Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Cowboy Cosmo vs. PC Left-over Hippie Yuppie Capitalism

If Denver Metro reflects the ultimate in cowboy cosmopolitan, the city of Boulder, a mere 30 miles to the northwest, reflects the ultimate in self-conscious political correctness (garnished with a dash of left-over hippie and iced by a swirling layer of yuppie capitalism).

Left: The ubiquitous Flatiron Mountains from just outside Boulder. Right: Pearl St. Mall

Nestled snugly up against the Flatiron mountains, this town of beautiful extremes offers something for everyone. A year-round paradise for the all-season outdoors enthusiast, a hallowed University-centered refuge for the learned, a thriving business opportunity for the entrepreneur and an active, robust environment for raising a family or retirement.

This yin and yang balance of opposing forces, locked in constant, albeit gentile battle, backed by a serenely beautiful location makes Boulder one of the most unique cultural environments in the country. No wonder it also boasts one of the highest ratios of bookstores and degrees per capita.

Like all cities and towns along the "Front Range", Boulder has hugely transitional weather. The Chinook winds of fall and winter can exceed hurricane force at 80 mph plus. The winter brings 60 degrees one day, 15 degrees the next, and the regular summer afternoon thunderstorms can turn any picnic into a run for your life. Not to mention the June snow storms.

Driving over the high ridge that separates Denver from Boulder, the most visible landmarks that first come into view (besides the omnipresent Flatirons) are the larger structures of the University of Colorado, which dominates the city physically, politically and culturally. Beyond these modest high-rise structures, the city remains largely below the trees due to strict building height restrictions (one of many ongoing civic battles). This gives Boulder a distinctively beautiful small town look and feel.

Although there are several distinct districts to the town, the main hang out is the famous Pearl Street Mall, a four block pedestrian mall right in the heart of town. This is also where you'll find a preponderance of Boulder's many and varied book stores.

Left: Boulder Bookstore Main Entrance on Pearl St. Right: Just a small section of one of Boulder Bookstore's three main floors.

First on the list is the unparalleled Boulder Bookstore (pictured above) at the west end of the mall. This iconic new and used bookstore is a Boulder staple and one of the best organized and most pleasant new/used stores your humble Booktraveler has ever had the pleasure of visiting. Any description of this unique and beautiful store will pale by comparison to the experience. Boulder Bookstore is a big civic proponent and primary sponsor of the Keep Boulder Weird movement and website: "Your gateway to all things weird in Boulder, CO", need I say more?

Left: Entrance to the Left Hand Books basement store. Right: Left Hand Books, anarchy from the inside.

For all you anarchists out there, jump across the mall and down a block to the basement location of Left Hand Books; an "all volunteer, not-for-profit, progressive bookstore providing access to alternative viewpoints and difficult-to-obtain sources of information". This superb alternative reading outlet offers a collection of new book titles and magazines you simply can't find anywhere else. If it's subversive, if it's underground, if it's politically left or far left, Left Hand Books has it. It's truly an amazing store.

Top Left: Trident Booksellers and Cafe. Top Right: Trident booksellers side. Bottom Left: Trident cafe side

Heading further west along Pearl St., a couple of blocks off the walking mall you'll find Trident Booksellers and Cafe. Trident is half indie new book store and half full service coffee house. Serving the community for over 20 years, Trident offers a perfect place to hang, especially in the summer when you can sit out front and watch the world go by with a great selection of books, excellent coffee and a free mountain backdrop.

Top Left: Beat Book Shop. Top Right: Beat Book Shop interior. Bottom Left: Your Poet/Proprietor Tom Peters. Note: Tom doesn't like you to take pictures of the store without asking. Also, if you happen know how to replace an 8" woofer in an old box speaker, please give him a call.

Moving off the mall to the east in the still-trendy Pearl Street shopping district are two smaller bookstores that hearken back to an earlier era. The Beat Book Shop at 1717 Pearl St. offers a distinctly old school used bookstore experience with a great selection of hard-to-find used books as well as a great selection of used music on vinyl. As the name intonates, Tom Peters the Poet/Proprietor keeps a great collection of beat literature, underground and subversive authors along with an interesting mix of general used. Definitely worth a visit.

