record them from my own experience — the Universe has actually visited me at this very bookshelf and whispered to me, Keep writing.
And so I do. Because of all the cities we serve, the City of Books is my favorite, and the only better way I can think of to get there than on an airplane is between the covers of a book.