My Bookstore: Talking Leaves

All of us, not just writers, are susceptible to our surroundings. There are plenty of places that make me feel tense, lonely, and glum—hospital waiting rooms, most fast-food restaurants, all malls, especially the Mall of America. And there are a handful of places that make me feel safe and relaxed, unguarded—like myself, but maybe more interesting, more optimistic, more open to possibility. 

The late A. Bartlett Giamatti, like me, a student of literature, an academic, and a passionate baseball fan, eloquently described over the course of his writing career the special appeal and enduring lure of three very different, largely imaginative places, three versions of paradise: the garden found in Renaissance literary epics, the free and ordered space of the university, and the green world of the ballpark. While I have spent as much as time as anyone, I suppose, in classrooms and in the bleachers, there is for me still another place Giamatti never mentions, a place I seek out frequently for refreshment and renewal. It’s not an academic building and not a ballpark; it’s a bookstore, and not just any bookstore, it’s my bookstore—Talking Leaves Books. 

Jonathon Welch, the store’s co-founder and owner, explains that the name derives from the way those unfamiliar with books characterized their unusual power: “Book pages were seen as ‘leaves’ that ‘talked, ’ imparting wisdom and knowledge and spirit.” The store’s motto is “Independent and Idiosyncratic Since 1971.”

The store is an expression of who Jonathon is, who we are, we his loyal customers, members, those who love and frequent the stores, Talking Leaves Nation. Today in the windows of the store, there are posters and flyers announcing local concerts, readings and other cultural and political events. In the spring of 1989, soon after the Ayatollah Khomeini issued his fatwa against Salman Rushdie, at the same time the chains were pulling his novel from their shelves, there were copies of The Satanic Verses in the windows of Talking Leaves. The meaning couldn’t have been more clear: Independent and Idiosyncratic—and Fearless. 

Just inside the front door for the past couple of years, there’s been a life-sized Stephen Colbert cut-out, a maniacally cheerful-looking cardboard greeter: he startles me a little still when I come in, he is just so, well, life-sized, and makes me laugh. There’s no corporate radio playing—most days, it’s NPR or maybe some deep tracks from Fats Domino or Bob Marley, whatever Ken and the other clerks are feeling that day. There is sometimes an animal in the store, a cat curled on a chair in Philosophy. 

Talking Leaves has great literary magazines, a cool collection of buttons and postcards, but it’s all about the books: 50,000 in the Main Street store, give or take. There’s no danger of it turning into a technology or toy store, thank goodness. The store’s mission has always been to stock books you won’t find at the chains, books you won’t find anywhere else. It’s light on Nicholas Sparks and the various chicken soups for the soul, heavy on literary fiction, alternative voices of all kinds, anything deeply original, challenging, quirky and marginal. There’s not a single copy of anything by Ann Coulter, but there are more volumes of poetry than I have seen anywhere else—Buffalo has always been a tremendous poetry town—a great wall of contemporary poets, Addonizio to Zagajewski. The goal of Talking Leaves is to make available life-changing books, books that “open us up to new worlds, or illuminate more clearly our own,” books that “stretch and deepen our vision and our comprehension of the universe and its creatures, cultures and ways.” 

Talking Leaves—both the original Main Street store and its newer second location on Elmwood—is in the heart of our magnificent, scruffy, big-hearted, sometimes brilliant and sometimes blundering, too-often-misunderstood city. The 6,000 or so members come from every zip code in Western New York: from the East Side and the West Side, from the waterfront condominiums and from university-district apartments, from every suburb, Cheektowaga to East Aurora. It is one thing we can agree on—we all love Talking Leaves. The mayor and the editor of The Buffalo News are members; so are my son’s baseball coach and most of the writing students I teach at the college. The popularity of the current Sabres goaltender and the Bills quarterback ebbs and flows, but every time I have ever pronounced Jonathon Welch’s name into a microphone at a literary event, it was greeted with enthusiastic applause. 

Talking Leaves may be the only place on earth I’ll ever be a regular, and I confess that I love it. Jon and his wife, Martha, and most of the people who answer the phone in the store, know my voice, and I know theirs. Jon knows which books I want to read before I do, and he sets them aside for me.

Talking Leaves is there for me when I need it. Last November, when I came into the Main Street store right at closing time, in desperate need of a copy of The Gambler—a Dostoevsky emergency!—Jon walked me over to not one but two different editions and offered a brief, lucid overview of the different translations.

Jonathon Welch is one of those people I feel as if I’ve always known. I have no distinct memory of meeting him anymore than I can recall being introduced to my own brother. I am pretty sure that the first time I bought a book from him was soon after I moved to Buffalo from Minnesota in the 1980s: it was a copy of Gary Gildner’s wonderful memoir The Warsaw Sparks, about the poet, on a Fulbright in Poland, coaching a baseball team. The reading was at the Polish Community Center, as I recall, on Paderewski Drive, and Jon was there, as he is at scores of readings and book-signings each year throughout the city, with a carton of books and his credit card machine. Wherever three or more are gathered in literature’s name, it seems, Jon and Talking Leaves are there also. 

Jon’s office is as full of books as any professor’s, crowded with enough paper to alarm, I suspect, a fire marshal. There are stacks of finished books and galleys and catalogues piled floor to ceiling. His phone rings constantly—customers, sales reps, writers interested in doing readings and signings. The back of his left hand is usually covered in blue-inked notes to himself, and there are Post-it notes everywhere.

But no matter what, Jon makes time for me. He welcomes me. He tells me about the new Stewart O’Nan novel I am going to want. He lets me know what his friend Morgan Entrekin at Grove Press is up to. He explains to me what World Book Night is all about. He asks who is visiting in my college’s writers series so he can mark the dates. He is like the best professor you ever had: he never looks at his watch; he makes you feel smarter than you are; he embodies, he inhabits a kind of passionate commitment you aspire to.

Jon and I, I like to imagine, have a lot in common. We’re both Midwesterners, he from Wisconsin, me from Minnesota. We’re both fathers, both politically 99 percenters, both a little skeptical about the way technology is changing the way we relate to one another. We both love writing and storytelling and books in ways so profound it would be impossible to put into words. Each in our own way, we’re both educators, book evangelists. I am novelist, and Jon is an artist, too, a great one. I believe that with all my heart. What John Gardner says about the true novelist’s vocation applies equally to the true bookseller’s: it “is not so much a profession as a yoga, or ‘way’ of being in the world, an alternative to ordinary life-in-the-world. Its benefits are quasi-religious—a changed quality of mind and heart, satisfactions no non-novelist can understand—and its rigors generally bring no profit except to the spirit. For those who are authentically called to the profession, spiritual profits are enough.”

Talking Leaves, Jon’s bookstore, my bookstore, our bookstore—Talking Leaves is his creative masterpiece, his own vast, teeming, inclusive and open-ended epic poem, his Leaves of Grass, brave and untidy, fiercely independent and original, a clean, well-lighted place on Main Street, open six days a week. It is our very own retail Arden. It is a magic island, where we may both lose and find ourselves.

From My Bookstore: Writers Celebrate Their Favorite Places to Browse, Read, and Shop, edited by Ronald Rice, Black Dog & Leventhal Publishers.