America’s Great Independent Bookstores
The death of the bookstore has been greatly exaggerated, to use Mark Twain’s famous words. Readers are not giving up on books. It is true that we are doing more and more on screens—reading and writing text messages, tweets, status updates, and blogs. But there is some indication that all this screen reading is turning people more and more into habitual (not just casual) readers. And someone with a reading habit is more likely to buy books than someone without a reading habit. In the same way that hearing a sample of a jazz song or a funk song in hip hop makes some listeners seek out the original records, seeing books or ideas casually referenced in blog posts or tweets causes some readers to seek out the source. The behemoth brick-and-mortar bookstores like Borders are going the way of the dinosaur, but the little independents are proving that they’ve got what it takes to stick around. They give you that personal touch (recommendations from someone you trust, author readings, and the pleasure of leafing through the book you are considering buying). Also, if e-books are your cup of tea, because of Kobo (a provider of electronic print content), it’s now possibly to buy books for e-readers in many independent bookstores.
Book People: Austin, Texas
Everything’s super-sized in Texas, and bookstores are no exception. Book People has three floors of book and periodical goodness. I’ve gotten lost in their shelves for hours and hours before. You can never leaf through just one book. There’s always one more book you’ve always wanted to read or another cover that’s too intriguing not to crack open. Book People is deeply rooted in its community. It has been in the same location in downtown Austin since 1970. The store hosts a number of book clubs, inviting the people of Austin (or people just passing through) to hang out and discuss books of all different stripes—from apocalyptic fiction to memoirs of comedians. Book People also hosts a number of notable author readings. December 17th will see best-selling novelist Amy Tan (author of The Joy Luck Club) appearing in support of her new novel, The Valley of Amazement.
Parnassus Books: Nashville, Tennessee
Parnassus Books has as impressive a backstory as any novel. Parnassus was co-founded by a great American novelist, Ann Patchett, author of the modern classic Bel Canto. After the very last bookstore in the city of Nashville shut its doors, Patchett decided, along with her business partner Karen Hayes, that she had to take action. Saying that she could not bear to live in a town without a bookstore, like the plucky protagonist of a page-turner, she decided to open one herself. Patchett really didn’t want to open a bookstore. She simply felt that she had to. Getting into a line of business that many have written the obituary for took quite a lot of courage. And this courage has paid off. Partly because of the publicity generated by Patchett’s name, and partly because Parnassus is a really great bookstore, it has been a resounding success. What a great story!
After a day spent exploring great bookstores, you’ll be ready to read your new acquisitions. There’s no hotel better for that than Extended Stay America. An Extended Stay America suite is like a mini-home. You can make yourself dinner in the kitchen, play some reading music using your free Wi-Fi connection, and watch a movie if you tire of reading. You don’t need to leave the room all night if you don’t want to.
Explore Woody Allen’s Manhattan
December 1st is comedian and film writer/director Woody Allen’s birthday. While in the last decade, Allen has made some very memorable movies abroad (like Midnight in Paris and To Rome with Love), Manhattan will always be his town. If you want to go to the source of Woody Allen’s character—his wit and his idiosyncrasies—you’ve got to head to New York, New York. It’s where the vast majority of his movies are set, and it’s where he has lived for his entire life. It is appropriate that one of Allen’s best and most popular movies is titled Manhattan. From the opening sequence in the film (shots of many of New York’s iconic locations set to George Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue) to the rather melancholy yet hopeful end, the movie is about New York City as much as it is about its characters. By shooting his movies in a lot of well-known locations in New York, Allen has left his fans a trail of breadcrumbs that we can use to enter the world of the films.
Locations from Annie Hall
Annie Hall is considered by fans and the establishment alike to be Allen’s best movie (it won Best Picture, Best Director, Best Screenplay, and Best Actress). It’s not for nothing that this one has such a glowing reputation. It changed the game. It is arguably the first modern romantic comedy (or “rom com”). In the film, when Alvy Singer (the character Allen plays) is in line waiting to see a film (you get a lot of watching a film within the film in Allen movies) at the Paris Theatre (a one-theater art house very much still open for business today), he becomes very irritated listening to an airbag of a Columbia professor pontificate about Marshall McLuhan. In one of those pleasing bits of magic in Allen’s films, Allen’s anger summons McLuhan himself, who materializes just to tell the Columbia professor that he’s full of it. The Paris Theatre is a wonderful place to see a film and to step inside of one.
