Books had a prominent but complicated place on my mother’s side of the family. Books gave you status, proof that you were not ignorant. I always got the impression that part of the reason my grandfather chose to become a preacher like his father was because it was as close as he would get to being able to keep studying after high school. He was at various times a preacher and a travelling encyclopaedia salesman. But growing up my mother remembers being yelled at for reading by her mother, who felt she was being lazy. Books were an escape and that was both something to be desired or feared, depending on who you were.
In the 1970’s, after my grandfather stopped preaching and being a travelling salesman and my grandmother retired from Boeing they opened a book store in Seattle. The Different Drummer book store sold new and used books and catered to the somewhat bohemian crowd on Broadway. It was one of the first stores in Seattle to sell gay magazines like the Advocate openly. It was crowded and intimate and familiar in all the ways a Chapters will never be. It was a place I loved visiting whenever I was in the city and an after school home for my book loving cousin Dana. She could feel important behind the cash, or invisible reading in a corner. A place to be with people, or be alone. As the 160 hour browse-in proved, it was a great place to lose yourself.
Then the rent went up and my grandfather got sick and Dana died. The Different Drummer closed down. The last of a business, and in some ways, that part of my family, came apart. But I still have a t-shirt. A t-shirt and the mixture of pride and pity at the memory of how deeply we kept trying to hide or find ourselves in worlds that were not ours. How we must have sensed, even then, that reading could be not just an act of imagination but also survival.