Tag Archives: bookselling

Books: The 3800 block of San Diego’s 5th Avenue in Hillcrest


Bookseller Jan Tonnesen thumbs through a first edition Dr. Suess book at 5th Avenue Books in San Diego, Calif., earlier this month. Fifth Avenue Books is one of two terrific bookstores on the 3800 block of 5th Avenue in the Hillcrest area. The other is Bluestocking books, almost directly across the street. Photo by John Doucette.

SAN DIEGO, Calif. – Folks here said the number of bookstores in the city has dwindled in recent years, but I had time during a recent work trip to visit two terrific shops on opposite sides of 5th Avenue in the Hillcrest area – 5th Avenue Books, which sells used, and Bluestocking Books, which sells a mix of new and used.

The former Borders location in Gaslamp notably lay empty, which is not unlike an awful lot of towns, but a big recent loss for rare and used book hunters fond independent sellers was the ultimate shuttering of Wahrenbrock’s Book House, following the 2008 death of its owner. But a few shops are still going, including in and around Hillcrest, and I keep hoping people will rediscover the joy of going to a cool bookstore and finding either something wanted or something you didn’t know you needed.

With 5th Avenue and Bluestocking so close, I urge them to mate and make some beautiful new bookstores. I’m not 100 percent certain of the science behind my proposal. Regardless, the Hillcrest Town Council should petition the City Council to fund the purchase of a huge scented candle, as well as the rental of a Commodores cover band to play an autumn evening set in the middle of the avenue. Just see where it goes, San Diego. Let’s see them try to resist the silky allure of 1978’s “Say Yeah.”

Anyway. I visited Bluestocking first, where owner Kris Nelson said the store’s name roughly means “oddball,” and also refers to an intellectual woman. There’s also a brief history of the term at the store site. The number is (619) 296-1424, and they have a Facebook fan site at this link. I browsed fiction, mostly, then compulsively bought a Tim Seibles poetry collection, which you can look forward to among the prizes for next year’s Fortune Cookie Fortune Writing Contest. Say, did you hear about the National Book Award nominations yet? Still cool.

Nelson said the store has a fairly simple philosophy:

Come as you are. Dress how you want. Why can’t we all just be equal?

She’s had the store for 13 years, though there’s been a bookstore here since the 1960s.

I love our neighborhood. It’s still a great walking neighborhood with trees. It’s a very tolerant neighborhood.

She even met her husband here in the store, when he showed up for a poetry reading and then bought a book. The store is doing well, she noted, in part due to the shuttering of Borders — similar to what I heard at an independent store in Rhode Island last year.

We’ve seen a bump. We’ve also seen a bump because some of the used stores have been closing, which is sad.

Bluestocking bookseller Dawn Marie said:

A lot of the bookstores we used to have closed, but so has Borders. There’s one Barnes & Noble, and they’ve really cut back.

In addition to new books, Bluestocking has taken on services such as handling magazine subscriptions. Said Marie:

It boils down to where can [customers] get the services they need? And that’s what lets us grow. There’s still growth happening, but its stores that are really service-oriented.

Bluestocking Books exterior.

Kris Nelson, owner of Bluestocking Books in the Hillcrest neighborhood of San Diego, Calif.

Bluestocking Books.

Bluestocking Books interior.

I didn’t have time to venture out to other recommended shops — Adams Avenue Book Store in Normal Heights and D.G. Wills Books in La Jolla [the latter has a Loeb Classical Library and Western Philosophy wall and, man, check out their YouTube channel] — but I loved San Diego like stupid loves low expectations. I aim to be back, and also aim to check these spots out.

That said, I found so much great stuff at Bluestocking Books and 5th Avenue Books, I ended up with a challenging carry-on situation for the flight back to Virginia. There are worse problems to have.

Across the street from Bluestocking, I spoke with Jan Tonnesen, a bookseller at 5th Avenue Books. He worked for three decades at Wahrenbrock’s before it closed.

Fifth Avenue Books holds down a big, open space at 3838 5th Ave., with some back rooms, too. The number is (619) 291-4660 and they have a Facebook fan page at this link. I ended up choosing some Modern Library volumes, including the first San Diego-bought book I started reading on the ride home — a very nice copy of The Decameron.

Tonnesen, back when he worked at Wahrenbrock’s, witnessed the late pop star Michael Jackson on a shopping spree there. His bill topped $1,700. This was by far the coolest story I heard in San Diego. Said Tonnesen:

I spent about 20 minutes alone with him in the rare books room. He wore a red silk shirt and a red surgical mask to match.

I suggested Tonnesen had a pretty good title for a memoir: I Spent 20 Minutes Alone with Michael Jackson in the Rare Books Room: A Survivor’s Story. Kind of sells itself.

I like it. Thanks.

When was that?

Oh, God. I don’t know. It was at least 15 years ago.

Before he died.

I hope so.

5th Avenue Books exterior.

5th Avenue Books interior.

A lion watches over a bookshelf at 5th Avenue Books in the Hillcrest area of San Diego, Calif.

Some nifty sketches at 5th Avenue Books included this one of Papa.

A brief epilogue:

The photos with this post are with my iPhone, so the indoor ones are a little grainy and blurry; sorry. But I want to make it up to you. I’m lighting a candle for you, bookstores.

And now it smells all like cinnamon, with just a hint of possibility.

Say, what’s that I hear from the middle of 5th Avenue?

Oh my:

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Books: A community’s independent shop, and life without Borders


A customer reads in the front section of Books on the Square, an independent book shop in the Wayland Square neighborhood on Providence, R.I. Photo by John Doucette.