Locations from Manhattan
Often cited as the big brother of Annie Hall (a more mature, less goofy, artsier romantic comedy), Manhattan is widely regarded as a major achievement for Allen. In the movie, when the romance of Isaac Davis and Mary Wilkie (the characters played by Allen and Diane Keaton) is just beginning, they are caught in a rainstorm and have to run into the Hayden Planetarium. Nothing is more romantic than taking shelter from the storm with someone you’re just starting to spark with. The Hayden Planetarium remains a great place for a date. Gazing at the stars certainly can’t hurt a romantic encounter—even if it’s light outside, and the stars are an illusion.
See Woody Himself
Once a week, Woody Allen plays clarinet with the Eddy Davis New Orleans Jazz Band at the Café Carlyle, a historic high-class night club. He’s not fooling around. He’s a very disciplined clarinet player—as you can see in the documentary about his life as a musician, Wild Man Blues. Be sure to make reservations in advance for this popular show. And don’t expect any witty banter from Woody. This show is strictly about Dixieland jazz.
After a day of exploring Woody Allen’s Manhattan, you’ll be ready to kick back near the big city. To escape the hustle and bustle of the city and get a taste of home, I recommend an Extended Stay America hotel.
Football and Thanksgiving Dinner in Austin, Texas
Nothing goes together quite as well as Turkey Day and pigskin. Thanksgiving (which this year falls on November 28th) is a day for getting together with friends and family to give thanks for them, but it is also a day for rooting for your favorite team in our country’s favorite organized sport—football. The day gets at the two things that, to my mind, characterize America most—community and competition. Some people might say that Independence Day is the most American holiday of them all, but I say it is Thanksgiving.
Visit Austin, Texas, for Turkey Day
Texas is the most football-rich Thanksgiving destination around. At 4:30 E.T. on Thanksgiving, the Oakland Raiders play the Dallas Cowboys at AT&T Stadium in Arlington, Texas. And at 7:30, the Texas Tech Red Raiders play the Texas Longhorns at Darrell K. Royal-Texas Memorial Stadium in Austin. Texas is a state that takes its football seriously. It’s not for nothing that Friday Night Lights, a TV show about a high school football team struggling to be the best, is set in small-town Texas. The Red Raiders are rated tenth in the country this year, and the Longhorns are not rated at all. That does not keep the Longhorns’ fans from believing, though. Longhorns fans really love their team. And to love your team, you have to believe they can be the best.
Austin is a great Thanksgiving destination this year. Even if you don’t have tickets to the game, you will get a vibrant football experience in Austin. Watching the Longhorns and Cowboys games at a sports bar in Austin is totally unlike watching the games elsewhere. The crowds get so worked up, and the camaraderie is so tight, you really feel like you’re sitting on the fifty yard line at a game.
And you’ve got a lot of great Austin restaurants to choose from for your Thanksgiving meal. 24 Diner does a Thanksgiving dinner so good you’ll swear they’ve got nothing but loving grandmas on their kitchen staff. 24 Diner is one of those great high-class food, casual-atmosphere restaurants that are cropping up in America’s hipper cities. The folks at 24 Diner kept all the great stuff about diners (a homey feel, friendly wait staff, and an American-fare-based menu) and ditched all the lousy stuff (mediocre food, less-than-mediocre coffee, and cooks with cigarettes dangling out of their mouths).
At the Bakehouse Restaurant and Bar on Thanksgiving, you get the all-you-can-eat experience that you get at home without having to do any of the chores. For a very reasonable price, you can have all the classic Thanksgiving cuisine you desire (gravy-covered turkey and ham, mashed potatoes, pumpkin pie, and much more). And you get wait service, so you don’t have to stand in a long line waiting to pile up your plate. After having your fill of food, you can get your fill of football at one of Austin’s many great sports bars.
When your Thanksgiving Day is done and it’s time to relax, I suggest heading to an Extended Stay America hotel. Some travelers think of Extended Stay hotels like a tortoise shell on their backs—their own personal home on the road.
