Category Archives: Bits and Bobs


“A book is a wondrous thing. It can take you places you’ve never been and allow you to explore your imagination through ways not otherwise possible. Every person, man, woman, and child, should experience the joy of reading a book. Many people have asked how they can help with my service in South Africa. This project I cannot do alone and would love any help that can be offered. I am currently attempting to develop a library at the Primary School where I work. Their library consists of dust filled textbooks, broken tables, and no more than 30 reading books. We were recently able to get shelves, though we are seeking book donations in any way possible. The kids range from kindergarten to seventh grade. The seventh graders can only read simple books. Nothing more advanced than a fourth or fifth grade reader in the United States. We are looking into donors for large shipments abroad, however, they generally would like us to contribute the shipping fees. The school is unable to pay these fees, nor are the members of the village as they are just hoping to have enough money to buy food. Every new book gives a child a chance to read. During my lesson with my remedial fifth grade students yesterday a boy stopped me during the spelling test to tell me, “I want to read.” I hope he gets that chance soon.”

This is an excerpt from a letter written by Katie Roberts, a recent graduate of Cal State Northridge, who is now living and working in a little village outside of Jericho, South Africa, as a Peace Corps volunteer.  Katie is doing everything she can to acquire books for the students in her school (“my learners,” she calls them), who are in desperate need of them.

The Siphumelela (“We Succeed”) project’s aim is to distribute books provided by Books for Africa, (books provided to Books for Africa by regular folks like you and me,) to rural primary and high schools in the Mpumalanga,  Limpopo and North West Provinces.

Katie says, “There are a total of 10 Peace Corps volunteers involved, including myself, who are arranging for our schools to receive over 20,000 books, including story books, math books, science books, and English literacy books to improve the overall resources our schools are lacking due to the rural areas we live in...Thousands of students will  benefit from the Siphumelela project by [being  equipped with] the tools needed to speak, read, write, and understand English, which is a…fundamental skill these children need to excel in their studies and become productive members in South African society.”

We want to help Katie and her learners in any way we can, and hope you will be able to, as well.

A few days ago, I jokingly told a long-time customer, with whom I share a similar sense of humor, that  I thought he was crazy for buying his books from us still, when he could get them at a fraction of the cost elsewhere. He didn’t get the joke though, and became suddenly and ferociously serious. “I want to have a local bookstore to go to. The price I pay for that is nothing compared to its value.” People like him remind me every day of the community we have here, and what an unbelievably awake, loyal and kind one it is. It is this fact alone that allows us now to ask for your help. We are your official drop-off location. Books that your children no longer read, that are on their way to Goodwill, or the library, or under the bed… simply bring them to us!

Please spread the word about Katie and her cause as far and wide as you can. Whatever shape or size your help comes in, it will be appreciated and prized by hundreds of children.

To donate or to learn more about the Siphumelela project, please click HERE. (When donating, please note “Katie Roberts” in Comments, to ensure that the funds reach her school.)



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To Gilbert Imlay, who, in the end, was not very good to her

Sent from Paris, evening, 23 September 1794

I have been playing and laughing with the little girl so long, that I cannot take up my pen to address you without emotion. Pressing her to my bosom, she looked so like you (entre nous, your best looks, for I do not admire your commercial face), every nerve seemed to vibrate to the touch, and I began to think that there was something in the assertion of man and wife being one — for you seemed to pervade my whole frame, quickening the beat of my heart, and lending me the sympathetic tears you excited.

Have I anything more to say to you? No; not for the present — the rest is all flown away; and indulging tenderness for you, I cannot now complain of some people here, who have ruffled my temper for two or three days past.

–Mary Wollstonecraft, mother of Mary Shelley, author of A Vindication of the Rights of Women

Letter published in Love Letters of Great Women, many copies of which await you in our fireplace room

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You make me want to die happy.

“What an intelligent bookstore!”

A customer just exclaimed that, to no one in particular, while browsing the fiction section. It made us beam with pride. That he turned out to be an intelligent man himself, with whom conversation was a delightful adventure, helps us accept the compliment humbly.

We hear things like “what an amazing selection of books” and “what an incredible atmosphere and all these wonderful and tasteful gifts!” all day long. More than anything else, we’re constantly thanking people. But, like a lot of other things in life, this one was about precision. Word choice, to be exact.

