Walkabout: A little winter relief comes in bookstore, but less than before

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Some people have escaped to a beach by now. I used to do that, haven't for several years. Too frugal, too crunched and, I guess, not winter weary enough.

It takes a lot of cabin to give me fever. There's always a pile of books waiting, a slew of soup recipes to make and a dog who could always use more attention. When I need a break from enjoyable activities, there's still a lot to do: Vacuum the house. Box up stuff I don't use anymore to donate. Wipe down the counters and stovetop. Oh, right, already did that.

With the house clean, a box ready, the laundry done and the cat litter boxes freshened, I went upstairs to watch ice dancers on TV one recent afternoon. But my mind drifted to the pink cotton candy insulation rolled up in the basement. I had bought it weeks ago to seal up some drafts. I should go down and do that, I thought. Or I should do my taxes.

Then my friend suggested we get out, take a little drive and go "booking."

An outing as modest as a local bookstore binge seemed imperative. Right then, I couldn't spend another minute in the house.

We drove to Waterworks Mall through a winter wonderland, the wipers slapping away fat fluffs of snow. Oh yay, more snow. I drove through horrendous road conditions some years back to get to the airport for a week of beach and baseball in Florida. I had felt a clawing desperation then to get. out. of. here. now.

Maybe I've mellowed, or maybe that winter had become more exhausting than this one has, but a trip to a big bookstore was enough of a shift in scene to satisfy my restlessness.

It has been years since I hung out in a big chain bookstore. There aren't many left, they aren't near my home and my rate of buying has slowed to a trickle. It felt as if I was going to visit an old friend.

When we got there, I took out a list of recommendations I have kept for years and headed to fiction. It took a while to find the few aisles devoted to fiction and not much longer to search the titles, but I came up with nothing from my list.

I resorted to a slow prowl of the aisles to give myself the illusion of being in a similar store during the 1990s, when you could almost overdose on titles. I had been eager to overdose this time. I wanted there to be too many, to have to discipline myself to focus.

I wanted to spend hours combing through everything of interest -- fiction, history, social science, culture and anthropology, cookbooks. I wanted to stuff my coat somewhere and sit in an aisle with a pile of books, handling them, sampling opening paragraphs, arguing myself down to one or two choices.

This once-fat bookstore had really slimmed down. I spent most of the time looking at cookbooks, lured to that wall by the promise of "international" on the sign.

Several shelves of books were devoted to Italian cuisine. One was devoted to Mexican. One shelf had two books devoted to Indian fare, one book of recipes from the Philippines, one book about Korean food and one devoted to the entire continent of Africa. None covered dishes from Scandinavia or Turkey, and the only book on Middle Eastern food was a thin Lebanese cookbook.

"I'm not feeling the love here," my friend said when we reunited. He was empty-handed. I had fulfilled my mission with two books that I had planned to check out of the library at some point: Michael Pollan's "The Omnivore's Dilemma" and "The Brief, Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao" by Junot Diaz.

On this trip, I didn't have to argue myself down to one or two books. I bought these two because a book outing almost demanded an investment beyond time. It was, literally, the least I could do considering the intersection I have reached at this point in my life -- spare consumerism at the twilight of big bookstores.

Most people I know shop for books and most other things online. But you can do that at home.

Before leaving the shopping center, we stopped at the wine store and at a sporting goods store for oil for my old baseball glove, and as we drove home I thought about my baseball glove and about playing catch in the park.

Before that day comes, we have a lot of winter to endure. I will put "condition baseball glove" on my to-do list. I will probably get that done before I do my taxes.

Diana Nelson Jones: djones@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1626. Read her blog City Walkabout at www.post-gazette.com/citywalk.

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