Jewish World Review May 22, 2003 / 20 Iyar 5763

Paul Greenberg

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Consumer Reports

Bookstore by the sea | TOPSAIL ISLAND, N.C. -- It's every newspaperman's quiet fantasy: to own a bookstore by the side of the road and be a friend to Reader.

For years, I'd driven by the Quarter Moon bookstore here on the southern tip of Topsail Island, and even stopped in on occasion. It looks like a book lover's dream deposited just a block off the beach, as if it had been washed in by the tide, like a rare shell.

The Quarter Moon is a simple, cinder-block shop painted bright yellow, rimmed with clay pots of bright flowers, complete with a table under an umbrella on the patio. Evidence abounds that someone has Taken Pains.

You drive into the small parking lot, and hear a satisfying crunch of clean gravel under the tires. There's already a green-gray van parked there. Two good-size to great-big dogs are sitting perfectly still in the front seat: a brown-spotted English spaniel and a yellow lab, the spaniel behind the wheel, the lab in the passenger's seat. They stare straight ahead, waiting. As if they'd stopped by to pick up their master. The dream is holding.

The front door is covered with announcements. There's going to be a parade celebrating the 40th anniversary of the town of Topsail Beach. (Interested participants should contact Mary Meese.) There's enough going on to make it clear that everybody knows everybody else, as in an English village transposed to the Carolina coast. The best of both worlds. I swing open the door and enter the dream.

A lady customer, like me just passing through, is telling the clerk, who's fixing her a latte, "You must love working here."

"It's not even like work," comes the answer, a bit too pat. I hadn't realized the ideal bookstore would involve making every kind of coffee, complete with your choice of flavors from amaretto to hazelnut.

And that's just the beginning. Every year I stop by, the books have to fend off more of the other stuff. Not just the coffee but gifts, greeting cards, chocolates, beach bags, reading glasses and sunglasses, costume jewelry . what used to be called notions and sundries.

The other stuff is still confined to the left side of the store. On the right, the books are holding their own against the encroaching tide, like dunes between seasonal hurricanes.

A big comfortable leather chair, clearly reserved for the serious browser, marks the boundary between the written word and all else, the sacred and profane.

Beth, the clerk and coffeemaker, has semi-retired here and is more than obliging.

Is it true that book sales pick up during rainy weather when vacationers need something to read? Oh, yes, she says.

And can she tell what kind of book a customer will want as soon as he comes in, just from the way he looks? No, says Beth, but the owner of the store probably can; she's been at it a lot longer.

The most popular books? Murder mysteries are always big, especially any set on or near a Carolina beach. For example, there's Phyllis A. Whitney's "Amethyst Dreams." I give it the final test. I flip to the end, and read:

"Together. One of the most satisfying words in the English language. And this time we would make the changes that would make it work. His arms and the way he kissed me told me that." Something stirs deep within me, like nausea.

I thought this was supposed to be a murder mystery, not a teen romance. I set the book down gingerly, as one would a cream puff too early in the morning.

It occurs at such times that writing a mystery novel would be more fun than having to read one. I sit in the big leather chair composing openings. For instance:

"Walking down the Carolina beach that bright morning, Vince Intaglio was still thinking about the intricacies of the last case he'd worked before his vacation. The young detective was so engrossed, he almost missed the lovely brunette buried up to her neck in the sand. She didn't return his smile as he approached, and it took him an instant to take in her waxen features and understand why. She had no body."

OK, so it ain't Headless Body in Topless Bar, but this is a murder mystery, not a tabloid headline.

It was time to leave the Quarter Moon and write a column about it, but I resolved to hurry back. If you're drawn to bookstores, like a murder victim to arsenic, you never stop looking for perfection, risking the poison to taste the dream.

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JWR contributor Paul Greenberg, editorial page editor of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, has won the Pulitzer Prize for editorial writing. Send your comments by clicking here.

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