I share this with you because I feel like boasting  in order to illustrate the point that sometimes all it takes is a couple of the exact, right words and you’re forever etched into another person’s memory and, by extension and/or definition, their being.

The trick, I find, is to get at the root of things. Not to strive for profundity, but quite the opposite. Strive to find the most basic and simple truth and get to it via as direct a path as possible. Here’s a line that Marvin Bell gifted his wife in “To Dorothy”: “You are not beautiful, exactly./You are beautiful, inexactly.” I haven’t seen Dorothy but I’d be willing to bet he’s right. And it feels, very specifically, that I know exactly what he means by “inexactly”.

Here’s another, this one from e.e. cummings’ “somewhere i have never traveled,gladly beyond”: “(i do not know what it is about you that closes/and opens;only something in me understands/ the voice of your eyes is deeper than all roses)/nobody,not even the rain,has such small hands”

It need not be absurd or lofty or intentionally poetic. All it needs to be is true and specific and, most importantly, you need to look for it as deeply as your senses can see.

“You are everything I will never be.”

“The way you laugh makes my head pulse. “

“When I sit next to you in the evenings in silence, I can actually feel my molecules wanting to break away and join your molecules.” [okay, maybe that one was a little much…]

This Valentine’s Day, draw a picture, pick a flower, write a poem (and include it in the box of diamonds, of course.)

Good luck!

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Little treats for Friday afternoon… because you’ve been good

  • Listen to this sweet, short podcast from Poetry Off the Shelf,  “I knew all along you were mine”. Apparently, there are  many different ways to say “I love you”.
  • Here’s a little animated movie about flying inanimate objects (and other stuff) that you might like:

The Fantastic Flying Books of Mr. Morris Lessmore — Directed by William Joyce and Brandon Oldenburg– Nominated for an Academy Award, 2012

  • We’re crazy for the Crawleys here at Portrait of a Bookstore, and the word on the street is, you are too! Here’s a taste:

Millions of American viewers were enthralled by the world of Downton Abbey, the mesmerizing TV drama of the aristocratic Crawley family–and their servants–on the verge of dramatic change. On the eve of Season 2 of the TV presentation, this gorgeous book–illustrated with sketches and research from the production team, as well as on-set photographs from both seasons–takes us even deeper into that world, with fresh insights into the story and characters as well as the social history.

Brilliantly evoking the long-vanished world of masters and servants portrayed in Downton Abbey and Upstairs, Downstairs, Margaret Powell’s classic memoir of her time in service, Below Stairs, is the remarkable true story of an indomitable woman who, though she served in the great houses of England, never stopped aiming high. Powell first arrived at the servants’ entrance of one of those great houses in the 1920s.  As a kitchen maid – the lowest of the low – she entered an entirely new world; one of stoves to be blacked, vegetables to be scrubbed, mistresses to be appeased, and bootlaces to be ironed. Work started at 5.30am and went on until after dark. It was a far cry from her childhood on the beaches of Hove, where money and food were scarce, but warmth and laughter never were. Yet from the gentleman with a penchant for stroking the housemaids’ curlers, to raucous tea-dances with errand boys, to the heartbreaking story of Agnes the pregnant under-parlormaid, fired for being seduced by her mistress’s nephew, Margaret’s tales of her time in service are told with wit, warmth, and a sharp eye for the prejudices of her situation. Margaret Powell’s true story of a life spent in service is a fascinating “downstairs” portrait of the glittering, long-gone worlds behind the closed doors of Downton Abbey and 165 Eaton Place.

Have a wonderful, bountiful weekend, everyone!

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Happy New Year

It’s a new day… and it’s a new year. From all of us at Portrait, may yours be filled with recognizable moments of joy, at least a tolerable slew of successes, good health and good reading.

To start the year off right, some make resolutions, others clean out the closet, still others make an effort to fly back from their vacations with optimism.

We are having a…

See you soon!

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Let’s start this one off right — with a poem!

First Light Edging Cirrus
by Jane Hirshfield
from Come, Thief

1025 molecules
are enough
to call woodthrush or apple.

A hummingbird, fewer.
A wristwatch: 1024.

