Pondering Bell’s Books

June 16, 2019, 1:00 a.m.

As a full-time university student, I tend to spend a lot of time around books. Sometimes, this means scouring source after source until I find the perfect piece of evidence for an upcoming paper. Other times, this means logging long hours in the stacks at Green, aimlessly perusing the titles on the bookshelves around me whenever I lose interest in the P-set I’m supposed to be working on. Unfortunately, due to the hectic nature of Stanford’s quarter system, I can only rarely seek out books for the simple, stress-free pleasure of reading them, and even less taxingly, merely browse their covers and titles for fun.

        Because these opportunities are few and far between, I try to take advantage of them when I can. Last week, after running some errands in downtown Palo Alto, I found myself with some extra time on my hands and made the spur-of-the-moment decision to stop into Bell’s Books, a cozy independent bookstore located on Emerson Street.

        I’ve loved bookstores for as long as I can remember. From the Barnes and Noble I dragged my mom to every day after elementary school to the many hours I spent working at a small local bookshop in high school, I’ve always felt that there is something inexplicably calming about entering a space dedicated to books and the people who enjoy them.

Bell’s Books is certainly no exception. The two-story storefront is quite literally packed to the ceiling with an eclectic mix of modern and vintage finds. When I first entered, I instantly felt as though I had stepped into the intimate, meticulously curated personal library of an ardent book lover. It seems as though every nook and cranny within the space has been utilized. There are books lying on display tables, lining the checkout counter, stacked to the ceiling, and scattered across various tables throughout the store. The space has just enough disarray to feel homey, without being so scattered that it is impossible to find what you’re looking for.

As it happened, I wasn’t looking for anything in particular during my visit, so I spent most of my time wandering the shelves, taking in the mix of modern and antique titles and stopping to flip through anything that caught my eye. I soon found myself at the shop’s extensive cookbook section. In many ways, this was not a surprising destination. I love cooking and baking, and I almost never pass up an opportunity to flip through beautiful pictures of delicious meals.

However, what makes Bell’s Books’ cooking section particularly enjoyable is the lens it offers into the food of the past. Intrigued by the promise of “Charming Vintage Cook Books,” I lost track of how much time I spent flipping through old cookbooks that boasted recipes for fruit nectar, cranberry souffle, and “perfection salad” (a combination of gelatin, vinegar, cabbage, and pimiento).  Combined with a booklet of Life recipe file cards and a charmingly named book called “Reminiscence and Ravioli,Bell’s Books gave me the opportunity to step into the world of the cooks of the past. Especially as someone who receives most of her information about food and cooking from digital sources, it was fascinating to explore a completely different way of talking and thinking about food.

And the great thing is that Bell’s Books is filled with these types of discoveries. If you’re not a foodie like me, you might be drawn in by the section on architecture, poetry, or perhaps even ornamental horticulture. There is no telling what discoveries the busy shelves hold, and wandering the store in search of an eye-catching area of focus is certainly part of the fun.

More generally, in a university that often moves so fast, Bell’s Books is an excellent reminder of the joy that comes from taking a second to breathe and see what you can learn with a slower, less structured approach to learning. When I visited the store, I hadn’t planned to do so hours earlier, but I left with newfound perspective on something that I love learning about. What’s more, I have no doubt that if I visited the store again (which I certainly plan to do some time soon), I would uncover another charming pocket of books that I somehow completely overlooked the first time. I have a feeling that Bell’s Books is the kind of place that changes every time you visit, and I’m so excited to see what it reveals to me next.

I promise; if you’re ever feeling burnt out or overwhelmed with the work that Stanford throws at you, a trip to Bell’s Books is likely to help. And if it doesn’t make all your worries go away, at least you’ll learn something new during the journey.

Contact Sofia Schlozman at sschloz ‘at’ stanford.edu.

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