Author Mary Laura Philpott has crafted another witty, heartfelt memoir-in-essays with Bomb Shelter: Love, Time, and Other Explosives. To celebrate its release, we asked Philpott a few questions about her favorite bookstores and libraries, both real and imagined. (Spoiler alert: Her method for organizing her own bookshelves is every bit as charming as you’d imagine.)
What are your bookstore rituals? For example, where do you go first in a store?
I go right to that front table to check out new fiction and nonfiction. I’m also a sucker for a good display. It’s fun to see what booksellers are showcasing on a given day.
Do you visit bookstores differently after having worked for Parnassus in Nashville?
I pay more attention to the shelf-talkers—the little cards on which booksellers write up their favorite reads. That’s partly because I often know the people writing them! But I also know now how hard booksellers work every day, and I know it takes extra time to come up with a concise blurb that somehow conveys what they love about a book. Same goes for librarians. A lot of librarians and booksellers are really good writers!
Tell us about your favorite library from when you were a child.
I went to an elementary school for a few years that held chapel services in the mornings, and for the littlest kids the services were conducted in the library. We sat cross-legged on the floor in rows. It was my favorite room of the school, but it drove me crazy to be expected to concentrate on singing hymns when all the books were RIGHT THERE.
While writing your books, has there ever been a librarian or bookseller who was especially helpful?
Oh my goodness, so many! The first thing that comes to mind is actually from an airport bookstore. I can’t even remember what city I was in, but I had just gotten off a plane and checked my email. A newspaper editor had asked if I could write about a book, but the deadline was going to be tight. I knew if I could get the book in my hands before I got on my connecting flight, I could use my airborne time wisely and start working on it. So I dashed into a Hudson Booksellers shop and explained all this in a breathless and verbose and probably nonsensical way. The staffer knew exactly the book I was talking about. She also helped me find a new travel charger for my phone, because I realized I’d left mine in a hotel. I love airport bookstores!
Do you have a favorite library from literature?
I can’t stop thinking about the virtual library in Anthony Doerr’s Cloud Cuckoo Land. One of the plotlines involves a teenage girl all alone on a spaceship; the idea is that she was part of a mission to populate a distant planet after Earth became uninhabitable, but somehow she ended up as the only one alive on the vessel. She has a headset she can put on to enter a library where she can find any book ever written, plus video archives of human history. There’s more to the story about the importance of reading and the evolving life of literature from generation to generation, but I don’t want to spoil anything. Everyone should read this book; it’s a big, strange, amazing masterpiece.
Do you have a “bucket list” of bookstores and libraries you’d love to visit but haven’t yet?
Not a list, per se—more of an open YES to every opportunity I get to see a beautiful library or shop I haven’t seen before. Thankfully my children are used to this by now, so no one balks when we’re on vacation and I make everybody detour into a book spot.
How is your own personal library organized?
Not alphabetically or by genre or color. I shelve books together that have something thematic in common or that I feel would be friends. For example, Emily St. John Mandel’s Station Eleven is next to Karen Thompson Walker’s books, which are next to Ling Ma’s Severance. All the end-of-the-world gals have their own little neighborhood.
What’s the last thing you bought at your local bookstore?
I marked the publication date of Taylor Harris’ memoir, This Boy We Made, on my calendar and went to buy it the day it came out.
Bookstore cats or bookstore dogs?
I’m more likely to pet a bookstore dog than a bookstore cat because I’m allergic to cats, but I like the cats just as much. I love any bookstore animal. Give me bookstore lizards, bookstore chickens, bookstore goats!
What is your ideal bookstore-browsing snack?
Oh, I can’t eat in a bookstore—I’m too nervous about spilling things, and I need my hands free for making book piles—but I love a hot beverage once I’m home and settled on the sofa with my new reads.
Author headshot of Mary Laura Philpott by Heidi Ross.