Top Left: Red Letter Books. Top Right: The Book Worm. Bottom Left: The Book Worm Cafe.

Half a block further east is Red Letter Second Hand Books, a straight-up second hand bookstore with a wide range of titles at cheap prices. As if that's not enough for the average booklover, take a cruise out to 28th street and go north 1 mile through the endless morass of strip malls to The Bookworm, a 10,000 sq. ft. used book warehouse and cafe that offers a HUGE selection of used titles at great prices. This store is extremely well organized and offers an incredibly wide range of titles in an easy to navigate layout that's fun to visit.

Put this all together with an exceptional menu of restaurants and eateries, a cornucopia of funky one-off retailers and an unparalleled natural setting, and you have one of the coolest destinations possible for any true booklover. My only regret is not being able to spend a couple of more days here to take in the amazing street performers and singular street scene which makes this unique town brazenly iconic. There is definitely no other place like it.

Pearl St. Mall entertainers. Left: Balloon Man (great at making extreme balloon fashions). Right: Didgeridoo Man (is that your Didgeridoo, or are you just happy to see me?).

Stay tuned for my next post when we once again throw off the shackles of civilization take in the spectacular beauty of the Colorado Rockies. Upcoming adventures include a a ride on the historic Georgetown Loop train and a run through Rocky Mountain National Park over the famed Trail Ridge Road: "The Highest Highway in the World".


Tuesday, July 28, 2009

The Two Mile High Club: Wanderings Above the Timber Line; Sad Days for an Old Friend

The Two Mile High Club: Wanderings Above the Timber Line

For the uninitiated, Denver lies flush against the eastern slope of the Rocky Mountains, perched on the high arid plains that rise nearly a thousand miles from the major river basins of the mid-west. It's hard for first timers to comprehend that standing in the center of downtown, surrounded by endless plains on three sides and looking west over the suburbs toward the mountains that you are already higher than most of the highest mountain peaks along the Eastern seaboard. One of the biggest surprises for first-timers is that Denver is not in the mountains at all, a common misconception.

Left: Looking back towards Loveland Pass from Grizzly. Right: View from the Top

Having spent my high school years in the dusty western suburbs of this fair city, your humble Booktraveler was already familiar with the geographic particulars of the area. For weeks I had been dreaming of the drive west, up and out of the city on I-70, heading up to the the thin air of the Continental Divide. My Denver host, a long-time friend, had kindly cleared his schedule to join me for a day of high country adventure.

We rose at 5 am to get a jump on the weather. The mid-summer months often see violent storms rise up over the mountains in the afternoon, an unnerving, often terrifying and sometimes deadly experience for those caught up above the treeline with nowhere to take shelter. As a rule, it's always best to be off the mountains by 12pm, or at least close to shelter. The weather forecast was good however, so it looked like we were in for a great day.

Being already a mile high, the 14,000 foot plus peaks looming to the west of Denver are in truth 9,000 feet above the city. The earth rises up as you head west and as you climb closer to higher peaks, the valley floors rise to heights of 10,000+ feet, bringing you breathtakingly close to the now formidable looking peaks.

Left: Grizzly Peak (foreground) with Torres and Grays Peaks further back, fellow hiker and Onyx in the lead. Right: Grizzly from the base of Torres

Our plan for the day was to take I-70 west to it's highest elevation at the base of the Loveland Basin ski area, roughly 60 miles west of Denver, then to head up to the summit of Loveland Pass at 12,000 feet to begin our journey. Loveland Pass was the only way over the mountains in this direction until I-70 was taken under the continental divide through the Eisenhower Tunnel, which was opened for traffic in 1973. 18 wheelers carrying dangerous cargoes must still climb up and over this harrowing switchback road, a particularly dangerous prospect during the winter months when the snowfalls are measured in feet, not inches.

After a quick stop for a breakfast sandwich and coffee, we reached the pass summit around 7:00 am, donned our camelback packs, and along with our companion Onyx, my friend's pound rescue, headed up the trail toward the summit of the Divide.

Left: Looking up Grizzly (second peak). Right: Continental Divide from Loveland Pass.

