The hidden beauty of West Side Books and the indie bookstores of Denver

I don't read books. Really. I used to be ashamed of this, but then I realized that I read thousands of words every day -- they just come in the form of online articles and, when I'm lucky, physical copies of magazines. I've been a voracious magazine reader since I learned how to read; I love longform, investigative pieces, clips, tips and factoids. I love well-curated publications, beautiful photo spreads and regular columnists. My favorite authors are those with a magazine past, people like Joan Didion and Chuck Klosterman.

But despite the fact that I don't read books, I do love book stores. This past weekend, during the Highlands Street Fair, I was working a table for a friend's non-profit and I wandered into West Side Books to see if I could use the bathroom. But I was stopped in my restroom pursuit by a handful of books I hadn't seen in twenty years sitting high on a shelf, too far from my reach. I had to see these books.

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I waited patiently at the counter while the woman at the cash register took her time with two other customers. They were obviously either friends or longtime shoppers or both, and I felt myself getting antsy in my quest to see the books I couldn't reach. I began feeling that irrationally self-important attitude rising inside me, the kind of thing I used to deal with from customers who were "in a hurry" when I worked at Shirt Folding Store. I took a step back. I wasn't in a hurry and I could wait for help, just like a normal human being.

Once she finished with her patrons, I quickly asked if I could see the two, bright pink gingham covered Dare Wright books that were sitting far above her counter. The clerk looked surprised that I knew who Dare Wright was -- I guess not a lot of people come in to West Side Books desiring children's books from the late '50s that were highly controversial at one time because they involved film stills of a doll being spanked by a Teddy bear.

But I grew up with Dare Wright's The Lonely Doll (I called it "My Lonely Dolly") and I somehow missed the sadomasochistic undertones, instead focusing on Lonely Doll Edith's sterile, fictional world and the dreamy boudoir setting of the book that I still wish I had within my own bedroom.

The woman helping me wasn't a clerk -- she is Lois Harvey, owner of West Side Books and former owner of Capitol Hill Books. She was exactly the kind of person I hope to keep meeting in this city; I've been here my whole life and I feel like I can't go anywhere without running into someone I went to grade school with or have already met through one of my dozens of jobs. When I come across someone like Harvey who I haven't met before, it is a treat. She is the kind of person who has seen Denver through many of its glorious and not-so glorious days, and I can only imagine what she has seen happen along the strip of 32nd Avenue where West Side Books happily lives. That part of town doesn't look at all like it did, even just five years ago.

But Lois and I didn't talk about the changing face of the west side -- the name of the store itself is an unintended tribute to old Denver, a time when this area wasn't called "Highlands," but simply "the West side." We didn't talk about neighboring coffee shop Common Grounds getting the boot from its space after being unable to deal with a 40-percent increase in rent. We talked about Dare Wright and The Lonely Doll.

Lois told me that the two books I was requesting to look at were well over $100 dollars (I'm guessing they were original editions,) but that she carried all three reprints from The Lonely Doll series. I didn't even know there were multiple books in the series (there are more in the original book series, but only three have been reprinted.) Lois walked me through the maze of book piles and bursting shelves to show me her stock, each of which was just $8. I bought them all, overjoyed that she had turned me on to the bounty of Dare Wright's weird world.

She then offered to order me a copy of Wright's biography, something I had only heard was in existence. I was so excited that Lois was indulging my bizarre Dare Wright interest that I was even willing to read an actual, adult-sized book. I left West Side Books gleefully with a Walmart bag full of children's books -- the irony in Lois's recycled bags coming from a place like Walmart made me appreciate her store and style even more.

I grew up in a family of voracious readers and librarians and have spent many, many weekend hours at places like Tattered Cover, The Book Rack and The Bookies. Somehow, I had never shopped at West Side Books. If you haven't been in there lately, go see Lois. She's probably got a book waiting for you that you didn't even know you wanted.

Be my voyeur (or better yet, let me stalk you) on Twitter: @cocodavies

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