Here’s a persuasive argument that bookstores can be safe havens in times of personal or societal stress. They can be, but it depends very much on the character of the store itself as to whether it will be. Despite the fact that our local Barnes & Noble might have some comfortable chairs scattered about, and might even allow us to munch a cookie or two as we read, the national chains are set up primarily as places of commerce, not social intercourse, except on those occasions when an author is giving a talk and fielding questions afterward.
Our best bet for finding the haven to which Betsy Burton refers is to look among the smaller, independent bookstores in places like Oxford, MS (Faulkner country), or New Orleans (still the heartland of Southern writing), or New Haven, CT (the clearinghouse for the great works of New England), or Seattle, WA (most of whose bookstores were in place long before Jeff Bezos began Amazon there.)
I would also encourage you to regard the local branch of your public library as a potential haven. The Heights Public Library in Houston certainly was for me when I was growing up. I owe a great deal to my sweet mother for driving me there and leaving me for hours during the summer and on Saturdays. The community programs didn’t interest me much (story hour for kids younger than I was), but the time alone with books like Alastair MacLean’s Ice Station Zebra, Winston Graham’s Poldark, and John Fowles’ A Separate Peace did my imagination a world of good.
When Ms. Burton and I say “haven,” by the way, neither of us means to imply that anyone should use the library or the bookstore as an excuse for simply running away from life’s problems. Far from it. The haven is meant for those who are already fully engaged with life on a personal or professional level. Everyone–everyone—needs a place to retreat, to gather one’s self, to think afresh, to renew one’s spirit.
I would suggest also that books themselves offer the best shelter available. We can, if we wish, retreat into a book we love, a book that revives us because of the beauty of its language or the sharpness of its thoughts. For instance, yesterday, before I came upon Neil Gaiman’s book of non-fiction pieces, I was actually looking for Louise Bernikow’s anecdotal but sensitive study of the single life, Alone in America. The knowledge that many of life’s difficulties are shared by most of us is oddly comforting. On that score, Ms. Bernikow’s book is comforting, indeed. Another one to which I return again and again is Gretel Ehrlich’s The Solace of Open Spaces, a book of essays in which the stark, barren landscape of Wyoming is revealed to be something else entirely. Few authors have written with such poise and honesty about their personal discoveries as Ms. Ehrlich does here. Finally, I have used R.F. Delderfield’s wonderful novel about teaching, To Serve Them All My Days, as a constant reminder of two things: that it really is possible to write a novel about men and women in which women are treated with the utmost respect, and that the things we do and the people we love really can endure to the end of our lives and beyond.