Where Have all the Cartographers Gone?

Monday, October 10, 2011

Hours of the UniverseEvery moment, the world is growing smaller. There are no lands left unmapped, no peoples undiscovered, no businesses left un-yelped. When I do find a store with fewer than three Yelp! reviews, I find it endearing as a result. Cyber indifference is the last frontier.

When driving home from a wedding in Indiana Amish country, my girlfriend and I stopped in South Bend, home to Notre Dame University, to find a good bookstore and see The Word of Life mural, better known as “Touchdown Jesus” (her idea; she’s a keeper).  Not knowing where to turn for bookstores beyond the campus store, I turned to Yelp!. There were two or three stores in downtown South Bend that looked promising, but they were all closed on Sunday morning. The only store open to us that day, Pandora’s Books, boasted a single review, and let’s just say it was not most flattering Yelp! review I had ever read. But it was a voice in the wilderness.

Approaching Pandora’s by car, the lone reviewer’s complaints of an odd neighborhood seemed unfounded. Pandora’s is located in that strange place found in all college towns: the place where academics and real people try to live together in harmony. There were brick homes with ivy-colored walls on one side of the street, and houses with vinyl siding and satellite dishes in the front yards on the other, but there was more charm than oddity.

The foyer of Pandora’s was littered with Barnes and Noble boxes over-filled with un-marked manila envelopes. Upon entrance, we were met by a big, beautiful, barking golden retriever. We were the only customers, and the single Sunday morning employee calmed the dog’s barking quickly. He plays hide and seek with Shadow, he told us, who  barked at us because we had hidden poorly. He cheerfully inquired if we were looking for some particular title. When we told him that we were just browsing, he replied with an irony-free “Right on.” See what I mean? Endearing.

Pandora’s possessed an odor unlike any other I’d smelled in a bookstore. The closest I came to finding a match is the smell of the workshop at the nursery of a family friend. As a child, my sister and I would accompany our parents to find flowers on Saturday mornings. At the end of each trip, we would go into the office to pay. The office was a small, cinderblock building with small windows and no air conditioning. There were pesticides and fertilizers on the shelves, but the smell I recognized at Pandora’s came from the earthy smell of damp soil.  It’s the smell of new growth and discovery.  It is not the smell of a bookstore, but perhaps it should be.

Like the shelves at Morris Clint’s nursery, the bookcases at Pandora were made of cinder blocks and plywood planks. There were more used Bibles than I had ever seen gathered in one place - clearly the used book depot of a Roman Catholic university town. The theology section rivaled the literature section in both depth and breadth. The poetry section housed a copy of Modern Greek Poetry and a 20-year-old boom box blaring classic rock. We heard The Shondells’ version of “Mony, Mony,” and The Police’s “Spirits in a Material World.” Right on indeed.

Despite finding a neurology coloring book and a velvet, black light crucifix (which, in retrospect, was probably not for sale), I did not purchase anything from Pandora’s.  There was a name-your-own-price table, but most of the items on it were various takes on Rudy, which I already own on VHS. I would have liked to support Pandora’s, but by the end of my visit, I had the sense that it exists for reasons larger than my checking account.