On the Road with the Country’s Best Tribute Bands
Do you ever wish you could go see some of the all-time great rock bands—some of the ones that just aren’t coming back? Have you watched all the concert videos, listened to the albums hundreds of times, and found all the obscure footage on YouTube? There are definitely some bands I feel that way about. I wish I had seen the Beatles. Even with the din of shouting fans, it would have been great to see them rocking out together. I would have loved to see the Grateful Dead in their heyday—the Dead jamming for hours, sending thousands of Deadheads into a trance. And how about Frank Zappa? You knew you were going to get the whole package with Zappa: great music plus a great show. We can’t go see these rock and roll originals, but there are some great tribute bands out there recreating the experience of seeing them live. And they don’t just recreate seeing these great bands on any old night. They recreate the experience of going to see one of these bands’ best shows every time they play. While you’re out on the road this fall, treat yourself to an experience you won’t forget. Memories are what vacations are about, right?
The Fab Four: A Beatles Tribute Band
The Fab Four are capable of recreating every single Beatles era. They are the real deal in every way. Some Beatles cover bands sound pretty spot on musically, but look like regular run-of-the-mill dudes. The Fab Four both sound and look like the Beatles—down to the sharp era-specific outfits. Gavin Pring, who plays George Harrison, even mimics that insouciant look off to the side that Harrison gave when he was absorbed in playing guitar. The band did a show for PBS station KCPT for their June 2012 pledge drive that will transport you back to the heady days of Beatlemania. You’ll be up on your feet and dancing (and maybe even screaming like the Beatles fans in the mid-sixties did) in no time.
Dark Star Orchestra: A Grateful Dead Cover Band
Dark Star Orchestra (on the road October through December) is like the farm team for Furthur, the band fronted by the two living members of the Grateful Dead—guitarist Bob Weir and bassist Phil Lesh. Further plucks members of Dark Star Orchestra (such as lead guitarist John Kadlecik) to go out on the road with them. That close connection with Further is proof of the quality of Dark Star Orchestra. Dark Star Orchestra frequently recreates set lists from the best of the best Dead shows. If you want to hear a legendary Dead show in person (maybe one you’ve been listening to as a poor-quality bootleg for years), Dark Star Orchestra is your ticket.
Zappa Plays Zappa: A Frank Zappa Tribute Band
Frank Zappa was a great showman, not just a great songwriter and a great guitarist. You can see his love of entertaining in the names he gave his children. One of his children, Dweezil Zappa, is recreating his father’s music—even using some of the musicians who played in Frank’s legendary bands. Zappa Plays Zappa is on tour through March playing the entire Frank Zappa album Roxy and Elsewhere, as well as other crowd-pleasing Zappa songs.
After a night checking out the sounds of yesteryear, you’ll be ready to kick back like a rock star. There’s only one hotel where you get the rock-star treatment at a reasonable price—Extended Stay America.
Take to the Road in Preparation for National Novel Writing Month
November is National Novel Writing Month—a month when folks who’ve been talking about writing that great American novel get in the ring and write the thing. Having a deadline can be a great motivator. National Novel Writing Month gives the gift of motivation to aspiring novelists. The other ingredient one needs to write a novel is inspiration. Novelists are inspired by having new experiences. And there’s no better way to have new experiences than getting out on the road. Back at home, we can fall into a common and comfortable routine. But on the road, everything is new, exiting, and quite possibly inspiring.
Take Inspiration from the Greats
Jack Kerouac famously spent years out on the road and mere weeks turning that experience into his great novel, aptly titled On the Road. Like most writers whose subject is a road trip, Kerouac seems to have been searching for America—trying to find the meaning of what it meant to be an American. You really get the feeling that this is what it was all about for Kerouac when you read his introduction to Robert Frank’s The Americans, a book of photographs that captures the many sides of America at mid-century. A great Frank/Kerouac-inspired idea for generating fodder for your novel is taking photos while out on the road. The old saying that a picture is worth a thousand words is not off the mark. And a thousand words equals four pages in your novel!
