A day in Salem: Hawthorne, witches, and terrifying bookshops

People, I am tired. Many thanks to those of you who wrote nice comments about my crash on Tuesday — I’m doing fine, although the bruises are getting uglier. I felt so fine, in fact, that I went on an 81-mile ride today, at a much faster speed than usual for a long, hilly ride (16.7 mph). It was a group ride, with four other people, including Hobgoblin. I started off feeling sluggish and nervous about riding with others — when anyone would yell or wobble in the slightest I would panic — but pretty soon my energy returned and I forgot about the crash on Tuesday and began to ride normally. The only thing that brought the crash back to mind was that whenever I went over a pothole or a crack in the road (which was often, as those of you who know Connecticut will readily believe), the bruises on my arm hurt.

It was a beautiful day, in the 60s and 70s, dry, and sunny, and we rode through beautiful Litchfield county. The riding doesn’t get any better in Connecticut, that’s for sure.

I also wanted to tell you about my day yesterday, which was Hobgoblin’s birthday and was spent taking a day trip to Salem, Massachusetts. The first thing we saw was the house where Hawthorne was born, and the House of Seven Gables, made famous by Hawthorne’s novel. The two houses are now right next to each other, although this is because Hawthorne’s birth home was moved in the 1950s. Both of the houses are great fun to walk through — I love looking at old houses, even if they aren’t historically famous — they have the low ceilings and small rooms you would expect from houses several centuries old. The House of Seven Gables has a secret staircase that takes you from the dining room up to the attic, and it has an interesting history, with additions added and then removed, gables removed and then restored, fortunes of the owners gained and lost, and, of course, Hawthorne’s own visits to the place. I have yet to read the novel, but now feel inspired to try to get to it soon.

Next we checked out the Peabody Essex Museum and managed to see only a small part of it, as it’s surprisingly large and we have limited endurance when it comes to museums. We spent a lot of the time looking at their very cool collection of model ships (which made me feel like reading Patrick O’Brian), and then we headed off to their special exhibits, including one on weddings around the globe and another on Mauri tattoos.

After that we had time and energy for one more museum, this one not as erudite as the other two — the pirate’s museum, which was silly but fun; it wasn’t much of a museum, actually, but more of a tour through some rooms with models of pirates and a guide who told us stories of piratical violence and betrayal.

Salem has a ton of museums, most of them probably like the pirate’s museum, which, although fun, wasn’t a lot more than an excuse to have a gift shop. It’s got several museums about witches, and in fact, much of the town is witch-obsessed. There are many witch-themed shops, and the entire month of October is basically a festival celebrating witches and all things Halloween-related. The irony of this is, of course, obvious. I couldn’t help but wonder what those women accused of being witches would have thought of the modern-day town, and also what Hawthorne would have thought of the place — would he like or hate it?

To recover from our museum-attending, we checked out two of the local bookshops, the first one a good independent store, and the second a used bookstore. The used bookstore is memorable, not for its stock, which was pretty mainstream with its multiple copies of extremely famous contemporary authors, but for the terror it inspired in me. For perhaps the first time in my life I breathed a sigh of relief when we left the shop. Believe me when I tell you that the books there are dangerous. Life-threatening, in fact.

The problem isn’t with the books themselves, but with the way the owners decided to cram them into the shop — most of them are stacked on top of each other rather than shelved side by side, and the stacks tower over you, threatened to topple on your head. I made the mistake of pulling a book out of one such stack and then I panicked because it started swaying towards me. I got my hand up in time to keep it from falling on me, but the stack wouldn’t stay put, and I couldn’t figure out how stabilize it with my one free hand. Thankfully the store owner came to my rescue and fixed the pile himself. I then decided I would look only at books toward the top of the stacks, but I embarrassed myself once again: the aisles are so narrow that as I walked down one of them, my handbag brushed against one of the piles, knocking it over. Once again the owner came to my rescue, restacking the books for me. The owner’s facial expression made it pretty clear that he spends a good bit of every day rescuing klutzy customers from themselves.

I couldn’t believe the place. The book stacks bulged and teetered, making me dizzy. One section was even wrapped in a thick cord to keep the books from sliding off their stacks and onto the floor. There is no cash register in sight; instead, near the door there is a gap in the book piles, about the length of a mass market paperback, through which customers carefully hand their purchases to the cashier, who carefully hands them back once the books are paid for. I went through this process with a P.D. James novel that sounded good and walked out the door relieved that I hadn’t done even more damage.

After that we got dinner, stuffed ourselves with chocolate cake, and headed home. We had such a good time, we’re hoping to head back before too long and see the things we didn’t have time for that day. I highly recommend a visit if you get the chance, but do be careful — danger lurks in some unexpected places.

16 Comments

Filed under Books, Cycling, Life

16 responses to “A day in Salem: Hawthorne, witches, and terrifying bookshops

  1. I am sorry to hear about your crash. Take it easy, and let yourself really recover. And belated birthday greetings to the Hobgoblin!

  2. Eva

    That sounds like a nightmare bookstore! Tons of books, but you can’t browse at all. And fear of bodily harm. :( Yay for PD James though!

  3. TJ

    I’m so glad your riding today was pleasant and less eventful than your Tuesday experience. Do read The House of Seven Gables. You’ll love it!

  4. I’m glad you’re doing better with your bruises. I know bookshops like that in Paris, I only go there when I know what I need and ask someone to get it for me… it’s too risky to just browse!

