My favorite holiday tradition is preserved and protected in a memory snow globe. Gently shake the orb and flakes flutter and fall onto a downtown street in Omaha, Nebraska. It is almost evening. Holiday lights are draped between and wrapped around street lamps. The decorations twinkle like glitter against the slate sky. Frosted shop windows illuminate gifts and other goodies. Peer closely into the glass sphere and you will see a father gently corralling his three small children, dressed in puffy snowsuits and dangling stocking caps toward the front door of a small bookshop. The name on the storefront reads, Matthew’s Bookstore.
Matthew’s was located on Douglas Street, an out-of-the-way side street on the outskirts of a dead-as-a-doornail downtown (apologies to Charles Dickens and Omaha). Its storefront, as opposed to its neighbors’, was a non-descript configuration of dirty display glass, broken brick façade and faded striped awning. An arc of gold decals announced that the store had been founded in the early forties. A window shopper would not be privy to a dazzling display of bestsellers dressed in gift-wrap and ribbon. Instead, a simple sample of the store’s tomes perched on book caddies humbly requested a book lover’s attention. Customers entering Matthew’s were greeted by the tinkling of a small bell. That bell, like Peter Pan’s petite sidekick, announced that one was in the presence of magic.
The magic was in the people and books that inhabited the store. My father’s best friends, Sid and Charlotte Speigleman, owned Matthew’s Bookstore. They had purchased the store from its original proprietor in 1959. Sid and Charlotte were two of the sweetest, most gentle people I have ever known. Sid looked like a cross between Theodore Geisel (aka Dr. Suess) and the artist, M.C. Escher. His eyes, nearly obliterated by bushy eyebrows, had a mischievous glint to them. Charlotte must have been the inspiration for E.B. White’s special spider. She was small, had wisps of gray silk in her hair, and was incredibly rich with wisdom. They were simple, quiet people who loved the written word.
The magic was also in the books stacked, shelved and strewn-about the Speigleman’s store. Thanks to the magic of Mathew’s, I made friends with a naïve bear whose quest for honey led us to many zany adventures in the 100 Acre Wood. It was at Matthew’s where I met Peter, Susan, Edmund and Lucy with whom I walked through a wardrobe, befriended a lion, and defeated a winter witch. I would never have met Charlie Bucket, had it not been for Matthew’s. Charlie and I rejoiced in the discovery of a golden ticket that allowed us entry into a fabulous chocolate factory operated by an eccentric candy manufacturer.
I still possess my copies of Winnie-the-Pooh, The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe, and Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. They were presents from Sid and Charlotte. Every December, they would invite my brother, sister and me to come visit their store and pick out one free book as a holiday gift. Choosing one book at Matthew’s was, in the literary sense, akin to choosing one piece of extraordinary candy from the thousands created by the Wonka factory. On the way to Matthews, my siblings and I would discuss book selection strategy. My sister, Rachel, always went for anthologies. She felt she got more bang for her buck with a collection of stories. (I tried to tell her that the “bang-for-the-buck” rational did not apply to free books.) My brother, Paul, always selected a science fiction book. It was his favorite genre, and he knew he would not have to share his selection because Rachel and I had no interest in mutant monsters, technology run amuck, or non-existent planets (I now admit that two of my favorite books are A Wrinkle in Time and The Incredible Trip to the Mushroom Planet).
My personal selections were more random. One year it might be Harriet The Spy, the next The Big Book of Limericks. When I was twelve, I selected a book on the art of Peter Max. And who knows why I couldn’t wait to take home and read The National Football Leagues’ Greatest Moments.
After choosing our books, my siblings and I would settle down in the children’s section of Matthew’s and peruse our selections as well as other finalists. The magic of Matthew’s was no more pronounced than in this area of the store. It was a secluded room located in the rear of the building. A tiny round table with chairs occupied its center. One entire wall was a stained glass depiction of nursery rhyme characters. This wall was gently backlit to show off the figures. Small rocking chairs occupied the room’s corners. The gentle strain of classical music was piped in from somewhere. It was a reader’s paradise.
Eventually, my father would interrupt our reading reverie to bundle us up in our winter attire. We would show Sid and Charlotte our book selections, hug and thank them for their generosity and hospitality, and wish them holiday cheer (thank you notes would arrive at Matthews a few days later). The tiny tinkle of the bell attached to the store’s door would usher us out into the cold winter evening.
As the Speiglemans knew, one of the greatest gifts that can be bestowed upon a child is the gift of reading. Reading is the great liberator. A reader develops a healthy imagination and better understands the world around him or her. Reading frees one from the shackles of ignorance, dependency and monotony. Through the written word, a child can visit enchanted kingdoms, intergalactic empires, natural environments, and other sensational settings without ever having to leave the comforts of a favorite lap, chair or tree fort.
A reader realizes that there are lives and noble causes that lie beyond the confines of the backyard fence. Books, newspapers, magazines and the Internet bring to life new cultures, world regions and scientific communities. A Shakespearean tragedy teaches one to have empathy for the human condition. A philanthropic tree in Shel Silverstein’s classic story is a symbol of unconditional love and charity. Lessons of justice and mercy are tenderly imparted in books like To Kill a Mockingbird.
A good reader is empowered to effect positive change in the world. Letters on a page become words. Words strung together become ideas. Ideas translate into a personal philosophy, and that philosophy can become a call to action.
While reading is one of life’s most precious gifts, it is not always easily received or utilized. Some children struggle with the skills necessary to become lifelong readers. Thanks to dedicated and patient parents, teachers, mentors and tutors, these readers are able to maneuver around and overcome literacy challenges.
I hope that during this holiday season, you and your children will rejoice in the company of each other and a good book or two (or three or four). Perhaps a trip to the local library will fill up an otherwise uneventful day. Who knows, maybe there is a Mathew’s Bookstore that is a part of your family’s holiday tradition.
Here’s wishing you and your family a joyous holiday season. May the season and new year bring you an abundance of love, laughter and learning. Happy reading!David HoffmanPrincipal