I was never drawn to Key West. It’s always struck me as a place to enjoy margarita-fueled nightlife or relax by a pool, two things I’m bad at doing, even when it’s not a pandemic.
But I was desperate to visit the bookstore cofounded by Judy Blume, which happens to be in Key West.
I’d heard her store — Books & Books @ The Studios of Key West — was delightful, and that sometimes Blume herself could be seen working the floor, hand-selling books to starstruck patrons.
Are you there, Judy? It’s me, Meredith. Please let me buy the books you like. Your recommendation means everything.
In early December, when I’d finally wrapped my brain around taking a nonessential plane trip again, I had one destination in mind: Blume’s bookshop.
But I wondered: Can one build a trip around one bookstore? Is it worth it?
The answer is yes, especially if the staff tells you where else to go. From now on, I want to anchor every vacation to a visit to an indie bookstore. I can build out from there.
Blume, 83, has been a Key West person for more than 25 years now, so even though she says she spends most of her time at the shop and home, she knows where to go. “We came to Key West because I was trying to finish ‘Summer Sisters,’ and it was winter. We were in New York. It was like, where can I go to finish this book where it’s warm?”
They knew people in Key West, so they booked a rental.
“That’s what happens with Key West,” Blume said, during an interview on the roof deck of the Studios building. “You either fall in love, or you say, ‘Get me out of here.’ And we fell in love. When our rental was up, we didn’t want to leave.”
Over time, Blume and her husband, George Cooper, helped shape a part of the city. Cooper cofounded the Tropic Cinema in Key West. He’s also a cofounder of Books and Books with Blume.
I visited the shop for an interview with Blume on the third day of my trip, already having visited the Ernest Hemingway Home & Museum. (That stop I found on my own, and despite my being allergic to the six-toed cats that live all over property, the Hemingway experience was a haven for readers, and reminded me of a bizzaro version of Edith Wharton’s former home, The Mount, in the Berkshires.)
I asked Blume where else I should go. What are her favorite spots?
Clearly, start here. She and Cooper cofounded the store with Mitchell Kaplan, who has seven Books and Books locations. But Blume’s imprint can be seen all over this one. The store has a stenciled border of the names of late authors who lived and worked in Key West. Buy a $7 copy of the “Guide to the Key West Literary Pantheon,” written by Cooper, and learn about authors inspired by the area. Check out the shelf of Blume’s books, which show the evolving covers of her classics. Make sure to read every “staff pick” card because some have been written by Blume herself. (At the moment, she’s into “The Paper Palace” by Miranda Cowley Heller and Jami Attenberg’s memoir, “I Came All This Way to Meet You.”) Pay attention to the furniture because Blume brought some of it from home. The massive desk in the art supply room is from Blume’s Masterclass; the Masterclass company gave the desk to her because she liked it so much. Blume works several days a week, so if it looks like Judy, it probably is. Remember: masks required.
Books & Books is inside of The Studios at Key West, a 15-year-old nonprofit that also houses studio space for artists, a 200-seat auditorium with frequent live music and theater performances, and four galleries. There are happy hours on the roof desk of the building, and those galleries below are ever-changing. Up through Feb. 26 is an exhibition of paintings by Judith Murray and Robert Yasuda.
A “Key West Bicentennial Series” is just one of the special programs on the schedule at the very art deco Tropic, cofounded by Cooper. The Tropic’s curated lineup is a draw, but the building itself is also Instagram paradise. Not far from there is the Southernmost Point, where zillions of tourists grab a shot at the buoy that marks what it claims as “the bottom” of the United States, but a film fan might prefer to pose with oversize statue of Marilyn Monroe by sculptor Seward Johnson out front, or even just below the Tropic marquee. Blume says cinephiles have to go. “Just stop and look at the lobby or beautiful screening rooms. Each one is different.”
I might have skipped this tour had Blume not spoken so highly of it. It’s the tiny white house (a.k.a White House) where President Harry S. Truman became a regular starting in 1946. Blume told me to look out for the furniture that she recognized from her own childhood. “The same furniture that my bedroom had when I was little. It’s that French provincial, twin beds. And it’s so small when you see it and you think, you know, a president actually came here, stayed here. Nobody would do that anymore,” she said. I also liked the space dedicated to Truman’s affinity for tropical shirts.
The pines at Fort Zachary Taylor State Park
I would have found this beach, because there aren’t many other beaches on Key West. But I wouldn’t have known that the trees, specifically, important. Blume explained that the Australian pine trees, which create much-needed shade and are a pretty canopy for visitors, was a controversial community rallying point almost years 15 ago. The state said the trees should come down and are toxic to the area. Tree supporters say the pines should be preserved, that they’re part of the community culture, and that they protect the beach from erosion. “It was like hugging the trees,” Blume said, of the debate. “‘Don’t let them take them down!’ — and people just got them to stop.” While you’re at the beach, you can tour Fort Zachary, which was used by Union soldiers in the Civil War.
Tourists will be bombarded by signs for the “best Key lime pie” wherever they go, but Blume has a favorite, and it’s served at Blue Heaven. It’s a gorgeous slice so heavy on meringue that the top reminds me of James Dean’s hair, or Robert Pattinson’s waves in “Twilight.” The place also has a great brunch menu (get the banana bread to go, and you’ll have a snack for the entire day). For the COVID-anxious: The tables here are spread out so there’s plenty of room to breathe. Blume also recommends the restaurant Salute! for dinner, owned by the people behind Blue Heaven. It was comfort food right on the beach, and you can get the pie there, too.
Meredith Goldstein is considering planning her next vacation around another bookstore, Semicolon in Chicago. She can be reached at Meredith.Goldstein@Globe.com.