Stars Our Destination
It started with Wild Cards.
Wild Cards is series of collaborative books written by luminaries (George R.R. Martin and Melinda M. Snodgrass) of science-fiction fantasy. It's an intense street-level account of a world where super-heroes and super-freaks share the Manhattan streets.
But I was 12 and I bought it for the cover. It had a bright purple border with a man dressed in renaissance clothing standing by a space-ship shaped like a conch shell. I snatched it off the shelf of the local gaming store I had wandered in to while my mother shopped for clothes elsewhere in the mall. The local gaming store was shuttered up by the time I'd finished the first book - local gaming stores have the lifespan of feeder goldfish - and I was beside myself.
I set out on a crusade. I had to find the promised second and third volumes (named Aces High and Joker's Wild) that were promised in the back of the book. This was the dawn of the mega-stores. I visited the only Barnes and Noble I'd ever heard of and was rebuffed. I tried Waldenbooks and was told that the series did not exist. Finally, I remember in desperation I started calling every bookstore in the Chicago phone book, a tactic that did wonders for our family finances.
And finally, nirvana.
"Hello, Stars Our Destination this is Alice how can I help you?"
Stars our Destination, named after the masterwork of Alfred Bester, was a science-fiction/fantasy/horror/mystery/etc bookstore that not only had my book in stock, but had two more volumes of the series ready for purchase. Discovering this made a bibliophilic boy into a man.
The first thing you noticed when you walked into Stars Our Destination was the books. This was a bookstore with books everywhere. On shelves, in boxes, in piles on the floor, beautiful in its organized chaos. Everything in the genre was there. Stroll up one aisle and find the standards of corporate fiction (Star Wars, Star Trek) fade into the more obscure works of the Cthulhu Mythos. Walk to the back of the store, go through the hudreds of used books for sale at a huge discount. This is pre-Ebay, before the elegant and impersonal exchange of books that the internet provides. You got your hands on a book, saw it's worn spine, eyed the dogeared pages and saw the price written in pencil on the front inside page; it was book-buying as a tactile experience.
I loved to wander the stacks of Stars Our Destination, my arms would be aching from holding so many books, some of which I bought, some of which I just wanted to lug around like I could afford them. They also had a bathroom. This may sound like a wondrous convenience only to refugees from the 12th century, but when you try to support smaller booksellers finding a usable washroom is a wonderful thing. In the bathroom there were clipped articles from The Onion ("Klingon Speakers Now Outnumber Navajo Speakers"), handbills for upcoming local theatre productions and laminated reading material of every stripe.
I met Neil "Sandman" Gaiman at Stars, Gene "Shadow and Claw" Wolfe and even Bruce "Hail to the King, Baby" Campbell. Neil Gaiman sent one of his famous Christmas cards (an alphabetical poem of fearsome beauty) to Stars, where it hung on the walll in a frame. Stars had it's fill of stars, no doubt, but one day there I got to meet Ray Bradbury.
Yeah, that Ray Bradbury, the man who wrote The Martian Chronicles and Dandelion Wine, the dean of the genre and one of the most famed authors of the 20th century. I stood there, my book unsteady in my hand as he signed it with a smile.
The Stars Our Destination moved around from the first time I ventured inside. From it's original store on Clark Street to a larger space on Belmont Avenue and finally up north into the suburb Evanston. In an odd way these movement coincided with changes in my life. When I was in grade school Stars was in it's original location. I remember my mother dropping me off to explore the bohemian Clark/Belmont area of Chicago (which is no longer quite so Bohemian with it's morass of Starbucks and Frozen drink stores). When Stars moved to Belmont I had moved on to high school. One of the first great treks I took on my own in a car was driving to Stars one summer night. When I graduated college Stars had moved to Evanston, far from my home but still a treat to visit.
I once broke up with a girl in part because she didn't like Stars, sorta. The week before our last big blowout we took a trip to Stars. She stuck her nose up at the people in the store, an eclectic mix of folks ranging from your typical sci-fi guy to goths to bankers to everything you can imagine. "Why don't you just go to Barnes and Noble? The have all the same books." When we broke it off later I remarked to a friend of mine, "If she doesn't get why a small book store is more fun than a mega-chain, I'm glad we broke up."
I could tell you how Stars saved my life once. A huge storm blew up suddenly and the rain outside was so violent that it hurt my skin. I dived into Stars and waited out the storm reading comics and watching umbrellas and their owners flutter down the street.
And of course, there's Alice. Alice Bentley, the owner and operator. Contrary to what this article might lead you to believe, my sci-fi tastes are quite limited. Alice introduced me to Dune, Neil Gaiman and Dave Sim and Harlan Ellison. Alice is the kind of bookstore owner who stays open till everyone leaves and always has a suggestion or an idea or a literary comment handy. She also has a degree in physics. Kind of beats the mega-chain wage slaves glassy-eyed indifference all to blazes.
The Stars Our Destination shuttered its store last month. After 15 years and three locations it is no more. A bit of my childhood, adolescence is gone with it. Alice is, and has been for some time, running a burgeoning mail-order business that deals in all kinds of hard to come by books.
I still have my worn and tattered copy of Wild Cards sitting on a shelf. The day I went and found Stars was closed up I took that old book down and read it again. The stories are still thrilling and the pages crackle a bit as aged paperback books do. This book has been mine for half my life, travled the world with me. And I have Alice and her store to thank for it.
The Stars Our Destination Website/mailing order service is www.sfbooks.com