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Browsing The Coelacanth: My Journey To The Last Bookstores In The Loop

My daughter loves books the way only a 3-year-old can: ritualistically. Her favorites must be read to mark the major passages of her day. Nap time. Potty time. Bath time. Bed time. Right now, the undisputed alpha book is called The Big Orange Splot by Daniel Manus Pinkwater. She received this book for her birthday two weeks ago. Since then, we have read it so often she can recite the text, almost verbatim, to her appreciative collection of Hello Kitty dolls. Late Thursday evening, we received an invitation to a birthday party this weekend. When I asked my daughter what she would like to give her friend, she did not hesitate: The Big Orange Splot by Daniel Manus Pinkwater.

I mention the timing of the invitation because the Primal Amazonians among you will realize this does not allow the requisite two business days to ensure free delivery of The Big Orange Splot by Daniel Manus Pinkwater. And this is not a big book, nor a handsomely bound hardcover volume; the cost to have it shipped via express local delivery would effectively double my expense. If only, I thought, there were a place where a variety of actual, physical books had been assembled for public perusal. If only books were discrete entities that could fit neatly into a person's hand, rather than bulky events facilitated by the likes of UPS and FedEx. "Local Express Delivery" certainly seems to suggest a quantity of Big Orange Splots already exists in my general area; could I not, then, seek one out for myself?

Do you remember the coelacanth? Everyone thought it had died out in the late Cretaceous period, a time when life was a good deal scalier and less photogenic. Then a live one was found off the coast of South Africa in the 1930s, having apparently fought off the effects of evolution for some 66 million years. They called it a living fossil. Now we know the Coelacanth did in fact change and diversify over the millennia; sadly, not dramatically enough to stay relevant.

Do you remember bookstores? There was a time, in my own personal Cretaceous period, when they were more than just retail outlets. They were hubs of intellectual and cultural activity. They carried not only books, but also music made manifest with colorful packaging that could be collected and proudly displayed. Some of these stores even carried coffee that could be described with single-word modifiers. I lined up to meet Hillary Clinton at a bookstore back when it still took a village. I had a T-shirt signed by Patti Smith. I wandered through aisles in far-flung sections, just waiting until a cover caught my eye.

In those days, I was a literary grazer. But the advent of the Internet has changed me to a hunter-gatherer. I search out specific titles, compare specimens, and then strike with the full ferocity of my one-click ordering capabilities. If I feel like wandering aimlessly through fields of books, there's a library down the street. When I have the brightly-colored pages of The Big Orange Splot by Daniel Manus Pinkwater in my sights, nothing will distract my laser-like focus. Nothing save for the temporal inconvenience of warehouse distribution systems. And so, with a work appointment downtown as my excuse, I ventured out to find my analog Amazon.

The world has largely followed me off the paperback savannah, the native habitat now flooded with fast fashions. Still, I thought, a city as large and literate as Chicago must have a few booksellers unfocused enough to stock The Big Orange Splot by Daniel Manus Pinkwater. This is a venerable work of children's fiction, in print long enough to run for president, or perhaps share a ticket with Where the Wild Things Are. A quick Google Maps search revealed three likely candidates within walking distance of my ultimate destination. Three whole bookstores seemed an embarrassment of riches at the time. My first stop quickly laid that notion to rest.

Barbara's Bookstore, housed in the basement of Macy's, looks less like the bookstores of old and more like a cross between an airport kiosk and a garage sale. At one end the books taper off and are replaced by a few forlorn pieces of children's luggage exiled from the above-ground floors. Each bookcase operates like the European Union; a loose confederation of shelves, each organized by its own infernal logic, united mostly by proximity and the suggestion of an overarching theme. The only consistent principle seems to be the facing of the loudest cover. I'm pretty sure I searched the entire children's literature "section," as well as a good portion of the cookbooks before I noticed I'd gone astray. I found no evidence of The Big Orange Splot, nor any other title by Daniel Manus Pinkwater. I would've asked for help, but there was no help. There was only a small printed sign indicating that the register for Barbara's Bookstore lay "around the corner." Around the corner, down a small ramp designed to shovel me into the gaping maw of the Macy's food court. I took my leave.

Beck's Bookstore near the campus of Harold Washington College seemed a long shot as they advertise mostly textbooks. Still, it was only a block or so away from Macy's. I cannot tell you whether the Beck's mandate extends to children's literature. All I can tell you is that at 4:30 on a Friday afternoon the store was closed.

My final chance was Barnes and Noble at DePaul's Loop campus. At the very least, this place had the trappings of an actual bookstore. A densely crowded floor plan, serpentine arrangements of bookcases, actual sections labeled as such. It took me a moment to find the children's section, hidden as it was behind the coffee and juice bar. As I approached, the slow realization hit me: I had no idea where to look for The Big Orange Splot by Daniel Manus Pinkwater. Would I find it in the Toddlers area? Early readers? Picture books? What exactly defines a "picture book" anyway? Because I happen to know from the many miles I've put on the rocking chair in my daughter's room that some of those books boast fairly complex narratives in addition to pretty pictures. Somewhere between picture books and toddlers there was a section called "favorites" comprising the entire back catalog of Dr. Seuss. So, basically, one favorite split into bite-sized pieces. At least the shelves appeared to be more or less alphabetical in nature, a welcome respite after the abstract expressionism of Barbara's. But still, why was this so fucking tedious? Why couldn't I just say the name, The Big Orange Splot by Daniel Manus Pinkwater, and have its cheerful cover appear before me? I knew it was there; I could practically taste it. But somehow an impenetrable wall of practiced obscurity was keeping me from it.

Bookstores aren't designed for finding things. They are designed for getting lost in a wonderful cacophony of titles. There's something almost poetic about the fuzzy logic that keeps you happily browsing along. But when you don't browse, when you haven't needed to browse for years, the internal structures that support browsing atrophy. And when you have a rock-solid mandate from your child to deliver one specific item and only five minutes to find it before you have to get to work, those dormant structures suddenly turn on you. I could've called this piece "Browsing my Appendix," because this wild goose chase was about to go septic.

I didn't see it at first. I had meandered all the way over to young adult series in the vain hope that a perverse Barnes Enabler had stuck it there as a joke. A little voice inside my head urged me to give the toddler section one more look. It was shorter than its neighbors, tucked back slightly, with a name so long it almost didn't fit on the spine. The Big Orange Splot by Daniel Manus Pinkwater.

After work, I arrived home with the tidy Barnes and Noble bag in my hand. My husband and daughter were reading her second favorite story together, which, if you must know, is Olivia Forms a Band by Ian Falconer. I showed her what I had found, the sole artifact unearthed in an afternoon of excavation. She smiled rapturously for a moment, then looked anxiously around the room. "Mommy, I need my horsey pajamas."

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Comments welcome.

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1. From Mike Knezovich:

Liked the piece . . . next time you venture, just come a little bit farther south to Sandmeyer's on Dearborn in Printers Row. You'll be heartened.



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Posted on July 14, 2013


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