An alphabet’s molecules,
tasting of honey, iron, and salt,
cannot be counted—

as some strings, untouched,
sound when a near one is speaking.

As it was when love slipped inside us.
It looked out face to face in every direction.

Then it was inside the tree, the rock, the cloud.


Look at that! Your favorite bookstore in the world now has tote bags so you can fill them with your favorite books and walk around enduring all-too-clever comments about what else makes life better… Durable, affordable and totally usable. As a bonus, it has our phone number on it, so you can always reach us! Amazing, I know.


In some encouraging news, in its biennial survey of readers, found that of 3,400 people surveyed, exactly half read e-books at least sometimes and the other half rarely or never does. This means that those who are sometimes reading e-books are also, at other times, reading paper. And those who are rarely reading e-books are mostly reading paper. It doesn’t matter if you’re confused. Just know it’s good news and let’s move on to….


Here is something totally inspired! I have my questions about what it’s like to be the writer on sale here, but what an amazing way to engage as a reader! You know that feeling you get when you think a good book had to have been written just for you? Well, in this case it wouldn’t be just a feeling.


Most exciting of all, Julie just returned from an antiques-buying trip to England, so you must come and see the amazing things she brought back. My most favorite thing so far is a manual kitchen mixer made entirely of (rusty) metal, which looks creepily like an automaton (photos to come!). In the mean time…


….Fun Fact of the Day:

Did you know that an ostrich’s eye is bigger than its brain? As in, the thing it sees with is larger than the thing through which it processes the things it sees… What a great metaphor that would make in a poem. You should write one!

In fact, if you do and you send it to us, we’ll send you a gift card so you can do some holiday shopping. A gift card for how much, you ask? How about $10 for every person who sends in a poem? More people equals more money for the winner. Winner to be chosen via

For those of you having a hard time following what just happened because I’m making things up as I go:

poetry contest.

incorporate “the eye is bigger than the brain” any way you like. no other rule!

submit poem in comments.

tell everyone you know about it.

final prize = $10 times total number of participants.

winner will be chosen next Monday.

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Remember When…

…people read books instead of using them to charge electronic devices?

…kids hid under blankets way past bedtime, with a book and a flashlight?

…people had the option of putting bits of their reading material into the hearth to keep warm in winter, when all else failed?


It was a few minutes past closing time, but the door to our garden was closed so the laughter and chatter stayed outside in the dark, under bright bulbs in the trees. Still and quiet inside, I slowly went around turning off the lamps that we didn’t need to see by. The one remaining person, one of our regulars, let’s call him Damian, didn’t mind, because he knew I wasn’t shooing him. It’s a slightly eery and completely magical time of day — none of us are ever quite as alert at 10pm inside our tiny store as we were when we first came in. By then, we’re somehow lulled, in a mild hypnotic daze — countless shapes and colors and faces and words and ideas and moods have funneled through us by then.

Damian had come in about 20 minutes before 10:00 and had been lingering with this or that book for long minutes at a time, slowly wandering around. When I call him a regular, what I mean is that he orders at least a book a week from us and takes home twice that amount from our shelves… we see him almost every other day and he knows, I venture, pretty much every single book we have in stock at any given time. (Lest you be skeptical, I know he reads them all because I always jokingly quiz him.)

He lives nearby and wakes up very early for work. I don’t know what he does. (My suspicion is that he is a writer, but don’t tell him I said that.) We never see him at night, is the point. Though his behavior was unusual, I didn’t question him. I left him alone with his books. Our books. His books. Whatever.

Suddenly, out of the blue (actually from behind a gift shelf, hidden from my view,) I heard: “I can’t sleep.” It took me a moment to respond because I was startled, for one, and because it took me that long to figure out he was answering the question I hadn’t asked. I smiled like an idiot and, with a slightly raised voice, answered, “You want a glass of milk?”

He emerged from where he was hiding and simply nodded, though not without a measure of doubt in his face. So I got him a cup of warm milk (one of the many perks of existing in the place we call home).

He drank his milk, sitting with his books, and looked happy to me. He wasn’t smiling and he didn’t speak, but he looked happy to me. When he finished, he thanked me and told me to have a good night. I told him to sleep tight.

