“The Friendly City” is a weekly column about walking in Harrisonburg that will run during 2024. Each week, your friendly correspondent, writer and teacher Sofia Samatar, will reflect on a walk in our city.

This week, on a First Friday, when the Friendly City filled with walkers exploring the art and music that sprang up all over downtown, I was struck by the way the character of the city seemed encapsulated by its two bookstores: Parentheses and Downtown Books.

It was the evening of the Chocolate Walk. Many of my fellow pedestrians carried cardboard boxes shaped like oblong houses with peaked roofs, in which they were collecting an array of treats. Shops, galleries, and bars were swept into the storybook atmosphere of a candy factory, united by the warm smell that floated from lighted doorways and the smiles of volunteers handing out bonbons. This year, the Chocolate Walk coincided with MACROCK, an independent music festival, so that the hordes of sticky-fingered children scrambling toward the next cookie were broken up, like a sea breached by towering rocks, by clumps of tall punks in T-shirts weathered as the sails of shipwrecks, their heads topped with multicolored hairdos like birds of paradise. In the swirling scents of cocoa, mosh pits, and baby shampoo, I realized that our downtown was held between two bookstores that exemplified this quirky energy: a mixture of care and chaos, delicate as a sprig of lavender on a truffle and contentedly disheveled as a ripped trench coat.

It’s hard to imagine two bookshops more different that the pair that enclose the downtown area like wildly mismatched bookends on a shelf. At one end, close to the pavilion that hosts the farmers market, the decades-old Downtown Books squints from the shadows of the parking garage, its windows plastered with flyers for local music shows, its interior crammed with used books, comics, CDs, and VHS tapes. At the north end, by the poultry plant, Parentheses Books, which opened just last year, displays brand-new volumes in a bright, spacious setting, the rugs on the wood floor echoing the colorful book jackets in muted tones, like reflections in a dim mirror.

At Parentheses, you can sit in a quiet nook and page through your prospective purchases. At Downtown Books, you can barely get down the aisle, which is blocked by crates and stacks of books. Downtown Books belongs to the old city center and possesses the gritty distinction of having survived for nearly fifty years. Parentheses is a new venture, making its home in a pretty shopping arcade that used to be an unprepossessing warehouse (the brainchild of a local magician who also transformed a tire shop into a café and some random shed nobody had even noticed into a wine bar). At Parentheses, the books are arranged in neat sections, including staff picks and imaginative mystery categories visitors are invited to guess, and the owner and her assistant greet you cheerfully from behind a broad counter that shimmers in the light from the high windows. At Downtown Books, you might completely miss the proprietor, who inhabits a sort of bunker formed from masses of books and CDs; if you want to buy something, clear your throat, and the resident genie will rise from the well, phosphorescent hair and glasses glinting. At Downtown Books, there’s almost nothing that costs more than $2.99. A trip to Parentheses could easily leave you thirty bucks poorer (and inestimably happier). At Parentheses, the staff will gladly order a book for you if they don’t have it in stock. At Downtown Books, you get what you find.

Despite their differences, these bookends of the city share the most important things: independence, creativity, and character. They bear a human stamp. Walking in, you can sense that somebody made this—the way you might feel about artisanal chocolate or a hand-drawn band logo.

Once I visited a coastal city whose downtown was almost devoid of small businesses. Retail spaces had been taken over by the type of chain store usually found in a mall. There was a huge Nieman Marcus. A colossal Banana Republic. How gloomy it was, walking down the main avenue in the golden sunshine, breathing the scent of the nearby sea, and sending brief, appalled glances up at the windows of the soulless titans that had overrun that town.

Shops and restaurants create feelings just like landscapes do. They have their own weather. In the Friendly City, you can bask in the clement glow of Parentheses, browsing surprising new titles, sensing the intelligence behind the selections, the expertise of a curator guiding you like a ranger in the forest. Or you can go spelunking in Downtown Books, among caverns of ancient decorating manuals, yellowed banks of primeval issues of National Geographic, and fissures of romance novels whose painted heroines sport the big hair of vanished eras, where you may unearth some unexpected jewel.

There’s a sylvan light at one end of downtown, expressing the city’s spirit of cultivation, a desire to make things grow. At the other end, a wind blows through the caves with a bracing chill, exuding a blunt, unsentimental, do-it-yourself energy—a gale on which I can almost hear a gruff voice declare the motto on a postcard I once plucked from a rack of free stuff: Read or Die.

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