Ode to Upstart Crow

It was a crisp December afternoon in San Diego and I was plotting an escape. Five-year-old me had been sitting in an armchair in the Nordstrom women’s shoe department surrounded by a fortress of shopping bags for what felt like days. I was along for the ride on one of my aunt’s infamous shopping marathons at Horton Plaza mall. These trips always sounded like great fun when proposed – just us girls, shop till we drop! Inevitably though, the luster of the new sweater I’d been gifted or shoes I’d picked out wore off after about an hour or two. I’d start to want to make a run for it.

My feet hurt and my hands were pink and sore from hauling bags all over the store. I was ravenously hungry and bored to tears. Even the smooth holiday musical stylings of the Nordstrom piano player I genuinely loved had started to sound cacophonous and mocking. Off he played effortlesssly, “It’s the most wonderful time of the year!” I asked in turn, “Is it though? IS IT??”

Observing how my eyes had begun darting back and forth between the nearest exits, my aunt got the hint and wrapped up her purchases. Relief had just set in when instead of heading home, she pulled up to Seaport Village, an adorable waterfront collection of boutiques and restaurants butting up to the San Diego bay. I could see even at my young age that the place had a certain charm, but all I remember thinking was, “This is a trap! More shopping!” I just sat there in quiet terror, then noticed a beautiful carousel in the distance and a horse-drawn carriage pulling a family of four to my left. I looked up at my aunt with a “what is this place???” expression and she smiled. “No more shopping!” she said, “We’re going to go get hot chocolate.”

Stoked, I jumped out of the car and followed her up a winding path nestled between a few gorgeous trees. I noticed a small duck pond on my right and felt my excitement swell when I saw several mallard ducks swimming along peacefully. I could have sat and stared at the ducks and been satisfied - mallards had always been my faves with their beautiful emerald green feathers. That hot chocolate was an offer I couldn’t refuse though, so I tore myself away from my duckies and kept on walking behind my aunt. Moments later, we arrived at our destination: Upstart Crow Bookstore & Coffeehouse.

I know what you’re thinking here: I must have passed out from excitement, right? Not exactly. Sure, I’d been read to since my days in utero and liked (loved) to read (be read to) from the time I knew what books were, but I hadn’t yet reached peak book obsession. I’d only recently learned to read on my own and had only just discovered what a library was (mind *blown*) but didn’t really grasp that there were places you could go to buy books and take them home where they’d be yours to keep… forever. What I saw was plain subterfuge: my aunt clearly had more shopping to do and had lured me here with the promise of a warm and sugary beverage. Sneaky, Nina. So sneaky.  

I joined my aunt in line for my hot chocolate, resolved to claim what I was promised if I was to be subjected to more sitting and staring. Then my aunt handed me my prize, piled high with whipped cream and beamed at me, “Ok! Now go find something to read.” She seemed so excited to deliver this directive, and I just stared back at her in disbelief. I thought, yeah ok - sure buddy. I’ll just go get lost and be unsupervised like I’m totally allowed to do all the time. My sarcasm was strong from an early age, even if only in facial expression.

After a few moments, I finally grasped that she might not be kidding. Feeling a sudden mixture of nervous anticipation and outright panic, I took a few cautious steps away, backing away slowly, to test the waters and be sure. When my aunt didn’t stop me but instead looked at me with what I now recognize was a Herculean effort not to laugh at my confusion, it became pretty evident that I really was free to go wandering. By myself. Alone. In this big, strange, hot-chocolate-serving palace of wall-to-wall books. Deep breaths.

Seeing a family with a few small children ascend a staircase behind me, I figured maybe the second level was a good place to start. I approached the steps and slowly mouthed out the words painted on each one:

Happiness is a journey, not a destination.

Be truthful, gentle & fearless.

This day will never come again.

Good things are to come.

Celebrate your existence.

Live, love, laugh.

One day at a time.

You made my day.

Many of the words were foreign in both pronunciation and meaning – I was after all only five. I only knew that the words felt special and the stairs some portal to another dimension. I climbed slowly until I reached the top and my eyes nearly burst from their sockets. Children’s books and comfy chairs lined this place. More deep breaths.

I grabbed a couple of selections hastily from the first shelf I could reach, one dedicated to popular reads and new releases. I claimed a table overlooking the right side of the store and opened up a “Where’s Waldo” book, taking sips of the warm, delicious chocolate and wiping cream from my face in between page turns and Waldo locates. I stopped and looked over my shoulders every few minutes; I couldn’t quite shake the feeling that aaaany minute now, the book police would haul me away for daring to drink inside the store or handling the merchandise. I got over that notion when I saw others following my lead, then worried instead that I’d plain old been left behind. Every time I looked down though, I saw my aunt downstairs, browsing and sipping a warm beverage of her own. I relaxed my tensed shoulders and moved onto the second book I’d pulled, one with bright yellow cover art of a little girl perched on a stack of books. It was Roald Dahl’s “Matilda.”