Now, as many of my friends and family would gladly tell you (perhaps with just a hint of derision) , I pride myself on being somewhat impervious to the physical trials of mere mortals. I can go on less food and less water than most, am lucky to have been born with a somewhat iron constitution, and keep myself physically fit. So imagine my dismay when I found myself struggling for breath a mere 200 yards and 500 feet above the car. It was going to be a long day.

A mere 36 hours off the plane from sea level, my body had yet to adjust to being a mile high, let alone over 2-miles high so I was inclined to be careful and not overexert. The hike was over 8 miles long and starting at the top of the pass, high up above the treeline, we were already at the lowest altitude of the entire climb. We were heading over several smaller saddle peaks up and over Grizzly Peak, a mere 13,427 feet, to the base of Torres Peak, a "Fourteener" as they are known in Colorado, one of fifty-two 14,000 foot plus peaks in the state.

A mile and and a half into the hike we reached the Saddle that runs along the Continental Divide. This is the dividing line of the continental watershed. Water falling west of the Divide heads to the Gulf of California and Pacific, while water falling east of the divide flows to the Gulf of Mexico and the Atlantic. We were up over 12.000 feet and the panoramic views were as impressive as the heaving of my chest and relentless pounding of my heart.

Left: Grizzly Snowfield. Right: Marmots (don't anger the neigbors)

If the next mile or so of relatively mild climbs up and over the smaller saddle peaks had my pulmonary system working like an overtaxed steam engine, the 1,000 foot climb straight up the shoulder to Grizzly Peak had me sweating like a miner and gasping for air like a stranded goldfish. Several time along the ascent I had to stop, fully chagrined, and let the dizzying heaving and pounding of my heart and lungs subdue while my hiking partner, a fully acclimatized back-country mountain biker whom I knew to be in no better shape than me, jumped spryly higher without a pause.

Like all climbs, each time you thought you had reached the top, another promontory appeared just above. It was a great feeling to finally reach the top, panting and heaving, and view for the first time the full panorama of Grays and Torres Peaks from the summit of Grizzly. After few minutes on the top we began down the back of the mountain towards the grassy tundra shoulder leading to the base of Torres.

My "experienced" hiking companion, not readily seeing the trail and having never taken the hike, took us off the back of the mountain, where we ended up descending a 600 foot face of loose "scree" rock, which had my life flashing before my eyes more than once. When we finally reached the tundra shoulder, tired and harried from the decent, it was nice to walk across the smooth grass before heading up the shoulder ridge of Torres.

While Torres beckoned a mere two miles away and 2,000 feet above us, we knew it was time to turn back to avoid any mishaps with the now slightly darkening skies. This time we took the proper way back up Grizzly, perched along the rocky ridge that fell away abruptly to our right down a cliff 800 feet to the valley below, and across a great snowfield.

Retracing our steps, it was quite a surprise to see just how far we had come. Enjoying the unparalleled beauty of the surroundings, the final decent back down to the truck was an inspiration, and luckily, not a "death march". It was my first real hike in the high country in decades, and experience I won't soon forget. Thank go out to my host and hiking partner for a fantastic day along the Divide.

Left: St Mary's Glacier from the lake. Right: View of Mt. Evans from the Glacier.

After a quick lunch, I took a ride up Fall River Road above the hamlet of Idaho Springs to St. Mary's Glacier, one of the most beautiful and easily accessible spots in the Rockies. The Glacier had receded another hundred yards or so in the years since I had last seen it, but remains one of my favorite spots on earth. It can be quite crowded on summer weekends with cliff jumpers plunging into the ice cold lake, skiers and snowboarders on the glacier, and a myriad of partying campers, but it can't detract from the natural beauty of the location or the incredible views of Mount Evans (another 14'er) 10 miles off to the South.

Left: Mount Evans from Summit Lake. Right: Mt. Evans, view from 14,260 feet.

Speaking of Mount Evans, this enormous peak, easily viewed from the Denver Metropolitan area, features the highest road in the United States, a spectacular drive to the summit at 14,260 feet known as the Mount Evans Scenic Byway (a couple of hundred feet higher than the famed road up Pikes Peak in Colorado Springs). This high mountain road is a breathtaking experience, and one of only two ways to reach 14,000 feet by car, the other being the afore mentioned Pikes Peak, 80 miles to the south and clearly visible from the summit. There's a resident herd of mountain goats and even some big horn sheep that populate the summit in summer, a popular attraction for the many visitors who ascend by car, bicycle, and on foot to take in the astounding views of the surrounding peaks and valleys. I took the precipitous drive up from Idaho Springs, descending through the even more beautiful Squaw Pass, a trip I highly recommend for anyone visiting the area.