PROVIDENCE, R.I. — The Wayland Square neighborhood on this city’s East Side is a great place to be a book hunter. The area has two terrific book shops, the independent bookstore Books on the Square and the rare and used shop Myopic Books.

I visited both while I was home in Rhode Island for the holidays. This post focuses on Books on the Square, and another post on Myopic Books will follow in the next few days,

I got the dime tour over the holidays from Chris Byrnes, a bookseller and leader of three of the shop’s weekly story times. Video follows:

This past summer, two Borders locations in the area closed. In July, Books on the Square manager Jennifer Doucette (no relation) told Publishers Weekly that Borders had not had much effect on business:

Our store is really blessed. We’re in a great neighborhood with lots of families walking around. We’re up, just a little bit, and we just renewed our lease for another five years.

Since the Borders closed, business has been strong. Aside from the book store at Brown University, Byrnes noted:

When it comes to Providence, we’re kind of it for new books.

Bookseller John Duvernoy.

Brooke Huminski, a regular customer at Books on the Square, shops.

The shop is designed for community involvement, and it hosts story times for kids, a variety of reading groups, a discussion of ideas called the Socrates Cafe, and even community meetings. Byrnes said Doucette put the central book racks on wheels, so they can be moved aside for large events. And the shop has a large children’s section, a point of pride. Byrnes said:

We want to create a place where people can relax and not be part of the rat race. They can come and pick up a book or a magazine.

Brooke Huminski, a graduate student studying social work, is a regular. She said:

I love this bookstore. There’s a personal feel to it and a lot of community events.You can find things in it from best sellers to idiosyncratic books.

Customer Bill Dilworth added:

I like supporting local businesses, and this has books you might not see at chain stores.

I asked Dilworth about being in neighborhood with two great bookstores. He replied:

It’s impoverishing. If I go into either of these places just to look, I almost invariably get something I didn’t intend to purchase.

Books on the Square is at 471 Angell St. on Providence’s East Side. Find out more about the shop via its website at this link. A post on Myopic Books is forthcoming.

Customer Bill Dilworth checks out the selection at Books on the Square.

Booksellers Chris Byrnes and Richard Scott.

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Books: The sciences and humanities under one roof


Dr. George Siscoe, proprietor of Old Professor's Bookshop on Main Street in Belfast, Maine. Photo by John Doucette.

BELFAST, Maine — I hit a few bookstores while vacationing here, and this is a small downtown that actually has a few of them.

My favorite was Old Professor’s Bookshop.

The shop prides itself on its collection of books on or about Darwin and its purposeful marriage of works on the sciences and the humanities. One display near the front door contained Donald Johanson and Maitland Edey’s paleoanthropology book Lucy: The Beginnings of Humankind, resting next to Eugene O’Neill’s play Long Day’s Journey Into Night. A bust of Aristotle is not far from the checkout desk. And a remarkable display case, a remnant of the building’s past as a jewelry store, contains enough texts and items of scientific interest that you could spend a full visit examining that alone.

It is run by George Siscoe and Nancy Crooker, a couple. Both are research professors affiliated with Boston University after years on the West Coast.

Crooker’s research areas include heliospheric and solar-terrestrial physics. Siscoe’s  include space plasma physics, geoespace environmental modeling, and space weather. Crooker called the bookshop, open since 2008, a “retirement project” with books hand selected by her husband:

It’s been a gift. It’s so different from what we’ve done in the past.

Siscoe gives a tour of the store in a video below, addressing his goals of collecting “foundational books.” (Email subscribers to this blog may have to view it on the online version.)

Siscoe said:

It’s a small store, as you see, and so I’ve divided it into two halves. This side has the science side, so I call that the ‘what is’ side. And that side is the humanities side, so I call that the ‘what matters’ side. You need both what is and what matters to be a rounded person. That’s the connection.

One reason I loved this store, and am writing about it here, is that it pushed me outside my comfort area, which is what great bookstores (and great professors, for that matter) can do.

My reading tends to be squarely on the humanities side, and it’s fairly limited to writing, journalism, history, sports, and literary titles. Plus Elmore Leonard. On Siscoe’s recommendation, I picked up several science books, including The Life of the Grasshopper by the French entomologist Jean Henri Fabre. The book’s first line:

Fame is built up mainly of legend; in the animal world, as in the world of men, the story takes precedence of history.

Fabre uses his initial chapter to discuss folklore and storytelling. The he revises that narrative, gently but strongly based on science, observation, and his own storytelling. I couldn’t put it down, and bought another Fabre book the next day. Chances are, my opportunities in scientific research remain slim, but I have a better understanding of Fabre’s topic and works, which I probably would not have explored otherwise, and I learned a bit about writing and storytelling from an entomologist.

My trip to Belfast coincided with the first days of the Belfast Bound Book Festival, and an estimated 25,000 volumes were for sale in many stores in the immediate area.

At Old Professor’s Bookstore, a slate of experts who held Q&As at the store included Dr. Kerry Emanuel of Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Department of Earth, Atmospheric and Planetary Sciences, who discussed climate change. My wife and I caught the talk and picked up one of his books.

Belfast also hosts an annual poetry festival in October and has an active arts community. If you ever head to Belfast, there is some book hunting to be done at several locations. If I head back next summer, as tentatively planned, I’ll start my hunting with Old Professor’s Bookshop, since that’s where I did all of my book buying this year.

The store is open from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m., Tuesday through Saturday, (207) 338-2006. Worth checking out.

The microscope near the checkout desk, and a few samples to examine.

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