When I travel, my souvenirs of choice are not mugs or hats, not socks or pens. No, when I’m exploring far from home, the souvenirs I bring back are books. I buy one (or two or maybe even three and, yes, sometimes four) in every city I visit.
This touristy habit started three years ago, by accident, when I went to New York City for the first time. I had always wanted to go, inspired partially, of course, by the many books set there. It was, too, the first time I was traveling traveling. Not just-driving-a-few-hours-to-the-beach kind of traveling. No, it was the get-on-a-plane-for-more-than-thirty-minutes kind of traveling. And I had committed an avid reader’s sin and read the two books I brought too quickly. I mean, what kind of book lover doesn’t pack enough books? The me kind of book lover, I guess.
Now I had nothing to read, and the trip wasn’t even half over. What was I going to do while the rest of my family got ready for bed? While they napped? In those stagnant hours at the airport?
I found a local bookstore on the way to the Empire State Building and convinced my family to let me stop.
“Quickly,” they said. Quickly I went.
I saw The Art of the Memoir by Mary Karr facing me on the first shelf I saw. I had been meaning to read it for a while, the way I mean to read a lot of books and then never do. But then suddenly there it was. I bought it, shoving the receipt into the cover, and rejoined my exasperated family shivering on the sidewalk. It was a few days after Christmas and a snow storm, my first, whipped through the streets.
On my next trip, newly 21 in Las Vegas, I wandered through the little shops on the first floor of a casino. On a shelf in the back sat I Hope You Find Me by Alan Feuer, a tiny compilation of Craigslist Missed Connections love poems. Every time I look at it, I taste the crepes I ate well past four in the morning that day; I remember and the way the hotel smelled, and the sheer amount of cowboy hats I saw as I looked over the crowds because a rodeo was in town that week.
I wrote on the inside cover of that tiny book, purchased in Las Vegas, and the dates I was there to memorialize the occasion. When I arrived home, I pulled The Art of the Memoir from my shelves and did the same, turning these books into homemade souvenirs.
A tradition was born.
In San Francisco, at City Lights of course, I bought Little Women and Pity the Reader: On Writing with Style. At the airport, I couldn’t resist a copy of the 50th anniversary edition of Howl by Alan Ginsberg. In each, my handwriting now lives and will forever. Should these books ever be parted from me, the person who comes upon them will open the cover and know that city and those dates meant something to me, once. Even if they don’t know why. Even if they don’t know I exist. How lovely to know my bookish souvenirs will outlive me.
In Seattle, I walked two miles to The Elliott Bay Book Company to buy way too many books. Books I then had to carry back to my hotel in the misting fog-like rain. A rain of a kind I hadn’t ever experienced before and loved. I flew home with Mr. Splitfoot and The Seas and The Dark Dark and In Cold Blood crammed in my overstuffed suitcase beside all of the books I packed. I had learned from my mistake in New York, but that didn’t stop me buying more. I was a book lover after all.
Now these books sit, scattered throughout my bookshelves, and when I see them, I think of these trips, the way the bookstores smelled, and the miles I walked to find them.
More souvenirs in the form of books wait for me in cities I haven’t even thought of visiting yet. I can’t wait to add them to my collection.