Left: Local inhabitants, Mt. Evans. Right: Goat's Eye View, Mt. Evans.

There's lots more to come. Join me on my next post when we sample the ample independent and used bookstores of Boulder, Colorado, home of the University of Colorado, then make our way up through the byways and bookstores of Colorado to Jackson, Wyoming.

Sad Days for an Old Friend

One final note to my good friend Chris, a high school buddy from my days in Arvada. My deepest condolences for the untimely loss of your son Scott. Approaching the painful anniversary of the accident that took him away too soon at 19, your love and your pain is an eternal, living testament to the boy, and the man. Thank you and your beautiful wife for your hospitality, and for sharing your most intimate pain with us. All our best.


Sunday, July 26, 2009

Indie Icon, Undaunted Used, The 2-Mile High Club

Indie Icon

From the Tattered Cover website:

Imagine if the government knew what books you were reading. Would you buy a copy of Al-Qaida:The Battle Against Western Tyranny, The Anarchist's Cookbook or Mein Kampf? Fortunately, for those of us living in Colorado, this Orwellian scenario is only a hypothetical, thanks to this week's Colorado Supreme Court decision in Tattered Cover v. City of Thornton.

Continuing this state's long tradition of protecting individual rights, the court ruled that the federal and state constitutions prevent law enforcement from finding out what books an individual purchased at Denver's Tattered Cover Bookstore, unless law enforcement can show the information is critical to a prosecution.

In an opinion that will serve as a guide to judges across the country, the court made clear that even in the post-Sept. 11 world, the right of individuals to purchase and read anonymously whatever books they wish, without the threat of governmental intrusion, lies at the very foundation of our democracy.

The Tattered Cover Bookstore is as much an indie icon to Denver Metro as Powell's Books is to Portland, Oregon (coming up later in the visit). Winning the highly publicized Colorado Supreme Court case back in 2002 stands as a testament to their dedication, standing firm to protect readers' first amendment rights.

In our last post, we visited their newest location in the super-cool refurbished Lowenstein Theater, opened in 2006 on the up-and-coming east side of Denver on Colfax Avenue. In this post we sidle on down to their downtown location, the 20,000 square foot warehouse in the "LoDo" (Lower Downtown) district.

The LoDo district is Denver's crown jewel hang out spot. It encompasses the old historic district wedged between Coors Field and Union Station. The main focus of the district is the 16th Street mall, an outdoor walking mall on a closed-to-traffic street that runs from the State Capitol building down to the Platte "River" (more like a wash in the summertime). The street is served from end-to-end by a hybrid bus service that's free of charge. A block or two from the Union Station/Platte River end of the mall sits the converted 20,000 square foot warehouse and 300 seat special events space encompassing The Tattered Cover LoDo.

The LoDo location is comprised of two floors, with a Cafe on the first floor and, like the Colfax Ave. location, a whole bunch of cool reading nooks and rooms. I don't think it would be possible for your humble Booktraveler to feel more at home in a store. As soon as you walk in, the layout with it's inviting chairs, wood shelves and huge selection make you check your watch to decide which late day plans are getting thrown to the wind. The upstairs in particular (above) makes you want to sit back for an hour or two or three to peruse the vast selection.

Downstairs the coffee shop beckons with a wide range of offerings that make it easy to camp out until you're thrown out. The best part is, once you're able to tear yourself away, the LoDo district offers Denver's best selection of restaurants, microbreweries and entertainment venues, and you can even catch a game at Coors Field, the retro downtown baseball stadium that's home to the Colorado Rockies. Had the World Champion Philadelphia Phillies been in town, The Booktraveler may have been tempted.

The Tattered Cover LoDo. Above, clockwise from top left: magazine reading room, second floor victorian nook, second floor reading corner and first floor cafe.

