Best way to learn a new place: Ask a local
'You navigate by bookstores," an old friend told me.
I was trying to give him directions down back roads, and my landmarks for the turns were all the kinds of places I would notice.
He was right. Someone else driving down the same street might have picked out the sandwich shop or the cheese market or the hardware store or the creamery that makes its own ice cream (and at lunchtime, so would I.) I remember the kinds of places that draw me in and make me feel at home.
And different people will feel at home in different places. That's why a section like this, a magazine full of "Best ofs," can come with layers and variations. Thousands of readers have sent us the places they remember -- the ones they come back to for comfort, the ones that become part of the routine, and the ones that stand out from one glorious afternoon when they were hot and tired and sticky with driving and stumbled on a place they had never gone into before.
There's a kind of map of an area, a level of knowledge you can only get from the people who know it well. My friend and colleague Margaret Button has grown up here, and she has that map in her head. She is always telling me about a swimming hole I've never heard of or a gas station in Charlemont that sells the best Christmas wreathes in the county, or reminding me that I haven't had a hamburger at Jack's Hot Dogs in far too long.
There's nothing like this kind of on-the-ground knowledge. When I find it, it leads me to places I would never have found on my own and turns a plain day into adventure.
It's the gleam in the eye of the woman in the pink sweater who saw my oldest friend and me trying to find our way into the Hispanic Club on the Upper West Side of Manhattan and told us they'd closed early -- but if we headed half a mile east, the Morris-Jumel mansion would be open late for a jazz concert.
So we followed her lead past two blocks of brownstones and turned a corner onto a street full of wooden houses. Just north of Harlem, the city has a street lined with wooden houses, and on one side a white house in a block of gardens where Aaron Burr (Thomas Jefferson's Vice President) briefly lived. That chance encounter led to music on the lawn and stories about the women in Burr's life, and my old friend and I walked through the house laughing, in a glow, as though finding it had been a kind of magic.
(If you're looking for unexpectedly living history or music, you might check out Juie McCarthy's photography at Chesterwood, the historic home of Daniel Chester French, who sculpted the Lincoln memorial -- or catch John Gorka performing at the Guthrie Center, in the church that inspired "Alice's Restaurant.")
That's what we hope from a magazine full of recommendations. But we know "best" becomes a slippery word.
When I navigate by bookshops, I remember times I've spent in each one. And which one is the best?
In early spring, on an unexpectedly warm afternoon, I sat with G.J. Adkins in his book shop the Eclipse Mill in North Adams, my favorite place to look for WPA guides and familiar essays about New York and Boston and the Housatonic River. We got talking about Burr and his duel with Alexander Hamilton, and his insistence that women should exercise their minds -- an unusual view in 1800. Burr taught his daughter several languages.
"But yet I hope, by her, to convince the world what neither sex appear to believe," he wrote "-- that women have souls!"
(If you're in favor of women stretching their minds, you might check out Edith Wharton's efforts in World War I, at The Mount in Lenox, and the new backstairs tour through the restored kitchen with the gleaming six-burner oven and the hand-crank apple peeler. You might also head south to the house where Elizabeth Freeman worked in the kitchen before she won her freedom in 1780 and helped to make slavery illegal in Massachusetts. Or you might catch WAM Theatre's latest staged reading at the No. 6 Depot Roastery Café in West stockbridge on Sunday-- and check out the Bookloft's used bookstore while you're in town.)
At Yellow House Books in Great Barrington I spent a winter afternoon looking for a gift for a friend having a hard time. I ran into Galway Kinnell's poetry -- the warm and close lives of his wife and children in Vermont -- and Tom Stoppard's "The Invention of Love," a play about Gerard Manley Hopkins.
I sat in a corner reading about a young man at Oxford who found himself falling in love with men in the days when Oscar Wilde was on trial. Here he was in college in the 1860s, just beginning to write.
Who would he have become if he had felt free to love?
(If you're looking for peace of mind or a romantic day on the river, you might float down the Housatonic at Bartholomew's Cobble looking for turtles and remembering his words in "Pied Beauty" -- "Glory be to God for dappled things / for skies of couple-color as a brinded cow / for rose-moles all in stipple upon trout that swim ...")
On a winter Saturday, The Bookstore in Lenox brought me a few years later, to Patrick Leigh Fermor's walk from Gibralter to Constantinople before World War I. The collection here always surprises me, contemporary voices and strong voices out of the past that feel as though they could be speaking today.
I was with Fermor somewhere in a pub in Austria as I walked up front carrying his "A Time of Gifts" to find my friend Louisa behind the counter. She and I mulled over Hungary before the war and Charles Dickens, a conversation that led to an evening of Noel Coward drama and goat-cheese pizza.
(If you like words coming alive, the WordXWord festival will bring spoken word and storytelling to North adams this weekend in a poetry slam Saturday at Gallery 51. Local performances fill the calendar, from the Hong Kong Ballet at Jacob's Pillow to ‘Kiss Me Kate' at Barrington Stage and ‘The Mystery of Irma Vep' at Berkshire Theater Festival ... and the season of words outdoors and in is just beginning.)
These are places I pay attention to, and I can tell you what magic I've found in each one, but which one is best? What about the ones I don't have room for? All those we can't fit here will spill out of these pages and into our weekly magazine all year long.
This magazine is filled with bests, and we salute them. Each winner in our reader's poll someone who lives here cares about enough to let us know, and usually many someones.
And so, in the spirit of that cheerful recommendation, we at the Eagle will also tell you about some of the places we love. Here are some of the places we come back to for fun, for comfort, for a hamburger and sweet potato fries late on a Saturday afternoon when we have just slept off a late-night deadline.
In the end, all I can tell you is that each one is unique, and I'm thankful they are all here.
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