By Gwen Dawson
ANCHORAGE: Before Sarah Palin you betcha’d her way into the cultural consciousness, Alaska was perhaps best known as the setting for the hit television show Northern Exposure. The cliche was that it was a remote, distant and icy land, a place marked not by the works of man but, rather, by his absence. The few people who lived there there dressed in heavy coats much of the year and had 10,000 words for snow.
Of course, Palin’s vice-presidential candidacy did little to complicate this picture. The more she told us about Alaska and its fierce individuality, the more entrenched were the cliches. Culturally, she did introduce America to hockey Moms and dads who raced snow machines (when most Americans thought they were called snowmobiles). But what of literary life in Alaska? Were Palin’s rumored attempts to jettison controversial books from Alaskan libraries only more proof of Alaska’s presumed cultural insularity or an aberration?
As it happens, in Anchorage at least, there is a lively book community with a personality all its own — unique, independent, and acutely mindful of their place amid the vast, all-encompassing nature that threatens to envelop them (there is a reason Jon Krakauer’s Into the Wild is the most famous book about Alaska). Indeed, with a climate dominated by long, dark winters, Alaska is perfect for reading.
One way of assessing the cultural vitality of a place is to visit its independent bookstores, which I did on a recent trip. Anchorage’s store’s are quirky, friendly places, at once both familiar and foreign. Title Wave Books is the largest independent bookstore in Alaska and claims to be one of the largest new-and-used bookstores in the U.S. Title Wave has two Anchorage locations, but the massive midtown location is the real star. With 33,000 square feet, it’s a book lover’s paradise filled with new and used books. Selection across all topics is robust, but it is the topics of local interest that are revelatory and well represented, including hunting, fishing, wilderness survival, marine life, bears, and weaponry.
The weaponry section, for example, is particularly generous and organized into subcategories covering personal protection, knives and swords, gun price guides, rifles/shotguns, gunsmithing/reloading, archery/bowhunting, and handguns/pistols. If you’re looking for tips to win a sword fight with a polar bear, this is your store. Hemingway (the man as well as his books) would be perfectly at home here.
Alaskans pride themselves on their sense of community, and Title Wave accordingly reflects it. The store serves as a local gathering point, hosting regular Scrabble nights, chess club meetings (every Friday night), children’s story times, and origami nights. Despite its rather remote location relative to the rest of the country, Title Wave still manages to attract a wide array of touring authors, and has hosted such luminaries as poet Sharon Olds and novelist and fiction writer Tobias Wolff.
My trip coincided with a book signing by local author Bill Streever, a botanist and intrepid outdoorsman living in Anchorage. Streever’s book, Cold: Adventures in the World’s Frozen Places, describes his work on the Alaskan North Slope and in other locales, explaining such phenomenon as frogs that freeze solid in winter and thaw in spring in time for mating season, and examining the concept of “cold” from a myriad of angles. Now how perfect is that for an introduction to the Alaskan mentality?
Title Wave’s downtown location is geared towards the summer tourist trade and is significantly smaller than the midtown store. Nevertheless, this offshoot maintains the lovable quirkiness of the parent store with book categories like “Transportation and Dog Sledding” and “Alaskan Memoirs.”
Metro Music and Book Store, another local favorite, greets customers with the smell of incense and the sounds of indie rock. This combination book and music store epitomizes the idiosyncrasies of its home state. In one corner, a Buddha statue is surrounded by books on spirituality along with a fully-worked jigsaw puzzle. Nearby a seamstress’s form wears a sexy red cocktail dress. Every corner not filled with books or CDs is crammed with furniture, clothes, travel bags, and knickknacks, and everything is for sale. Metro shelves used books side by side with new books, making it easy to see if the book you’re looking for is available in a cheaper, used copy. Although this organizational scheme makes perfect sense, it’s one I’ve rarely seen and usually only in stores more concerned with happy customers than the bottom line.
Unfortunately, Alaska’s singularity has not extended to all facets of the book industry; like the rest of the country, it too has suffered the familiar loss of many independent bookstores. Novel View, a used bookstore in downtown Anchorage, is no more. Likewise, The Book Haven, a cozy coffee shop and Baha’i bookstore, has closed its doors. But those that remain, including gems like Title Wave and Metro, carry on Anchorage’s vibrant book community, reserving space for the written works of man in a state of seemingly limitless nature.
VISIT: Title Wave’ Bookstore’s web site.
READ: More about Alaskan literary life at LitSite, a Web resource run by the University of Alaska Anchorage