The benefits of few choices


I spent the weekend on the banks of the upper Mississippi at a reunion of families we traveled to China with nearly twelve years ago. Sunday morning we crossed the bridge over the river from Wisconsin to Iowa to visit Pike’s Peak.

Until that morning I had only heard of the Pike’s Peak in Colorado. This peak in Iowa was named by the same Zebulon Pike who named the better known peak further west. Pike identified this site for the government as being an ideal location for a military base.

The government decided to build instead in Prairie du Chien, Wisconsin near where we are staying. This allows Pike’s Peak to exist as a State Park. It provides a stunning view of the Mississippi below and the Wisconsin shore on the other side of the river.

After our hike, Kim returns from talking with the other moms to tell me that we’ll be stopping to do some shopping on our way back. The group that made the short drive to the park consists of five 12-year old girls, four moms, and me. Kim remembers seeing a book store and a coffee shop so she’s sure that I’ll be ok.

While the women and girls shop, I head down to the Paper Moon Bookstore in McGregor, Iowa. It’s perfect.

They don’t have every book there, but their collection is clearly carefully selected. Their display quickly takes me from books I already know I want to read to books I haven’t paid attention to but now see that I should read too.

There’s nothing wrong with big book stores that stock everything – I spend plenty of time in physical and online bookstores that stock tens of thousands of titles. But there is something special about a store which is constrained and carries books carefully chosen by the people who work in this actual store.

The owner, Louise, makes her way to the third floor to see if I need any help. She’s not asking if I need help in the way that some store clerks do to see if you are upstairs stealing something. She really wants to know if I need any help.

I tell her that I love her collection. She shrugs it off but thanks me. This is clearly the woman who has put the red stickers on the front of the books that she recommends to her patrons.

I apologize and explain that I feel a little guilty with all of these good books she’s recommending that I’ll probably just buy a bit of fluff to read on this vacation weekend.

“Nothing wrong with fluff,” she says. She asks what kind of fluff I like. I tell her mysteries and she almost smiles. “Me too,” she says, and leads me to the mysteries.

She starts a great game of “have you read” and quickly assesses the types of books I like and starts handing me different possibilities. She describes the authors, the series, the settings, and the writings. She holds one up and says to me, “most mystery authors write for the story. This one is written for the word.”

This is the best sort of bookstore. A bookstore where the people who own it and work in it love books and read constantly. This is the way libraries and book stores always were when I was growing up. The good ones still are. You can find this in large and small book stores, chain and local, physical and online.

We sometimes don’t go to the small ones because they don’t have everything but sometimes that’s exactly the point.

I know that if I lived near hear Louise would get to know the types of books I like and push me to expand a bit in this direction or that. There used to be a book store like that in Shaker Square near where I live. The women would recommend books and tell me “don’t worry about it. If you’ve read this one or you don’t like it, just bring it back.”

Stores like this are harder and harder to find. It’s well worth the effort. Take some time this week to find a small bookstore near you that doesn’t stock every book and see what jumps out at you that you might not have found in a larger store.

This post originally appeared in the Pragmatic Life blog.