  5. I kind of like the sound of that book shop, despite the danger!

    Glad you are back on your bike.

  6. Oh a mere 81 miles!!!! That bookshop sounds ridiculous – how many people must they put off buying books there? Glad you had such a fun day and happy birthday to the Hobgoblin.

  7. What a nice couple of days you’ve had. I wouldn’t feel bad about knocking over book piles in the shop, it sounds like the whole shop is an accident waiting to happen. Your story made me laugh though :)

  8. And Happy birthday to Hobgoblin!

  9. That sounds like a great way to spend a birthday–doing all the things you like (and chocolate cake at the end!). I know the Peabody is big (I’ve not been there, but I want to go), but they are supposed to have a nice textile/needlework collection! :) I wonder if that bookstore would sell more books if they were shelved rather than stacked (and people wouldn’t be afraid of grabbing them!). Glad to hear that your ride went off well.

  10. It sounds as though that bookshop owner was doing himself more harm than good. I would feel so uncomfortable in a shop like that that I would avoid going there. And it takes a great deal for me to feel that way about a bookshop. Maybe he just can’t resist taking in any book he’s offered. Perhaps it is the biggest TBR pile in the world.

  11. Glad to hear you’re feeling recovered enough to go on an 81-mile ride. Your visit to Salem sounds like great fun; I’ve always thought it would be interesting to poke around there. The bookshop story made me laugh, and made me think that my husband is nowhere near as crazy a used-book-man as that! :) I especially like the tiny cashier’s wicket, how hilarious.

  12. Pingback: The Definition of Irony « The Hobgoblin of Little Minds

  13. MJ

    oooo! a crash on a bike and then a crash of books…of books and bicycles! glad you’re back on track. your summer is off to an adventurous start. the things that stand out in my mind from family trips to salem are the wickens and the tourist shops, both cheap and cheesy, yet, somewhat unsettling.

  14. Ah, to be smothered to death by piles of falling books. That is a good way to go. :)

  15. Thanks Fendergal — I’m pretty well recovered by now!

    Eva — yes, I was pleased with the James find — there might have been other books I would have liked, but I didn’t want to stay any longer!

    TJ — okay, I’ll try to read the House of Seven Gables! I’m not very good at reading early American lit, being more of a British person. I should try to be a little more balanced.

    Smithereens — the owner seemed to want to find books for us rather than leaving us to browse around ourselves, and I understand why …

    Jess — the bookstore is appealing in concept — all those books! — if not in practice …

    Litlove — I’m sure the bookstore does lose some customers because of the danger … I wouldn’t want to linger there for hours myself.

    Stefanie — you’re right; it IS an accident waiting to happen, and I’m sure they deal with it all the time!

    Danielle — oh, I missed the section on textiles and needlework! There’s so much I didn’t see, unfortunately, but it means I’ll have to go back.

    Ann — yeah, I felt uncomfortable there, and that’s not a good way to feel in a bookstore. I’m sure he would do better with fewer books. There was a lot of repetition he could have gotten rid of at least.

    Melanie — Salem is definitely worth a visit if you have a chance. And yes, be glad your husband isn’t as book crazy as that owner was!

    MJ — you’re right — I didn’t think my two favorite things could both cause crashes, but they can! Yeah, my summer has started well, and I hope yours has too.

    Dark Orpheus — indeed :)

  16. I’ve been meaning to leave a comment on Salem for a couple of days, hoping to do it after one of my random posts as I try to get back into the swing of things, but then it doesn’t happen–so today I’ll do it first.

    I had an odd Salem experience last year, when I took my daughter on a spring college tour. We stopped on a Sunday morning on our way up to Maine. We walked around for an hour or so, didn’t go into the 7 Gables, ate a nice lunch, and then we were on our way. It was brief, just trying to get a sense of what Salem is like these days, and I have to say it was a little on the touristy side, not horrible, and we didn’t really spend enough time to find the right way into things. So it’s nice to hear that you had a good time, and found a scary bookstore.

    But my comment primarily concerns a book that made me want to go to Salem in the first place: Megan Marshall’s “The Peabody Sisters.” I guess I read it in the fall of 06, after reading a selection called “The Other Sister” that appeared earlier in The New Yorker with the subtitle, “Was Hawthorne a cad?” This was a truly outstanding biography, which got a lot of recognition when it came out, bringing the amazing Elizabeth Peabody up to the light, and also generating lots of new insights about Hawthorne and her sister Sophia. I thought vaguely at the time that there might be a movie in the book, and it was optioned by British producers, with some connection to Gwyneth Paltrow, which makes sense. The other sister, whose name I forget at the moment, was married to Horace Mann, and the whole clan was extraordinary.

    But the reason that I bring it up is that it’s an extremely detailed and careful study of early 19th century Salem, where the Peabody Sisters lived a few blocks away from the house where Hawthorne was holed up with his sister and his mom for 10 years writing stories. Elizabeth Peabody is right in the middle of all the cultural affairs of the day, and over 18 months later I still have a clear sense of her going to Concord to study Hebrew with Emerson, opening her bookshop in Boston, and so many other details. I was hoping to stumble into some of these places in Salem–they’re so accessible in Concord, where the little bookshop I found was really good and not dangerous in any way–but I didn’t really have the time to search.

    Marshall is now working on a biography of Hawthorne’s sister, which should be very interesting. The short essay in The New Yorker should be fairly accessible, but be warned that it will make you want to read the book.

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