I held the mug of chocolate in one hand and held the book up with the other, devouring the words more rapidly and sinking into the story more deeply than I’d ever recalled doing with the more simple picture books I’d read before. I fell in love with Matilda instantly, with her story, with the experience of taking in groups of words on a page that struck up vivid and effortless imagery in my mind and made me feel things big and beautiful. I smiled, I scowled; I cheered, I laughed. I did these things with abandon, lost and immersed in the experience of reading.

That sensation has never gotten old for me. Books were my first love and are my truest to date, where I turn when I need everything from comfort or inspiration to an education or a hearty laugh. And while I carry a book or e-reader (and more often both) in my purse or car at all times and will read practically anywhere, there are those beloved places I go to envelop myself in a more complete reading experience. Upstart Crow has been that place for me since that very first visit. The place is warm and inviting and its layout hasn’t changed in as long as I can remember. My favorite post is now a plush chair by a large window, my beverage a Mexican mocha. My wonder at the place is the same one I felt as a child, albeit backed by a higher discretionary income.

I was then nothing short of devastated to come across the announcement that my beloved Upstart will shut its doors after thirty five years at the end of this month. I reverted to my most basic of bitchdom and literally couldn’t even. I called and messaged friends and family to inform them as though a cherished pet had just perished. I did that thing where I blamed myself, like I personally could have saved the place if I’d just purchased more books. I looked at my Kindle with resentment. You did this. You made this happen. You couldn’t just leave well enough alone, could you? Irrational, I know. I did after all buy a ton of books from them. Such is just my affection for this treasured establishment.

I ran down to Upstart that very same evening and walked every square inch of the place. I took big, deep breaths to soak up the smell of coffee and books. I dragged my fingertips against books and displays like someone who’d just lost their first home, wanting to soak up every last memory of the place they’d been a newlywed and raised their children in before they were forced to leave against their will. I grabbed bags and bags of their coffee blends though I seldom drink coffee. I purchased a paperback though I generally collect hardcovers. I ordered my usual Mexican mocha and struck up a conversation with the barista. I learned that the closure is a result of a huge hike in the rent by the landlord that the owners just couldn’t manage. In light of the recent announcement by the city of San Diego that Seaport Village will be leveled in its entirety by 2018 to make room for high-rise condominiums (queue dramatic chest grab and “Santa Madre!” on my part), a move to try and stay open only to be forced to close within the year made no sense.

I am not the first to see an establishment rife with childhood memories shut its door, nor will I be the last. Independent bookstores, like so many small businesses, face a constant battle to stay relevant and capture a big enough piece of our purchasing power, and this is old news. I know this in my heart but I can’t help but be saddened. I won’t be able to stop by on a Friday night to read to the sounds of a local musician. I won’t get that Mexican mocha on a Sunday morning while I gaze out of that giant window with a stack of books on my lap.

Oh, Upstart Crow: I wasn’t ready to say goodbye. Thank you for the charm and warmth you brought to my hometown for these thirty five years. It was within your walls and in the pages of your books that I learned happiness is a journey, not a destination. Those books taught me to be truthful, gentle and fearless. It hurts to know this day will never come again, but I know good things are still to come. Today and for as long as I can, I celebrate your existence. I’ll remember to live, love and laugh. One day at a time, you truly did make my day. 

I invite all of you to visit this beloved bookstore while you still can – stop in for a book, a quirky bookish gift, a cup of something warm and toasty or a blend of their brews to take home and enjoy. Website, address and other fun facts found below.

Upstart Crow Bookstore & Coffeehouse
835 C West Harbor Drive, Seaport Village
San Diego, CA 92101
Open daily from 9:00 AM – 9:00 PM


About the name… 
According to Upstart Crow’s website, the name is a reference to the ol’ Bard himself, William Shakespeare. Rumor has it that back in the day, many of his fellow playwrights were jealous of his rampant success, including one Robert Greene. In one of his pamphlets, Greene referred to big Willy Shakes as an “Upstart Crow”. The nickname stuck! 

The store features among its many books and bookish gifts a variety of Shakespeare-themed items and hosts (err- hosted. Waaaaaah) a live Shakespeare reading once a month. 

Click here for a list of remaining live music performances and events.

Click here to ease my pain over this formidable loss. 
-    kidding, unless you’re down in which case silly me! I’m totes not.