Diana Renn

Mysteries that Matter


For the first time in my life, I have nothing to read. Nothing! I’m totally disoriented. I’m twitching and hallucinating and muttering to myself. I’m visiting family, 3,000 miles away from my tower of nightstand books. I came here having hastily packed, with only one half-finished novel (which I read on the plane), thinking I would just buy new books while I’m out here. Because I’m not in the Middle of Nowhere. I’m in Seattle. A reading city, bursting with incredible bookstores.

But my time during bookstore hours has been taken up with family activities over Memorial Day weekend. My time has not been my own. I did orbit Third Place Books at a farmers market on Sunday, but had to help my parents carry vegetables. We had walked to the market, and had a big dinner to cook. I cast longing looks at the bookstore and experienced chest pains as I walked away. Radishes? Who cares about radishes? I am out of reading material, people!

I could have borrowed a book from my parents, but we have different tastes in reading (Death Begins in the Colon just isn’t calling out to me right now for some reason). Besides, it’s a new book I’m craving. An uncreased cover. The crack of a spine as I turn to page one.

I’ve never been in this situation. When I pack for a trip, I’m more likely to throw in an extra book than an extra shirt. I’ll wear the wrong type of footwear all week but have an ample layer of words. Even as a kid, I’d look forward to picking out my special “airplane books” so I’d never be caught without reading material. Maybe it’s a habit I picked up from my grandmother, who never went anywhere without a paperback mystery in a neat paper bag.

Yet here I am. Inexplicably bookless. I’m starting to understand the appeal of a Kindle.

I awakened early today, groping for a book that was not there. I looked at the clock. Three hours till the nearest bookstore opens. Could I dash there before visiting my grandmother? Squeeze in a book run before picking up my rental car and heading over to see my mother? One thing I love about my hometown is the abundance of drive-through coffee joints. Why don’t we have 24-hour drive-through bookstores? (The Kindle. I know, I know. I’ll think about it).

One hour and forty-two minutes until the nearest bookstore opens. Deep breaths. Deep breaths.

After 78 years in business, my favorite office supply store, Bob Slate Stationer, is closing its doors. All three Cambridge stores will be gone by March. I was already mourning the loss of the two Borders bookstores nearest my home, not to mention the closure of two of my favorite neighborhood book stores in Seattle: Twice Sold Tales and Fremont Place Book Company. I heard about all of those closures in the space of two weeks. The loss of Bob Slate feels like the final kick in the gut.

I have regularly shopped at Bob Slate since I came to the Boston area for school in 1994. Admittedly, I have shopped there less frequently since so much of my work has gone digital, and since the main supplies I need these days — printer cartridges, bulk amounts of printer paper — are much cheaper at Staples. But I’ve still gone there at least once every couple of months for notebooks, journal-type books, planner books, greeting cards, business stationery, and pens. Pens! Bob Slate was like a candy store of gorgeous pens, which you could try out on tiny pads of paper without anyone frowning at you. I don’t even use pens that much anymore, but I have continued to stockpile them as if the world will end. I can honestly say I never left the store empty-handed.

Bob Slate was the kind of store that reminded me of why I wanted to write. Sure, bookstores inspire me too, with all their shelves of finished products. But those are completed stories. Bob Slates, for me, was always about the romance of possibility. Looking at shelf after shelf of notebooks, and reams of lined paper, I would imagine the possibilities for filling them up. I would spend up to an hour choosing my next journal, or the appropriate notebook for jotting ideas on my novel in progress, or the best binder for organizing my research materials. And while running my fingers over bindings, almost in a trance, I’d be playing with various ideas in my mind, or puzzling over plot glitches, or thinking about a character.

Walking into Bob Slate, I always felt ten years old again. When I was a child, my mother regularly took me to stationery shops or drug stores to buy new notebooks, which I chewed through at an alarming rate. I would run my fingers over spines and stroke the paper, deciding whether I wanted a fat five-subject notebook or a smaller one, depending on the scope of my project. I would carefully choose the color of the cover — maybe black or dark blue for a serious work, or hot pink for something light and fun. Or orange, for my Harriet the Spy notebooks, to match the color of that book cover. In Bob Slate, the years fell away and I was right back at age ten, choosing my tools with care and delight.

In our economy today, and our digitized era, paper and pens have become romantic. Fetishized objects of an earlier time. My buying them, in somewhat smaller amounts over the years, certainly did not save the store. But I hope the sense of possibility won’t become romantic. I feel a little adrift today, unsure now of where to go to get the same feeling I got at Bob Slate. I can tell you it’s not at Staples, a place where I usually want to get the hell out as soon as I walk in the door. Staples is about efficiency and speed. Bob Slate was a place to linger. It was a place to let ideas slowly unfurl, and a place to buys tools to help facilitate dreams on the page.

I’m busy, and most days I like to work fast and hard and get things done. It’s the subtitle of this entire blog. But sometimes it’s important to linger and dream and browse around, and I’m finding fewer places to do that these days.