It was strange. There was nary a sign on the building nor any other indication of a happening. It was like a flash mob had descended on 300 West Camelback last night for the opening of what anymore is a rare business in Phoenix. There is again, at long last, a seller of new books in the heart of a city often disparaged as “America’s Largest Smalltown” for lacking substance and sophistication.
Just think new books, hardbound and soft, shelves and shelves of them within a nook. That’s lower case nook. No Kindle, no Nook here, not that I saw anyway. Caught reading digitized, the offender would no doubt have been strung up in full view from a rafter above the Classical section, the sight drawing tee-hees from those stooled at the beer and wine bar not far from the cash registers.
What a god-send in a universe gone mad with its wirelessness!
The new place, Changing Hands, fills a new-book void left by the demise in February 2011 of super-sized Borders Books and Music a few miles away on East Camelback Road. After Borders slouched off into bankruptcy and ultimately death, there was the added insult of its former space being taken over by a rug store. A rug store!
The new store’s parking lot was crammed to the max, so we parked several blocks north in a residential area of condos and apartments, then walked down Third Avenue to the store, which is housed with an interesting restaurant, Southern Rail, and its award-winning chef, Justin Beckett.
Nebra bolted from the store when talk floated that cops planned to tow cars parked on residential streets. No sweat.
Parking woes may be alleviated, even after locals get their permit program under way and violators exposed for the inconsiderate, all-consuming book lovers they are deemed. Nebra heard the City has given permission for use of the so-called “Kiss and Ride” parking lot on the other side of the street. The lot is designated for light-rail users but has a reputation as a drop-off point for passengers rather than for actual parking.
This is Changing Hands’s second store. The original remains in Tempe, the university suburb to the southeast. The business goes back to 1974, five years before my arrival in the arid lands. Like Phoenix rising from the ashes, Changing Hands II rose from the ruins of a once-popular restaurant known as Newton’s Beef Eaters. I ate there a few times in the 1980s. It must have rung nostalgic with the bookstore owner, Gayle Shanks. The eatery’s old oven is preserved in a far and yet-empty corner of the store and a sign carved in cement by the front door walkway says “Beef Eaters.” The building along with the restaurant and the coming “Southwest Gardener” is known of course as The Newton. Books readers love stuff like that, symbolic gestures to the long-ago.
If I had a goal other than simply being there on Opening Day, it was to buy something so I would have a receipt commemorating the event. It was then I began to notice the store’s short-comings.
Since we are planning a trip to Chicago and Lake Michigan this summer, I searched for the maps and Travel section and finally needed assistance. They were together in a busy corner. But, alas, I found few maps and nothing on Chicago among the small inventory. I guess patrons of Changing Hands don’t hit the road much. Hmmm. Instead of road, I first wrote “roach,” perhaps thinking of another popular pastime undertaken by some book readers.
I then headed to Fiction and came across the James Salter collection which consisted of five books under the same title, “All That Is.” I read Salter’s “Solo Faces” a year ago and enjoyed it. But how many have heard of Salter? Is it worth five books when the Hemingway collection is so puny? In Hemingway, you have one of the giants of American literature and yet I saw only his non-fiction bullfighting extravaganza, “Death in The Afternoon” on the shelf.
I ended up selecting a paperback copy of Vonnegut’s “Cat’s Cradle” for no other reason that I’m attuned with a blurb I read on the back of the book: It is a satire “on modern man and his madness.” I took the book to the cashier, stood in line for about a minute and handed a young brunette my credit card.
“I love Vonnegut,” she said. Her name is Tanya.
“You want to know how much I love Vonnegut?”
Without giving me a chance to answer, she exposed a tattoo on her left arm. It showed “Goodbye Blue Monday” and had a border around it.
“It’s from Breakfast of Champions,” she went on.
“Well,” I said, “I’ll take that as a good omen for me and this book.” There I was with a camera on my shoulder and it was not until much later that I realized I’d missed an opportunity.
Tucked inside “Cat’s Cradle” was a bookmark regarding the business’s longevity. “Life begins at 40,” it said.
On the back of the bookmark was a list of 10: “Here’s what you just did!”
“You kept dollars in our local economy, you embraced what makes us unique, you created local jobs, you helped the environment (what?), you nurtured community, you conserved tax dollars (by not buying from an online seller), you created more choice, you took advantage of our expertise, you invested in entrepreneurship” and lastly, “you made us a destination.”
I did all that with my $15 acquisition? None of the good reasons mentioned mine: “You satisfied your curiosity.”
In any case, I wish Changing Hands the best, though I am skeptical the new store will last long. I see too many young people glued to their digitized devices, seemingly hypnotized in a world of selfies and constant contact.
And that bodes poorly not only for the new guy on the block.