The Bookstore at the End of the World

On Thursday evening we were in Grand Marais, MN, about an hour and a half south of Thunder Bay – just went for dinner and a bit of a walk. It’s your typical seaside town: pebble beach, boats waking in and out of the harbour, lots of restaurants and shops lining the other side of the street along the water’s edge. Except of course, the “sea” is actually Lake Superior, our vast, vast inland body of water.

Other than that, we could have been in vignette of Galway Bay or Cape Town or a flatter, more-spread-out version Eastport, Maine. Kind of touristy, with everything on display a heightened, quaint caricature of the desperate truth just below the surface – that this is the last major settlement in America along the storied Highway 61, and that many more people go to the southern most bookend – The Big Easy – than The Big Marsh (except perhaps on that particular Thursday, when Issac was blowing in from the Gulf of Mexico).

Although Grand Marais isn’t necessarily the top of anyone’s Bucket List, it is nonetheless a very special place on Earth. That evening it was warm despite being the end of August, and the third-floor patio about the Gunflint Tavern looked like an inviting place to have drinks and watch the sunset. Anywhere else in the world – anywhere big, anyway – that perfect bar would have been impossible to get into, or if you did manage to slip the maitre d’ a little something, impossible to afford. Location, location, location I guess – and yet another advantage for those of us who choose not to live like lemmings in shiny metal boxes in some booming metropolis.

We walked along to the end of the “boardwalk” – not hard, considering it’s only about 400 metres long. There, at the end, we came across the Drury Lane bookstore. I think any writer or book lover would have been excited to see it – Drury Lane was truly the most beautiful, most exciting bookstore I’ve ever seen. The colours of it, for starters – you can see for yourself. The shape of the building, the lamppost, the sign, the porch and stairs, the little deck – everything about it appealed to me.

Perhaps most of all though was its location. Another 20 metres on, you’re in the lake, so it’s like the last bookstore in maybe forever. You stock up on books and launch your boat and you can physically go just about anywhere those stories will take you in your mind: Dickens’ London, Hugo’s Paris, Dostoyevsky’s St. Petersburg, Hemingway’s Florida Keys or Cuba, and all points along Fitzgerald’s route for Gatsby from Duluth along the Great Lakes to Chicago, New York, and West Egg. All under the twilight full moon, rising out of the sea to light the way. Set sail, oh, I don’t know, that way, and we’ll decide whether to turn right or left when we get there.

It also got me to thinking about independent bookstores – and bookstores in general, for that matter. This one, so obviously set up as tourist store. Were all bookstores destined to be this? A place where you splurge on real, touch-and-feel books on vacation or perhaps as a kitschy present for a friend? A place where you’re happy to lay down $50 for three books, like it’s some sort of charitable donation to a struggling bookseller on a nostalgic whim, lighting a candle for that Golden Age of Books?

I loved that the bookstore looked like someone’s attic, that it was all white and pristine inside, that the stacks of books weren’t the latest bestsellers only, or that there was nary a Hello! or Cosmo magazine to be found. I loved that I could wander around for a few minutes and get that charge that digital bookstores will never, ever give me, to be literally surrounded by a sea of books and to have my own boat to navigate them all (or at least a few of those ports of call…) I loved it was something we could all experience, together, as a family.

You grew up somehow knowing that bookstores would always be there. It was comforting in a way that you didn’t even consciously think about. Except when travelling – the joy of trudging into an English bookstore after weeks in the desert or the jungle or a foreign land is a special kind of comfort that can really only ever be felt – you consciously knew that joy. But to think that there is a very real threat that bookstores could disappear forever in our lifetime…

If that ever does happen, at least I’ll have this one memory in a glass snow globe in my mind, with my family marvelling at and basking in all these books, that I can shake up every once in while and remember.

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