Last week, I stopped by Starrlight Books in downtown Flagstaff to visit with the owner, Evan Midling. I’ve been curious to know how he learned the book business and came to own the place. I wondered how he manages to stay afloat in these seemingly tough times for independent booksellers.
Between bookshelves, kachinas and framed art decorate the walls. Evan showed me one of his prized books from the rare book cabinet, a first edition of Wallace Stegner’s Beyond the Hundredth Meridian with a fold-out map in the front. He pulled out a few other treasures from some of Stegner’s students, Edward Abbey and Ken Kesey.
About the Stegner book, Midling said, “A book like this is important in our area because it was one of the first books about the exploration of the west. Wallace Stegner was Edward Abbey’s teacher and Ken Kesey’s, too. So he’s a seminal figure in writing in the last few decades.”
Midling’s first bookstore job was at the original McGaugh’s Newsstand – on the corner of Aspen and San Francisco streets where Mountain Sports is now located. Later, after he was injured in a near-fatal construction accident, he took another bookstore position. He wound up managing stores for B. Dalton Booksellers, but found himself spending less time in Flagstaff, where he owns a home. So he quit B. Dalton and began working at Starrlight Books. About twelve years ago, Midling bought the business.
Amid strains of Django Reinhardt and the stacks of books, I asked him about how technology has affected the business.
“I started up right at the beginning of the internet, so it’s always been kind of a valuable resource for me….I read books and articles and do research online. I do my more serious reading out of books, though, because I can’t stand staring at a screen for hours and hours.”
“There are a lot of people who come into the store who have a Kindle or a Nook, but they still buy books, too. And they actually like [books] better.”
This is true for me, also. Beyond the prose, reading a book is, for me, about the pace and the pauses. I progress at a clip or meander, as I wish. I can flip back to see something I read a few minutes or hours or days ago. I can share a book I’ve loved with a friend.
With each consecutive reading, a printed book seems imbued with more meaning, not less. History and emotion are contained in a much-read volume: coffee stains or drips from a wine glass mark a moment in time, crumbs collect between the pages. Motes of dust and cells from our hands make their way onto the pages, invisibly. We become the books we read, and they become us.
I am not a particularly acquisitive person, but I purchase books optimistically and read omnivorously. I’ll fill my literary plate with more than I can consume; it all looks so delicious. Around the house – in the bedroom, living room and studio – are piles of books.
This past weekend, Mike and I went camping in the desert, just as the first snow was falling in Flagstaff and the reality of winter was setting in. Like a security blanket, I took three books to read.
The campfire that greeted us in the late afternoon when we arrived wasn’t just for effect. Our friends, who’d been camped since mid-week, wore multiple layers and hats against the chill. We kept the fire burning late into the night, and rekindled it next morning.
The afternoon I visited Starrlight Books, after Evan pointed out the rare books to me, he showed me Campfires on Desert and Lava by William Temple Hornaday. “This is a really good book, but it’s a little rough. It’s what you’d call a reading copy, not necessarily in collectible condition.”
I rather coveted the worn volume, but resisted the temptation to ask the price. Now, though, after our campout in the desert, I plan to go back for it. Bringing home a reading copy is more my style than the first edition Stegner, anyway. I’ll learn what that cryptic title means, and why so many people have already read it. I’ll be changed by the book, and leave something of myself within its pages.
Starrlight Books is located at 15 N. Leroux Street in downtown Flagstaff, and is open daily except Sunday during the winter.