A literary adventure in San Francisco


Poet Weldon Keys is best known for parking his car at the Marin end of the Golden Gate Bridge in 1955 and disappearing without a trace.

Two things hit me as I walked the streets of San Francisco recently. First, the sweet, strong, distinctive (pleasant) smell of Californian weed wafting its way through the air at pretty well every street corner.* Second, the realization that a Literary Tourist can have a lot of fun in this city.

I never really enjoyed smoking pot, too much hysterical laughter over nothing, and finding ordinary ideas profound. I do however love a well bound book. Hence, the first item on my San Franciscan agenda  was an interview with Anita Engles, Executive Director of The American Bookbinders Museum, “the only museum of its kind in North America!”

Early Saturday afternoon I made my way down – and I do mean down –

on the Powell Street cable car from the much storied Fairmont Hotel where we were staying – check out the foyer

to Clementina Street in the heart of San Francisco’s SoMa/Yerba Buena District where the museum is located. Along the way I dropped into the Hotel Rex in the theatre district to admire some of

their author drawings

– the hotel is named after poet Kenneth Rexroth and is home to a library bar

that features literary-themed cocktails, live music and author readings; and John’s Grill,

only a few blocks away, close to Union Square. John’s was built in 1908, the first downtown restaurant to open after the city’s famed earthquake of 1906. John’s is renowned for hosting celebrities from around the world; more importantly, it’s where Sam Spade dined out in Dashiell Hammett’s 1930 detective novel The Maltese Falcon. The same dish he ate is on the menu – Sam Spade’s Lamb Chops. Upstairs you’ll find a glass case displaying a first edition of the book, along with a statue of the black bird itself. Many have suggested that John Huston’s film, with its femme fatales and ‘shady sleuths’ marked the beginnings of film noir.

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What’s a Literary Tourist to do in Hawaii?

Ihad pretty well resigned myself to lounging by the pool with a good book and a cold Heineken, before I decided to check the Internet. Hawaii, I assumed, was going to be a Literary Tourist wasteland, a jungle of non-literary vegetation.

But I was wrong. Here we were in the middle of what seemed like nowhere (the town of Kona on the Big Island), and I find this great big warehouse of a used bookstore right around the corner. Kona Bay Books offers two miles worth of books. Not first editions, but a good selection of readable novels and non-fiction, many perfect for the beach. Plus there’s a sister store, Hilo Bay Books, on the opposite side of the island.

So off we went on a scenic two hour drive to see how the other half lives, and of course, to check out the books. Along the way we encounter purple flowering Jacaronda trees

next to the complementarily coloured mock orange, nestled, as they are, between these cool cone-shaped mounds (known as Puu Oo)

and fields of dark, healthy-looking lava.

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What to buy when you’re in a Japanese Bookstore

Literary Tourist in Tokyo:

As noted in my previous post, while there are quite a few interesting English books to be had in the Jimbocho bookstore neighbourhood of Tokyo, there are obviously a lot more in Japanese. And I was able to get lots of shots of them, and the stores that sell them, but, do you think I could convince any of the owners to pose for the camera? Fat chance. Given their reserve, the trick, I’m convinced, for next time, is to plan things far in advance, get the approval of someone in authority, and be accompanied by a wise old dealer known to all, or perhaps an official from the local booksellers association!

Still, I was received very politely; just not, as is often the case in North America, with open arms.

But, on to the stores. First off, I was amazed by the number of post-it notes,

or whatever

they are, that these merchants use to display their wares. Also surprised that there wasn’t more Manga for sale. The only really good selection I saw was at this store:

Isseido Booksellers has a decent foreign language section on the second floor with a good number of books in English, mostly archeology and history, but the Japanese books, though incomprehensible, were much

more attractive

One thing that isn’t incomprehensible is the beauty of Ukiyo-e Japanese woodblock prints. They flourished between the 17th and 19th centuries. Subjects included female Continue reading “What to buy when you’re in a Japanese Bookstore”

You can find bookstores and scorpions on the same street

Beijing’s Wangfujing Dajie is your typical high-end capitalist pedestrian shopping street filled with glittering international brand name stores; so it was with some surprise that I encountered

the government-run Beijing Foreign Languages Bookstore along side Gucci, Chanel and Under Armor. The store itself is pretty spartan: glaring fluorescent lights, warehouse-style shelving – dust all over the place. As for stock, the most prominently displayed title, in line with who owns the shop, was of course General Secretary Xi Jinping’s auto/biography

Half the main floor was taken up by English language books, and at least half of these were Penguins – red

white and black spined.

A little further along the street you’ll find a McDonald’s (it sells bubble tea!), and next to it this shopwhere, once again, Xi greets customers at the door

Upstairs, in a limited ‘imported titles’ section, you’ll find books on Steve Jobs and this titan

Across the street, if scorpion on a stick appeals to you(now imagine how appetizing these look when they’re moving) check out Snack Street. It’s crammed with Continue reading “You can find bookstores and scorpions on the same street”