Reveling in a recent stay at the Book House.
Museums have lock-ins. By reservation, you can spend the night and live out that From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler fantasy. But how about a slumber party in a good, comfortable library? Now that’s a dream for a Girl Writing, or a girl reading.
My dream almost came true last week. Visiting our daughter Martha in El Paso, my husband and I booked (sorry) into her friend’s bed-and-breakfast. The Book House, a cozy bungalow, is furnished with the usual and customary accoutrements for overnight visitors. But the huge value added? Books in every room — bathroom included! We’re talking floor-to-ceiling bookshelves, even a spinning wire rack for (cue the Beatles soundtrack) paperbacks.
Host Vanessa Johnson explains that several years ago, Martin’s Book Store, an El Paso fixture for more than 50 years, closed. Shortly afterward, its founder, Elizabeth Alvarez, died. Bibliophile Vanessa selected and purchased 10,000 books, a quarter of the shop’s collection. Rather than store the books, she kept them in the bungalow she was renovating for a B&B. Thus, the Book House was born.
Vanessa’s wall-scape is not the anonymous, synthetic books-by-the-yard look employed by soulless interior designers, nor the usual B&B offering — a handful of titles left behind by prior guests. Her shelves are stocked with an idiosyncratic but comprehensive selection ranging from astronomy to astrology, classics to cookbooks, psychology to philosophy. In one bedroom, a freestanding tower of law books looms adjacent to a low-rise shelf of vintage kiddy lit. Fiction rules, and yes, there’s a whole shelf devoted to Texas author and bookseller Larry McMurtry.
The books are organized and alphabetized (except when mis-shelved by guest browsers like me). We wandered from room to room, calling out titles on spines, pausing to skim, grazing on. Surrounded by so many temptations, it was hard to settle down and read. Instead, I perused the shelves, dipping in and out of whatever caught my fancy. El Paso is on Mountain Time, two hours behind Washington, DC, so it was easy to stay up past my bedtime and to wake up early. In search of a mug, I opened a kitchen cabinet and found — more books.
Over breakfast, I sampled a history of the El Paso Women’s Club. We tore ourselves away from the bounteous library to watch Martha run a half-marathon in nearby New Mexico. After her well-earned, much-needed lunch, we visited her favorite bookstore, Brave Books, in another vintage El Paso bungalow. There, owner Jud Burgess “wants people to experience the joy of a good book.”
Well, we certainly enjoyed browsing the inclusive, thoughtfully curated collection that ranges from popular paperbacks to collectible first editions. Burgess offers something for everyone: kids and adults, scholars and pleasure readers. It was a nice surprise to find The Saga of Gösta Berling by 1909 Nobel laureate Selma Lagerlöf (the first woman to win the prize).
Brave Books’ welcoming rooms have plenty of nooks and crannies and comfy chairs and made me homesick for the atmosphere and outstanding stock at the late, great Riverby Books on Capitol Hill in Washington. If we could just arrange a little continental drift, I’d return to Brave Books often.
Martha picked up a copy of Roadside Geology she’d had her eye on since a prior visit, adding it to the bookmobile’s worth of guidebooks and nature guides already in her car for our road trip to Santa Fe.
Back at the ranch (I mean, the Book House), it was time to pack for our departure the next morning — and to make a big decision. Vanessa invites guests to “select a book or two per night you are staying at the Book House as a gift. You are not obligated to leave another book, as we mostly like finding good homes for books.”
We’ve been on a Willa Cather jag since Martha moved west. My husband had just finished The Professor’s House on the airplane. A decisive guy, he quickly chose My Antonia. Me? I was a dazed-and-glazed kid in a candy shop, still hovering in the morning, chauffeur/daughter at the door. We needed to get on the road pronto to see Sandhill Cranes in Bosque del Apache. What to select from the vast menu? I flinched, cheated, and grabbed a combination plate: Willa Cather, Three Complete Novels: O Pioneers!, The Song of the Lark, Alexander’s Bridge.
Epilogue to a bookish travelogue: My Book House memento is bigger than an old-fashioned metropolitan phonebook (now there’s an item to sell at a used-book store). Journey’s end found me days later in Santa Fe, struggling to compact, compress, and squeeze everything into my carry-on. I made rash decisions, cut every corner, hastily finished my knitting project to reduce bulky balls of yarn. The problem? How to get a ship into a narrow-necked bottle. More specifically, how to pack Willa without crushing my ristra, the gleaming string of red peppers destined for our front door?
Let’s just say, some tears were shed. No trouble, no story.
Ellen Prentiss Campbell’s collection of love stories is Known By Heart. Her story collection Contents Under Pressure was nominated for the National Book Award, and her debut novel, The Bowl with Gold Seams, won the Indy Excellence Award for Historical Fiction. Her novel Frieda’s Song was a finalist for the Next Generation Indie Book Award, Historical Fiction. Her column, “Girl Writing,” appears in the Independent bi-monthly. For many years, Campbell practiced psychotherapy. She lives in Washington, DC, and is at work on another novel.