And I wonder: it’s not as if he was there to satiate his hunger for stimulating conversation. He probably has a library at home bigger than this entire bookstore. And I know that there, too,  milk could have been gotten if so desired. Why, then, did he need these things from us?



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between the two worlds

It feels like the only people who read poetry anymore belong to just one of two groups — those made to do so and those who happen also to be the type to pay $20 for the new Paris Review cup (nothing wrong with either type, mind you.)

What escapes most of us, for one reason or another, is that, even in the age of internet memes,  poetry is the quickest, most instantly gratifying medium available for the delivery of catharsis and that well-worn “I’m not alone in this, after all” reassurance we as a culture are so frantically and noticeably in search of these days (mommy blogs, anyone?).

When people hear “poetry” they think “Homer” or “Yeats” or “Plath”… associations which are impenetrable for most. “Meter”, “rhyme”, “verse”.  They don’t think “goodness, motherhood is so hard, but I can’t say that out loud” or “it’s the middle of the night and I just woke up from a nightmare and I wish there was someone in this bed to talk about it with, who would hold me and make me less scared.” Why not?

The general perception, it seems to me, is that poetry is either too esoteric or too angst-y and saccharine, as if written by a teenaged girl (something along the lines of: “my heart was mine to give and to you I gave it so long ago. My heart is your heart now, how can you be so cruel?”) There is a world in between. I promise you.

There are hundreds of books to recommend to you. Below are just a handful of those that can be found in our Poetry section if you come in today.

He marked the page with a match /and fell asleep in mid-kiss, /while I, a queen bee /in a disturbed hive, stay up and buzz: / half a kingdom for a honey drop, /half a lifetime for a tender word! / His face, half-turned. /Half past midnight. Half past one.

from If There is Something to Desire, by Vera Pavlova (Poem 92, pg. 98)

Bangles, mascara wand, a boutonniere, / cornflower blue in your seersucker lapel- / if I had told you thirty years ago / we’d make this drive, wouldn’t you have been/ surprised? Why, Ada, no. Why would I be? / I told you I would love you forever, /and I do.

from The Ada Poems, by Cynthia Zarin (excerpt from “Oblique Strategies”, pg. 51)

Child, I’m reduced to playing the amateur masseur, / quietly desperate, dropping on my knees / to tie your mother’s shoes, an obedient chauffeur, / a bag-lugging coolie eager to ease / your puffed Ma as you blow her up like a balloon/ from the inside–

from The Ship of Birth, by Greg Delanty (excerpt from “The Third Trimester”, pg.24)

Sometimes I can find what I’ve lost / By imagining where I was recently with the lost thing / I put my sunglasses up on the top of my head / Like this, in the computer section at Staples / And I already called Staples / I set them down / on the end-table at Julie’s / And I already called Julie / I didn’t have them this morning / when I went to the gym / Walking from the car, I had to squint, / The Sun was so bright

from Clean, by Kate Northrop (“Detail”, pg. 39)

It is a week after the Fourth, and I fear that some kid / will stumble in with a stump of a thumb. / He will have deserved it, but still it’s sad. / So much for that career in jazz.

from The Available World, by Ander Monson (excerpt from “Sometims the Air Surrounding Me Is Sudden with Flowers”, pgs. 13-14)

That’s the moment I always think of — when the / slick, whole body comes out of me, / when they pull it out, not pull it but steady it / as it pushes forth, not catch it but keep their / hands under it as it pulses out, / they are the first to touch it, / and it shines, it glistens with the thick liquid on it. / That’s the moment, while it’s sliding, the limbs / compressed close to the body, the arms / bent like a crab’s cloud-muscle legs, the / legs folded like the wings of a chicken– / that is the center of life, that moment when the / juiced bluish sphere of the baby is / sliding between the two worlds,…

from The Gold Cell, by Sharon Olds (excerpt from “The Moment the Two Worlds Meet”, pg. 67)


The Academy of American Poets hosts an annual Poets Forum. This year’s event will take place October 20-22 in New York (oh, to be in New York!). Here’s a very short excerpt of an interview between and Cathy Park Hong, one of the younger panelists: Has your idea of what poetry is changed since you began writing poems?