The Tattered Cover has an upscale 21,000 square foot third location in the exclusive Highland Ranch area in southern Denver which The Booktraveler was unable to visit. But trust me, if you find yourself if Denver, the two downtown locations will prove more than sufficient to satiate the most ravenous reading appetite of the most prolific booklover.

Undaunted Used

But if you are a true bookstore officionado, and used books are your passion, then situated between the two Tattered Covers directly across from the Colorado State Capitol building is Denver's oldest and best used bookstore: Capitol Hill Books.

Capitol Hill Books. Clockwise from top left: Corner location on Colfax Ave. View from the Counter. The back room. The Bat.

Secure and undaunted in the same location for over 30 years, Capitol Hill Books ( offers a great selection of the regular, the rare, the exceptional and the superior, in a cool corner location that will make any used book officionado feel right at home.

Holly Brooks, proprietor, has been running the store for over three years. She purchased the store from the previous owner after working there for eight years. A reflection of the egalitarian store tradition that the store should only be sold to people who work there, Holly being the third such dedicated owner.

Located on Colfax Ave, just a block from the Colorado State Capitol building, Capitol Hill Books wins the prize for Denver's best used bookstore hands down. They have a great selection of signed editions, and like our very own Cathy's Half Price Books, offer a selection of new book titles as a convenience and by request of their customers.

So whether it's new or used you're looking for, a trip to Denver offers plenty of grist for the discerning booklover, with used and indie options that are so cool, they make the big book store chains look like freeze dried leftovers.

The 2-Mile High Club

Of course, there's a reason Denver is famous the world over, and that happens to be Rocky Mountains rising off to the west. Join me, The Booktraveller on my next post, as I gasp (literally) at the beauty of the Rockies on an 8-mile hike across the Continental Divide, from the heights of the highest road in the US (The Mount Evans Scenic Byway) at 14,260 feet above sea level, and from the unparalleled beauty of St. Mary's Glacier. Until then...


Friday, July 24, 2009

A Day Late and Dollars Short. Welcome to the Mile High Club.

Mental note: when packing, it's always a good idea to remember to bring your computer's power supply. So much for daily posting. Be that as it may: we continue, a day late and $89.95 short thanks to a local friendly Best Buy in suburban Denver and a replacement power supply. Thank you Best Buy!

Flights of Fantasy

Having packed and checked our own bags, and being briefly detained by a testy security agent due to an ongoing first/middle name issue on my ID (I need to get that fixed), we arrived at the gate an hour before our original flight was to leave. The flight, however, was now scheduled with an estimated arrival time that left only 10 minutes to make the connection in Minneapolis. It didn't look good.

The friendly, smiling, officious person at the desk confirmed this, providing option 1: stay overnight in Minneapolis (sorry, no hotel voucher due to non-weather related delay). Option 2: go back home, come back for another flight the next morning. This was unpleasant news indeed, as mentally, I was already gone.

Luckily, when the plane was even further delayed and all hope basically lost, I went to the desk at another gate to avoid the angry mob. The friendly, smiling, officious Northwest Airlines person at that desk, looking at the exact same information that her friendly, smiling, officious co-workers had , spanked the keyboard a few times and pumped out boarding passes for a USAir non-stop flight leaving in just one hour. SWEET! We would arrive a scant 10 minutes later than our original scheduled arrival time. Now THAT'S friendly, smiling and officious!

The Mile High Club

For the uninitiated, Denver is not actually in the Mountains. It rests up against the eastern slope of the foothills a mile high in altitude on the semi-arid plains. Viewed from the East, the mountains rise up spectacularly to the west filling the horizon from south to north, with several 14,000 foot plus peaks visible on clear days.

It's a beautiful and increasingly cosmopolitan city and the true gateway to the west. No visit to Denver is complete for the booklover without a trip to Denver's biggest and most famous indie bookstore The Tattered Cover. The Booktraveler visited two of their three location. The first, just east of Downtown in a funky area of refurbished and hopefully soon-to-be-refurbished mansions, hipster bars and a few hard luck holdovers from more recent times, is located in the newly the renovated Lowenstein Theater giving it a truly distinctive flavor. Opened just three years ago and replacing their famed Cherry Creek location of 20 years, it offers a huge selection with a variety of unique reading rooms and cubbyholes to make a day of it, not to mention a friendly, helpful staff that provides even further value.