Discover Your Own America
Some people would say that the America of Jack Kerouac and Robert Frank is gone, and they would be right. One of the great things about America is that it is a very dynamic country. Like a jazz song, it is always changing. But that does not mean the things that intrigued Kerouac and Frank about America are not out there. There is still a unique American character to be discovered. There are still cohesive communities of distinct individuals in the country. And there are still eccentric small towns and bustling big cities. Just listen to Garrison Keillor telling stories of his fictional Lake Wobegon, Minnesota, on his weekly radio show A Prairie Home Companion, to hear all these things represented in modern American fiction. Keillor has created a fictional town that is based in reality. Keillor even wrote an article for National Geographic magazine discussing several Minnesota towns that are very much like Lake Wobegon. You’ve got to get out there and find your own slice of the USA that is (in the tradition of the great fictional locales) both very unique and very American.
Find Your Voice
No story has ever been written to death. There is always another interesting way to approach a series of events or a subject. If you write about a small town in Minnesota (as Keillor does) or a road trip from New York to California and back (as Kerouac did in On the Road), you might end up writing the next great American novel. The great thing about American art is that it always contains pieces of what has come before it.
After a day of gathering ideas for your great American novel, you’ll be ready to relax for the evening at a great American hotel. Extended Stay America is your reliable home away from home. Found in many unique locales, these hotels are always amenity rich and very affordable.
Castles in America
When people think of castles, they generally think of Europe, right? Of ancient dukes and duchesses and kings and queens. And when they think of American castles, they think of Disney’s Magic Kingdom. Well, like a lot of assumptions, this one is mistaken. Right here in the USA, we’ve got enough castles to fill up all of Shakespeare’s history plays and more. As you might guess (since these castles happen to be in a country that was founded after the castle’s heyday had passed into the mists of history), these castles have interesting backstories. So let’s get in the car and explore America’s architectural linkage to the European Middle Ages.
Grey Towers Castle: Arcadia University, Pennsylvania
Now a functional part of Arcadia University, Grey Towers Castle started its life as the pièce de résistance of the estate of sugar-refining magnate William Welsh Harrison. The castle was designed by prominent architect Horace Trumbauer—architect to the wealthy during a time when there were quite a lot of rich people around (the period known as the Gilded Age). Built in imitation of the UK’s Alnwick Castle, which has been called the best representation of the medieval style of castle building extant, Grey Towers Castle is a massive forty-room building. The interior is more Versailles than medieval castle. Look up, and you’ll see that the ceilings are gilded (like the age!). And don’t miss the mirror room. No tribute to Versailles would be complete without a mirror room. In the true American fashion, this castle is a mixture of styles—an improvisation on a theme. And it’s a true joy.
Hammond Castle: Gloucester, Massachusetts
Hammond Castle was a home, science lab, and fortress for John Hays Hammond, Jr., who had the castle completed in 1929. Hammond made his fortune with his invention of radio remote-control technology. John Hays Hammond, Jr. is the reason that I was able to play with remote-control cars as a kid. Thank you, John Hays Hammond, Jr.! Hammond loved the art and artifacts of the medieval period. Hammond Castle housed his extensive collection of suits of armor and tapestries. The castle, though, was not built in a medieval style. It is modeled after Renaissance-style castles—which were less fortified and more stylized than medieval castles. The castle blends nicely with the rock-studded shoreline of the Atlantic Ocean. Hammond Castle’s got everything you’d expect from an eccentric inventor—a pipe organ, an entire two-story house that was shipped from France (it’s in the courtyard), and secret passages galore. Since you can take self-guided tours of the place, you can enjoy all of this to your heart’s content.
Fonthill Castle: Doylestown, Pennsylvania
If you’re looking for a castle designed as a truly crazy quilt of architectural styles, look no further than Fonthill Castle. Fonthill combines the Byzantine, the medieval, and the Gothic into an exciting whole. Fonthill Castle is also a child-friendly museum called Mercer Museum. There is currently an exhibit called The Mystery of the Mayan Medallion that will teach you and your kids about archeology and ancient Mayan civilization, and exercise your minds. Come for the castle—stay for the “edutainment”!
After a day of looking at other people’s castles, you’ll be ready to retire to one of your own. At an Extended Stay America hotel, you get all the amenities of a castle, but not the draftiness—or the price.