Hong: I always believed that poetry is capable of being anything and prefer to keep that question open-ended. It’s more that my ideas have changed about what poetry should do. When I was younger, I used to be more idealistic about poetry’s function in society—that political action and intervention were possible via restructuring of language. But now, I think maybe it’s enough that poetry can nourish individual consciousness or, to put it another way, maybe it’s enough that poetry’s primary purpose is to make people feel things. [italics, mine] Then I change my mind.


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How Uncle Sal is changing the world

(More Than) Cool Thing of the Day:

 Please read what Helen DeWitt has to say about THIS, because she makes so much more sense…

and Explore!


There are a few people I know who cannot think of anything worse than exposing their ignorance to the world. They’re not stupid. They’re just not geniuses. Except, they pretend they are. They have entire reputations based on being the smartest one in the room, regardless of the room. But there are things they don’t know. Because while these things were being taught to them, they were too busy pretending they knew everything, so they weren’t listening! These people could be much wealthier today had they not spent all their money on therapy to treat the anxiety brought on by the work of pretending. It’s precisely like talking in depth about a book, when all you’ve read is the synopsis. It’s a skill. It takes work. Just because they do it well doesn’t mean they don’t put a great deal of effort in it, is all I’m saying. And just imagine admitting to it now and asking to be taught something– it’s unimaginable is what it is, because it would render their lives meaningless, exposing them as the imposters they are.

This system, for the unfortunate people above, is a miracle!

Also, it’s great for normal people, too.


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Swallowing Beauty, or, “the ‘ahh-ness’ of things”

Keynes and Lucia silenced me this week. Keynes, because I have many an unread book beckoning from every corner and don’t mind it one bit. Lucia, because the perfect book isn’t just the perfect book. The perfect book is that which makes you fall in love with yourself and the world again, if only for a little while, if only you’re able to identify your stupor and hunger as love. And when the new romance eventually fades with time, it is replaced, as with all real romance, by nostalgia. A nostalgia that quietly pulses in your tissues somewhere deep inside, wordlessly begging for those words again.

Afterward, you read many books. Most of them are mediocre, some of them are wonderful. Some feed the person you are in one moment, others help you escape that person in another moment. Some tell you you are awe-inspiring, others show you what real awe is. And this can go on for years. And the only way to find it again is to keep reading, to keep prying your heart open, filling it with hope and accepting all of it… beautiful, ugly, true, false — the whole mess. And still, nothing quite compares with that one (if you’re mindful and, let’s face it, lucky, maybe two or three) love affair(s) which broke you apart and allowed the light to shine through.

And this is why I’m a materialist. This is why, when years ago my library burned in a fire, I mourned for months as if I were mourning the loss of the dearest, dearest thing to me. (Everyone thought I was overdoing it a bit.) There must always be books in my line of vision, wherever I look, with which I have not yet experienced intimacy. Because the only thing more sublime than the experience is the anticipation. And I’m a materialist because my most prized possessions are books, things for which I will go to great lengths to protect and to keep. But why, you may ask. Surely, you’ve heard of the Kindle. Surely, you can simply buy another copy, wherever you are in the world. And that’s true. But it isn’t. Because once or twice throughout the rest of your life, you tire of fighting and you yearn for everything to disappear; you’ll give anything to erase all the words in your head and replace them with those of your true love. So you pick up that book again. And you’re salivating. And maybe, if you’re a little unhinged to begin with, your heart is beating against your chest like a child locked in a closet.

You settle in and you open the very same book that has on its second page the imprint of the coffee cup from which you drank years ago. Further in, the pages are warped because you had no use for wiping your eyes or your nose. On another page you find jagged pencil marks, lines under almost every sentence. Half the book is dog-eared because that was the page. And this was the page.

And you weep because it’s been so long. Because you’ve missed it so. Because it’s time now to feel it again, to be one again with the mind that made those words, and the life that shaped that mind, and the world that nurtured and polluted that life.

And you keep reading and realize… well, you realize that it isn’t the same.

It simply isn’t the same. You never step in the same river twice. But you must, you just have to, convince yourself that sitting on the riverbank is good enough. Beautiful enough. You have to sit on the riverbank, buttressed by countless more books you haven’t read, and cradle the memory. Save whatever is left of the ember, by blowing on it as much as you have to. And you’ll have the perfect memory, free of desire. And it will carry you.



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