Most children who were bookworms in the ’70s and ’80s, like me, frequented libraries. But I also spent a great deal of time in bookstores—usually independent ones—because my mother loved them. To her, books were a regular and appropriate indulgence. I cannot remember a time in childhood when I left a bookstore empty-handed. She didn’t prescribe genre or reading level; I had books about zoology and astrology, works of fiction, comic books, and how-to books on skills such as juggling and crocheting.  

Our family lived modestly: We had a black-and-white television, we went to the laundromat, and we often traveled on public transportation. But we were extravagant when it came to books. I knew particular bookstores by their scent, the quality of the light that shone through their windows, their attention to design or lack thereof, and, of course, the people who worked there—who were often reading when not assisting customers. In Chicago, I liked the warmth of the Third World Press Foundation bookstore, the crowded honey shelves of Unabridged, and the way the books were displayed face up at Timbuktu. In Cambridge, the Harvard Bookstore was a wonderful maze of shelves and people, and Reading International was perfect for floor-sitting. Second-hand bookstores smelled the best, and they had that crackling sound of old bindings.

I learned about the magic of independent bookstores early: that they are tenderly curated spaces for discovery. A relationship of care exists between the browser and the bookseller even if the two never meet. Indie booksellers bring books into our lives by anticipating our curiosities, needs, and joys. Like librarians, they make selections from thousands upon thousands of possibilities, curating knowledge as well as space. Sometimes we encounter the books they’ve put before us with expectation, sometimes with excitement, and other times with wonder or astonishment.

Books can be portals into new phases of our lives. And often they are most impactful when we least expect it. This is why I still say—even in the digital age—that there is nothing like browsing. Each shelf holds the possibility of unanticipated blessings. So today, on Independent Bookstore Day, I want to express deep appreciation for the people who create that possibility for us. Their work is often invisible but it has been a lifeline to me. Happy Independent Bookstore Day, and if you can, please buy a book from an indie!