When you walk into Lyrical Ballad Bookstore on Phila Street in downtown Saratoga Springs, the first thing you notice is that familiar smell of words on paper, some of them old and some of them new. You are surrounded by books on shelves, books on the floor, books everywhere you look, and they are packed so tightly that it’s not always quite clear where one book stops and another begins. There is a mythological, or perhaps Jim Henson-ian, labyrinthine feel to the space, and while you won’t likely meet a minotaur stalking its next victim among the winding stacks, you will surely find its literary embodiment waiting to be devoured by one of the voracious readers who have regularly visited the shop since it opened in October of 1971.
As an 8 year resident of Saratoga Springs I am embarrassed to admit that this was my first visit to this downtown institution. I’ve often walked by it in a rush to get somewhere else while reminding myself every time I passed it to stop in the next time I found myself with some free time. I’m happy that that day finally came on a sunny afternoon in early April. It was then that I walked into 7 Phila
Street and almost didn’t find my way out.
When John DeMarco, a Saratoga County native fresh out of college with a degree in literature burning a hole in his pocket, decided to open a bookstore in downtown Saratoga, I doubt he could have predicted that his shop would grow in ways that indicate it may have had a plan of its own, a plan to infiltrate all of the hidden corners of downtown Saratoga. It began as a small shop that was “cheap and available” according to John. However, as John and his wife Janice developed relationships with his neighbors and as spaces around Lyrical Ballad have gone out of business (the gallery of famous Saratoga photographer George Bolster, for instance) or moved to larger, more modern accommodations, new rooms have seemingly sprouted up on their own where once there were solid walls. They appear to go on forever almost like the five-and-a-half-minute hallway from Mark Danielewski’s House of Leaves. There were several moments as I found myself wandering aimlessly among the volumes when I wondered if I shouldn’t be leaving a trail of breadcrumbs in order to find my
way back. Meanwhile, on the list of coolest places for a store to keep their more valuable inventory are two former bank vaults that harken back to days when Saratoga National Bank was housed on the corner of Phila and Broadway. There is a deep rooted sense of history in this building, and I picture the books as living entities feeding off of the remnant energy of days gone by.
While the building layout may have morphed and expanded over the years, one thing that hasn’t changed is the excitement and respect that John and Janice have for the written word. Their appreciation for the service they provide is evident in the reverence with which they speak about their business. Don’t talk about Kindles and Nooks in here (unless the nooks you’re referring to are one of the many places where you can sit down and read that first edition Hardy Boys book you never got to finish). This is a temple to creativity in all shapes and forms: new, old, science fiction, historical non-fiction, reference, and children’s stories. There are boxes full of prints and illustrations depicting life in the early days of the Capital Region. There are song books, Broadway scripts, cook books, and boxes of antique postcards available for purchase from all over the world with messages from people who likely now only exist as memories. The oldest items owned by the DeMarco’s and likely locked away in one of those former bank vaults are two rare books. One is, very fittingly, a book of horses from 1535, and the other is a book on Italian architecture dated 1580. Forget Yaddo, folks. I’m convinced that any writer in residence would find more than their fair share of inspiration among these accumulated works of authors from across the globe.
Of course, the big question is how does Lyircal Ballad continue to remain relevant in our increasingly digital world? The DeMarco’s attribute their continued success to customer loyalty and a community that supports small business. They have regular visitors who return time and again to see what they may have missed on their last adventure through the stacks, and they also have seasonal clientele who show up along with the New York City Ballet and the Philadelphia Orchestra. The racetrack, of course, brings its own set of characters. However they do recognize that they, like many independent business owners, are working harder than ever to stay afloat. Beyond the tangible storefront, they provide a unique appraisal service to people from all over New York and New England. For example, when someone with a significant library passes away they are often contacted by family members to come in an determine how much the library is worth. Currently they are working with an individual who lost his entire library in a fire and needs appraisal figures for his insurance company. It is a service that not many people offer, and they have definitely found their niche. Additionally, they buy worthy items from individuals who come in to the shop looking for some quick cash. On this particular day there was a gentleman attempting to sell a monochromatic print from the mid to late 1800’s depicting a child in a desert surrounded by a menagerie of lions, tigers, and bears (oh my!). As I said, the inventory is diverse.
We live in a world that grows more and more technologically connected and interpersonally disconnected everyday at a speed that can sometimes be overwhelming. We easily disregard the simple joys in life as frivolous or unnecessary, and we are often more concerned with getting the best deal rather than supporting those small business in our community who are struggling more than ever to survive. We download books at the touch of a button, and we forget that there is treasure out there, bound on paper just waiting to be discovered. I invite you to stop in and visit John and Janice on your next trip to Saratoga Springs. I know they would be happy to have you. While you’re there, look for an armoire that I’m certain if explored under the right conditions would lead you right to Mr. Tumnus drinking tea in C.S. Lewis’s Narnia. Just don’t forget your breadcrumbs.
Lyrical Ballad Bookstore
7 Phila St
Saratoga Springs, NY 12866