Tourists in New York are duty bound to see the Statue of Liberty and the Empire State Building. But if Larry Portzline has his way, they'll also be stopping by the city's best bookstores, too.
Mr. Portzline is an advocate of what he calls "bookstore tourism" - bringing tourists to a city to visit its independent bookshops. Last Saturday, he led a group of 45 people from Harrisburg, Pa., through Greenwich Village to go book shopping. The idea, he said, came from a Harrisburg acquaintance who leads tour groups on restaurant trips to Manhattan. "If it can be done for food, why not for books?" he thought.
Mr. Portzline now fills this travel niche in his spare time: By day he works for the communications office of the Pennsylvania Senate. As a sideline, he hopes to launch National Council on Bookstore Tourism later this year.
To build interest in the concept, he's presenting a panel discussion called "Bookstore Tourism: The Independent Bookstore as Group Travel Destination" at BookExpo America this Saturday. The conference - the largest annual publishing event in America - returns to Washington, D.C., this weekend after a more than 20-year absence. Pundits Pat Buchanan and Ariana Huffington will be among the participants at a luncheon on Saturday. Barack Obama and John Updike are among the authors speaking at breakfasts.
BookExpo is a whirlwind of signings, talks, book launches, and parties. And Mr. Portzline's panel will be part of the more creative offerings. Among the speakers will be bookish types who are creating book tourism opportunities. Nancy Rips, proprietor of Bookworm, an independent bookstore in Omaha, Neb., brings groups of her customers to New York City for tours. President of the Southern California Booksellers Association, Terry Gilman, who will also be on the panel, is planning a bookstore trip that starts in Malibu and ends in Long Beach, Calif.
Those seeking to start a book tourism project will have much to learn from Mr. Portzline, who has also led tours to Washington, D.C., and the Brandywine Region of Southeastern Pennsylvania. For his recent tour group - which landed in Washington Square and fanned out through Greenwich Village - he prepared a tour of 22 bookstores in the area. And he's got a shtick that keeps the faithful amused. On the tour bus, the first question he asks is: "How many of you are completely addicted to books?" and almost every hand shoots up.
His second question is "How many of you have piles and piles of books on the floor because you ran out of shelf space?" The same hands go up. "They're all looking around and laughing because they realize they're among their own kind," he said.
On the tour Saturday was Kathy Silks who said, "There are bookshelves in every room except the bathroom, with more in stacks on the floor. I particularly love travel essays, memoirs, Studs Terkel's oral histories, essays on nature, detective fiction, creative nonfiction."
Ms. Silks and her fellow booklovers fanned out all around New York City. In the evening, a number gathered at the White Horse Tavern. "Dinnertime becomes like show and tell, everyone is showing the books that they bought and the rare things that they found," Mr. Portzline said. "Invariably somebody has found a book that they've been looking for 20 years. And they compare notes on the bookstores, too."
And for good reason. "You don't always find what you're looking for, but you often find something you didn't even know you wanted."
He recalled one traveler who brought along a wheeled cart for luggage and returned with 20 books. "Imagine how many thousands of booklovers, who live within two or three hours of New York City, who would kill to do what we are doing."
Do Internet sites such as Amazon.com damper the interest in visiting bookstores? "With book lovers, it's not just the books, it's the bookstores. It's the experience of being inside them that's authentic."
Mr. Portzline also sees a broader importance in bookstores: "They are one of the last bastions of free speech in this country." By contrast, a relatively small group of people determine what Americans find in chain bookstores.
Additionally, bookstore tourism is an economic development opportunity. If booksellers in Ithaca, N.Y., for example, would promote themselves and work with a bus company, they could draw tourists. "There's a whole multiplier effect," he said. Visitors do not just buy books, they buy meals, visit cultural institutions, and so forth. "It doesn't matter if it's 50 people on a chartered bus or five friends in a minivan," he said.