307 East Grand River
East Lansing, MI 48823
Audrey Hepburn on a movie poster, Jesse Jackson on the cover of a 30-year-old Ebony magazine, a Captain Midnight badge, MSU Spartan memorabilia, superheroes on vintage comic book covers, superheroes larger than life on the wall, maps, playbills, National Geographic, Life, and a 12-volume, 1933 edition of the Oxford English Dictionary . . . what do these things have in common? Curious? Exactly. I saw them all at Curious Book Shop in East Lansing, Michigan. In front of the understated entrance in a simple red brick building, a hand-painted sign displayed the specials of the month while the store's wares spilled out onto the sidewalk on book carts of 50-cent and 1-dollar specials. As I grew closer to the door, bright colors drew my attention to the left where a quirky red door stood open revealing a multi-colored staircase leading to "Upstairs" and "More Nostalgia." What fun, I thought. As I entered what already impressed me as quite a unique shop, I was enthusiastically greeted by two gregarious and bubbly staff members, and I knew this would be a pleasurable visit indeed. Curious? Read on.
|Curious clerks, Audrey and Liz|
Audrey Barton has been a clerk at Curious Book Shop for about 3 years, and Liz Cizek has been at the store for a little over a year. Jokingly referring to themselves as "Jills of all trades," they were eager to offer assistance and tell me about the store. Beginning in 1969 when he was a student, owner Ray Walsh started out by selling books out of his basement. Quickly outgrowing that arrangement, he moved into a store front just up the street from the current location for a couple of years before finally settling in at 307 E. Grand River where he has been for over 40 years.
The store is a scant 18 feet across and 100 feet deep, but occupying 3 stories in all, it is far from small. Although science fiction and mystery are considered specialties, customers can find used books of all kinds--even a children's section. "It's been said that we are an everyman's bookstore," Audrey told me before mentioning that the trick to finding the really cool stuff is to look high and low. It didn't take much browsing on my part before I understood exactly what she meant, for it was on a high shelf that I discovered the aforementioned Oxford English Dictionary. No disrespect intended toward Webster, but I would venture to say that most people are not aware that the one-volume books they grew accustomed to using in school don't come close to including all English words. Hence the impressive appeal of a complete 12-volume set. Call me a word nerd, but had I a spare $350 and the necessary storage space, I would love to have called this my purchase. Another time perhaps.
With much more still to see, I headed down for a quick tour of the basement where more books as well as old magazines and newspapers are housed. I was, however, most interested to see the upstairs, which can only be entered by going back outside to the quirky stairs I had noticed on my way in. Quirky, I would soon learn, doesn't begin to describe this staircase and the narrow hallway to which it leads where an impressive, hand-painted mural adorns the walls from floor to ceiling. This upper level was once a comic book store, so why wouldn't it have larger-than-life superheroes painted on the walls? The top floor of the store is home to memorabilia of all kinds including records, magazines, and a variety of rock and roll and old movie collectibles--quite a nostalgic experience for those like me who are old enough to remember and appreciate the likes of Bette Davis, Marlon Brando, Tarzan, Elvis, and The Shadow.
Curious Book Shop is not without its brush with celebrity. Award winning author, Nnedi Okorafor, once worked at the store. Her book, Who Fears Death, won the 2011 World Fantasy Award for Best Fantasy Novel. Check out Nnedi's website at: http://www.nnedi.com.
Celebrities of a different sort paid a visit to the shop last spring. Playboy was doing an article on "Girls of the Big Ten" and chose Curious Book Shop for a photo shoot. The unique, vintage nature of the shop makes it a favorite setting for senior pictures, student films, art projects, and the like.
|Curious owner, Ray Walsh|
As my visit was coming to a close, I had the good fortune to meet busy owner, Ray Walsh, who had just come into the store and took a few minutes to chat with me. I was surprised to learn that a small bookstore in Grand Rapids called Argos was actually opened by Ray in the 70's. I have visited Argos in the past, but have not yet taken the time to blog about it. Perhaps this winter you will read more about that shop.
Oddly enough, my purchases at Curious Book Shop were neither nostalgic nor old. The store does have one section of new titles and on a shelf there I noticed a copy of Life of Pi by Yann Martel. I have been meaning to read this one for some time, and now that the movie is out, I felt especially compelled to purchase it. I also selected a Curious Book Shop t-shirt and a book bag printed with the saying, "So many books, so little time." The longer I do this blog, the more I believe that saying applies equally well to bookstores.
It was a pleasure meeting Ray, Audrey, and Liz. My trip to Curious Book Shop was indeed memorable, and I feel certain I will return to East Lansing for another bookstore visit. You see, just down the road there is a sister shop called The Archives, and I think I hear it calling my name.