What a relief. I wanted to write about the bookstore I loved when I was growing up and I thought, “I’ll see if they have a website.” And the website had a long article that reassured me in all the ways I needed reassuring that the New England Mobile Book Fair is alive and well and still has the same crazy organizational system it did when I was a kid. (They shelve the books by publisher, not by genre or subject.)
I don’t need to tell you their history, because that’s all on their website — what’s important to me is MY history there. A couple of times a month (I think — maybe it wasn’t that often but it felt like that), my mom would agree to take us kids to “Strymish’s” as we always called it (the owner and founder’s name was Lou Strymish). We’d drive about ten minutes to get there from our house in Newton. Once there, you entered a crazy, mixed-up world of long, dark aisles and piled up stacks of remainders. You could get lost. I did. It was industrial before industrial was chic.
It was at Strymish’s that I arrived at a major life crossroads (although I didn't know it at the time). I liked historical type romances and, having read every Jane Austen and Charlotte Bronte novel available and on the prowl for something new, one day at the bookstore picked up a Barbara Cartland from a display. I figured with her hundreds of titles, I’d be set for years. My sister Alice saw what I was holding and tsk-tsked. She took the book away, set it down, handed me Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway. “This is better,” she said. After that, I read every Virginia Woolf I could get my hands, an activity which made me even weirder, nerdier, dreamier than I already was which is saying a lot. I spent years imitating Woolf’s style in self-conscious, overwritten “stream of consciousness” pieces. I couldn’t imagine a greater thrill than one day seeing a book with my name on it in “real” bookstores.
It was also at Strymish’s that I learned to read through every book an appealing author wrote — so long, of course, that they were all published by the same publisher because, if not, you had to go through the laborious process of looking your books up in the publishers’ index they helpfully provided at the front of the store. I did that sometimes, but mostly I’d discover authors that certain publishers liked. It was a weird, backwards way of looking for books, but it meant you might stumble on something you’d never have read otherwise.
The place felt huge to me. I was little then and I haven’t been back in years so maybe it wouldn’t feel that big anymore, but it’ll always be emotionally huge for me: Strymish’s will always make me think of my mother who died a few years ago and who was the one who always took me there. It also makes me think of my siblings who’ve spread out across the country but who all happily piled in the car back then to replenish their own book piles — we’d all split apart at the entrance and then cross paths fifteen minutes later in some dark and obscure corner of the store.
You didn’t shop at Strymish’s for what you knew you wanted: you shopped there in the hopes of finding something you’d never heard of (and because you could buy it at a discount). It was browsing at its finest and, from what I read online, it sounds like it still is.