A Pilgrimage for Book People
Reflecting on a family tradition
Thank you toand the Write of Passage Writers’ Studio where I wrote this essay. This essay was first published as a featured article on the Write of Passage website.
Every summer for twenty years, my Dad loaded my sister and me into a rented cargo van to make a pilgrimage from Houston to a parking lot in suburban Chicago. It was a pilgrimage because my Dad is a bookseller who loves and reveres books and all they stand for. Bookselling is his vocation. And in the latter half of the 20th century, if you loved and revered books and all they stand for, that parking lot in suburban Chicago became a holy site for two weeks at the beginning of every June.
We spoke of the parking lot often in our house. We planned our life around it. However, we rarely spoke about it openly to others. They wouldn’t have understood. The people in the know simply called it, “Brandeis.” It began as a simple idea: a school’s alumni network decided to gather donated books and resell them to raise money for scholarships to their alma mater:
Since its beginnings in an empty storefront in Winnetka back in 1959, the sale has brought in more than $1 million to support the libraries at Brandeis University in Waltham, Mass. The university housed its first library in a converted horse stable. One of the university trustees suggested that women around the country get involved in efforts to raise funds for the library.
Chicago Tribune, 1994
Alumni chapters all over the country organized sales, but none approached the scope or influence of the Chicago chapter’s perennial summer sale. It was more than an event — it was commerce, congregation, and circus all in one. When we said Brandeis, there was no confusion about where we were going. But to stop at calling Brandeis another used book sale would be like calling the Forbidden City another house, or the Vatican another church. It was a fixture in my life as well as in many others’, not least of which my father’s. And to recall it is to understand why I became a writer, and why I believe what all those pilgrims believed: that civilization lives in books.
To read the full text of the essay, please go to the Write of Passage website.
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Huge thank you to the Write of Passage community for their help on this. First, thanks again to who brainstormed this with me and worked through a dozen rounds of feedback over literal months. Thanks also to who really helped me polish it at the end. Along the way, I also got significant feedback from a ton of my fellow Write of Passage alumni, specifically ,, , , , , , and Matthew Villwock.
Thanks to the people of Chicago who hosted the sale every summer, and to my family in Chicago, who hosted us. Most of all, thanks to my Mom and Dad for a lifetime of memories taking this trip and growing up in a bookstore.
This is such a nice read. Not really used to reading long essays anymore, but I gulped this one down in one go. Love it.!
This brought back so many memories! You have done a wonderful job breathing life into the event that was the Brandeis book sale. I always loved eating at Hackney’s with you guys, too. We should go there the next time you are up here. Great job once again showing a side of the family that I will treasure for a long time.