Before I started working in bars, I worked in bookstores for almost twenty years. A few bad ones, in that they were corporate manifestations of sameness, but mostly good ones - one or two great. A lot of unique elements go into the making of a great bookstore, but it basically breaks down into signal vs. noise. It is a rare experience to walk into a bookstore these days and find every section is full of strong and true signals - books that define not only the core of a section, but also delineate its eccentric circumference. This being said, Henderson Books is one of the greatest bookstores that I have ever had the pleasure to discover.
Right after my family moved up here, I remember one of the first conversations I had with my sister was about Henderson's. When you come up for a visit, she said, you have to go to Henderson's first thing. Not go take a walk around the Bay or go to the museum, but go to this bookstore. I won't deny that I doubted her a little. From my perspective in Austin, where during the last ten years over a dozen independent bookstores - including the handful that I had worked for - had all closed their doors. Great independent bookstores were like artifacts from a culture that was all too quickly fading away.
Naturally, the first place I went to when I visited Bellingham was Henderson Books. Immediately I was impressed with the density of books, that there were no fancy fixtures, that every available surface was used for books. No wedding cake display tables. Every shelf was filled with spines, no faceouts. The place was beautiful, labyrinthian, a bibliophile's dream.
I found the literature section and, preparing for disappointment, looked for Borges. To my surprise, a whole shelf: Labyrinths, Ficciones, A Personal Anthology, all three of the recently published Penguin editions of Collected Fiction, Selected Non-Fictions and Poems. They even had a copy of The Narrow Act: Borges' by Ronald Christ. How about David Duncan's The River Why? There with The Brother's K. and River's Teeth. All of Helprin. Next I checked on Stephen Milhauser. They had him. Edwin Mullhouse, Martin Dressler. Hardback firsts of The Knife Thrower and Enchanted Night. Cormac McCarthy. Everything. It was like they were just laughing at me now. I found the Literary Criticism room. Memesis by Eric Auerbach. Most of Bloom - the early good stuff. A copy of Angus Fletcher's Allegory. Lawrence's Studies in Classic American Literature. Paglia. Most of George Steiner. Damn even Frederick Turner's New Classicism. Same room: extensive collections of the Paris Review and the Kenyon Review. Philosphy section: replete with Heidegger, Nietzsche, Whitehead. And all of it more than reasonably priced. I wandered around for a couple hours trying to find a weak section, where the noise of mass culture had drowned out those signal works of core relevance, and found none.
Over the years, it became a joke in my family as to whether or not I was coming up to see them or to make a pilgrimage to Henderson's. In the time since I have moved up here, I have been there nearly every day. I have also been selling some books there and found them to be more than fair. In the few instances where I felt the offer was low, after explaining my issue, they have either tilted the balance in my favor or asked to have some time to do some more research on the book. In short, they care about books and the people that love them.
Glancing at a bookmark in a stack of recent purchases, I noted with amusement that they have been around since 1962, the year that I was born. I take that as a good omen. So long live Henderson's, one of the last of the great bookstores.