Environmental science, traveling, and the sociology of the unraveling American dream.


If you're looking for more about me, I'm pretty much hanging out over at my livejournal these days. I use this account for commenting on other people's blogs.

Wednesday, October 27, 2004

Charlottesville, Virginia

Nestled into the hills of Virginia, Charlottesville has managed to avoid the McMansion sprawl that characterizes so much of America. Even the strip mall areas on the outlying highways have positive natural capital (environmental engineering class jargon for "they're pretty"), but the downtown is heavenly. Unlike most cities in the States, Charlottesville has taken the sensible route, the good route, and turned the heart of the town into a pedestrian mall with a parking garage nearby. The center of the mall is devoted to small stands selling crafts and outdoor seating areas for sidewalk cafes. I ate my lunch at an outdoor Italian cafe, and the food was as good as anything I've had in the North End -- as was the gelato I got at another shop nearby.

The people are friendly and helpful and altogether pleasant to be around, without being smothery and obnoxious. At the yarn shop, one of the women was nice enough to not only direct me to the best raglan sweater pattern out there, available for free on the internet, but also to take a look at my knitting and diagnose why my knitting in the round tends to slant peculiarly to the left. (Apparently I've been knitting into the back of the stitch. Who knew!) The rest of the shops are equally interesting, and I only wish I'd had the time to drop in. And their radio stations are great.

Those things aren't what make this city spectacular, though. Those are the icing on the cake, or perhaps the gilt on the lily. What really makes this a spectacular city is something much simpler, something I never thought I'd see, something that makes me wonder if I wandered into one of my more fantastical daydreams -- because this is a city that loves to read.

There were seven used book stores in just the part of town I walked through. Not small, musty used book stores with a few rare books as a claim to fame -- honest-to-God, solid used book stores of the daily use variety, multiple floors, multiple rooms. I only let myself go into one (Read It Again, Sam), but it was fabulous. Their mystery section took up a wall the size of most people's houses. Their science fiction section was massive -- I found another copy of the Book For Which I Seek directly -- and I had to get myself out of the store before I looked at anything else because otherwise I was going to have to buy a new suitcase. (Also, they were playing Dire Straits. I have a very hard time leaving a store that plays Dire Straits, especially live versions of Portobello Belle, and I figured it was just going to get harder to go.)

It isn't just the book stores, though. The library is the same way. It was an enormous three-story building in the downtown. It had shopping baskets to make carrying your books easier. It had a seventy-five book limit on what you could take out.
I saw kids at the library, hanging around, looking for books, talking to the librarians. In the science fiction section of Read It Again, Sam, I saw three middle schoolers out shopping for books. "I've read one of his," one of the kids said, picking up a book. "It was fantastic. I really want to find the first book in the series."

But what really drove it home was something that happened at the airport, as I was checking in to head home. As two of the security screeners went through my checked bag, they started looking at my books and discussing the authors. "We see a lot of him," one said, looking at a Clive Cussler. I laughed and said "Well, you guys certainly have a lot of used book stores here." "Yeah," one of them answered. "If you can get here in March, there's a book festival -- the Friends of the Library Sale. It's crazy. They have books going down to a dime each, or a dollar a bag. It's great."

You know what? I want every town in America to be like this, to know what reading can bring, to truly rejoice in it, to make it into a matter of community pride. But short of that, I want to go back.