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Upstart Crow Bookshop and Coffee House

835 W. Harbor Drive, Downtown San Diego




"Las Vegas weddings: kitschy, funky, depressing, romantic." Uh, no. Next?

"The British are frequently criticized by other nations for their dislike of change..."

Thank you, thank you. Don't call us, we'll call you. Next?

"Edward looked back into the mirror just as a third eye started to bust through the skin on his forehead..."

Okay. I made that one up. But heck, I'm getting desperate here to find a book with an opening line that makes you want to read on.

I'm sifting through all this stuff 'cause I need inspiration. Yeah, I'd like to write a book. Carla keeps going off to writing classes with her friend Beverly, and, well, I'm feeling ye olde competitive spirit welling up.

'Specially since I agreed to meet her here at the Upstart Crow (seems that's what some rival writer called Willy Shakespeare). Carla and Beverly are doing their "creative writing" thing right now. They want to come here after and "talk about it." And man, this Crow place has the right feel, even though it's in rinky dinky touristy Stewpot Village, as Hank calls it. Seaport Village is a fine place, but really, there's nothing real about it. For starters it's an East Coast seaport. Whose idea was that? And nobody actually lives here. So we're talking outdoor mall. Period.

Except for the Upstart Crow. These people are serious. Fifteen thousand titles in a white stucco, sloping, shake-roofed place with blue trim and the feel of a mountain house. Inside, there's parquet floors, open rafters, plank stairs going up to a loft space under the roof, all kinda brown and woody. And what's nice is how they have café tables set out amongst the books. You can see people reaching for tomes to glance at while they sip their cawfees, and nobody freaks out.

Man. One o'clock already. My gut's talking to me. "Let's r-r-r-rumble!"

"Okay, okay," I say. I take off for the coffee station, a big square counter in the middle of the main ground-floor space, with a real stuffed crow sitting up on a rafter. A lady ahead of me orders a quiche and salad. Huh. Thought they only did java here. Then I spot a little blackboard. "Quiche, salad, spinach and mushroom or broccoli, $4.95."

Hmm. Think that means you can get either a spinach and mushroom quiche with salad, or a broccoli quiche with salad. Whatever, that should hold the fort. Earlier Carla had mumbled something about Beverly "taking us to lunch."

Fine. But what if they're another hour? So I order that spinach and mushroom quiche, with raspberry dressing (I could have had Caesar) to go on the salad. They also have bagels and cookies and apple pie slices. But this is their one pitch for not-all-sweet grub.

Guy named Charles puts the quiche in the microwave and serves it on a wavy glass plate, with the salad, on a good nonslip cork-lined tray. I get a coffee too ($1.50, 50-cent refills), in a cup that has some spidery signature on it. Hey, think it's Will Shakespeare himself. Guy shoulda been a doctor, with that scrawl.

I go back and sit next to a bookshelf stuffed with Classics. Over the sound system, piano's playing "Smoke Gets in Your Eyes" in a tuneless, jazzy sort of way. "She's my personal shopper," says this woman, talking about one of the employees to her tall companion. They come and sit down at the next table.

The Personal Shopper appears. "Can I buy one of your Upstart Crow aprons for my winery?" asks the tall guy.

Me, I'm head down into the salad, thinking, how come he's got a winery and I haven't? Gotta write that bestseller! I reach out and grab the first "classics" I touch.

In a village in La Mancha... Ah. My man. Don Quixote.

Wilson sat on the balcony of the Bedford Hotel with his bald pink knees thrust against the ironwork. Graham Greene, The Heart of the Matter. Not bad.

On a brilliant day in May... Henry James, The American.

That's good thinking there, Cool Breeze. Tom Wolfe, The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test.

Dammit, my little quiche has gone cold. And tough. I take it back to Charles and have him re-nuke it. Now it's hot -- and still tough. Not their fault. Mine, for screwing round.

Actually, I'm getting to enjoy the combo. I mean the combo of quiche (and salt), straight salad of slightly bitter kale and lettuce, with that raspberry gunk spread through it, along with the woody feel of this place, the whine of the coffee grinder -- and even the educated, big-word crowd, who can afford to spend afternoons chatting, supping, and buying all these books. There's one gal who's been sitting here as long as I have, sipping latte, grabbing stuff from the women's section. The Woman's Book of Confidence. Snap Out of It! Uppity Women of the Renaissance.

Still no Carla. I go back and get a coffee refill and -- what the heck -- one of those caramel apple pie slices ($3.95). I kinda knock it back -- dee-lish, crumbly hot, with whipped cream on top -- in case the ladies arrive mid-gulp. I'm just swallowing the last bit when I hear a voice.

"Da-ahling!"

It's Carla, going all literati on me. And Beverly.

I put my book down (James Joyce: There was no hope for him this time), wipe my lips, give her a big smooch. She knows I've eaten. I can tell.

"Dahling. Beverly's offered to take us to lunch. Right next door at that beautiful Harbor House. You can hear all the brilliant prose we've written."

"If you haven't already eaten," says Beverly.

"Absolutely not," I say.

Carla's eye flicks. She says nothing. Afterwards, I'm dead. I know that.

Still, I got me an opening line for my best seller (drum roll, please):

"Who said there was no such thing as a free lunch?"

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