Tattered Cover, East Colfax

After your visit there, make sure you stop by next door at the independent music store Twist and Shout. They have more vinyl than an '80's fashion show and their selection is downright AWESOME!

Twist and Shout

The Tattered Cover is famed for winning their case in Colorado Supreme Court back in 2000, barring The Man from accessing their clients' purchasing records. Keep the faith!

Thanks go out to our Booktravelers hosts in Denver. We had a great time! Next post: Tattered Cover LoDo, Capital Books (the best and oldest used bookstore in Denver), and the 2-1/2 Mile Club, gasping at the beauty of the Rockies from over 13,000 feet. CU then! -Cheers

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Flying isn't what it used to be...

I don't want to date myself, but I remember the days of flying when meals were served on plates with cutlery in coach (I was very, very, very young).

This is not to say I'm unimpressed with modern aviation. The sheer logistical magnitude of the modern airport is staggering. So many people, so many flights, so much weather...not to mention the fact that you can fly just about anywhere in the United States for about the same price as a meal for two at your favorite restaurant. And let's face it, it's MUCH safer than the drive to the airport.

Be that as it may, it still staggers the imagination the lengths to which the airlines must now stoop to keep the huddled masses in the air. Case in point: I used to fly Northwest Airlines quite a bit. Way back in those "salad" days (two or three years ago) there was a friendly smiling, officious person behind the counter to help you check-in and/or make necessary changes to your itinerary.

My first forebodings began when my Orbitz email arrived: Flight Delay Notification (I knew I should have booked a non-stop, but those enticing prices). It was obvious the connection through Minneapolis was out of the question. Being a somewhat seasoned traveler however, the decision was made to run the gauntlet.

Arriving at the airport, I was heartened to see a sparse crowd unloading at the curb. Perhaps all was not lost. I could have the friendly, smiling, officious person behind the counter help me change my itinerary to get me into Denver on time.

Approaching the counter however, I realized something was amiss. No friendly, smiling, officious personnel, just a happy, if somewhat impersonal bank of touch screen monitors asking me to "swipe my card" to begin, backed up by three somewhat harried baggage checkers to help the computer illiterate through the process.

To make a long story short, you now, as a passenger, do the work of the friendly, smiling, officious counter personnel, running your own boarding pass, putting on your own luggage tag, and taking your own luggage over to the conveyor to send it on its way (I have to admit I liked the conveyor part).

Granted, the baggage checkers were a big help, and I usually don't check luggage in the first place. But the best part is, even after doing all the work, you're still hit up with a $15 charge for the first checked bag. It's probably just a matter of time before we'll have to fly the plane. I'm starting flying lessons as soon as I get home.

Nonetheless, Denver was eventually achieved, on a different airline, on a different flight, arriving only ten minutes later than the original scheduled arrival. A story to be continued.

Now, comfortably ensconced at the home of an accommodating friend and his wife, I look back at an exciting first day in Denver. Today's travels focused on the downtown area, where we visited one of the oldest used bookstores in the city, as well as two of the most famous independents, with stops at the state capital, the famed 16th street mall and Larimer Square.

Tune in tomorrow for photos and a description of these visits in this most cosmopolitan of western cities, and find out how a missed connection leads to a non-stop flight on another airline. There is friendly, smiling officiousness after all.


Monday, July 20, 2009

The Book Traveler Heads Out West

YEEEHAW! Saddle up pardners! If you're a readin' this blog, you're one of the privileged few who've been invited to join The Book Traveler as we head out west! Join us on a 3-week sojourn through the cities and sights along the Colorado front range, through Wyoming to the Grand Tetons and Yellowstone National Park, down through Salt Lake City and 'cross the Utah-Colorado border back through the Rockies.

We’ll be visitin' the sights along with a bevy of used and independent bookstores along the way, posting stories and photos all the while. The sojourn wraps up when we skip off to Portland, Oregon by aeroplane, where we’ll sample the bookstores, coffee shops and microbreweries of the Willamette Valley. Blog along, won’t you! We’ll do all the work. There'll be enough adventure and misadventure to make you glad you opted for the staycation this year. The postings start on Wednesday, July 22nd, so bookmark this blog and get ready to roll!