Wednesday, August 17, 2011

The Art of Life

PHOTO: Kevin Stryke
WWII bred a generation defined by action, not words. Arthur, the father of a close friend, was a member of the greatest generation though he would never use those words to describe it. He was reminiscent of my Dad; words were few, well chosen and laced with a humorous poignancy that deflected the impact of the trials in one’s life.

Whenever he was asked about “the big one” he’d mumble, “Me, didn’t do much.” This is from a man who was well decorated for bravery and valor, too many citations to count. On the topic of dogs he’d sport, “I hate dogs… but they love me,” all the while concealing a pocketful of doggie treats. While he never acknowledged the many accomplishments in his life he was quick to praise others, my Tiki porch, Lynda’s garden of dreams and the achievements of the many youth who crossed his path while he visited our humble seaside town.

This was Arthur, but not always.

Returning from the war Arthur found his bride Kathleen, a dance ticket that found him his life partner. Together they hunkered down, had children and cultivated the American dream.

Dreams don’t last forever. The harsh reality inevitably wakes us from our bliss. The scourge of Alzheimer’s disease took his wife, the mother of his children. She was still there in the room he visited daily but only in the physical sense. Like the war he served without question, it went on too long. Still he stoically held vigil as days turned to months, months to years. Gradually his social, albeit measured, countenance withered with his love’s memories.

This is when I met Arthur, a man of few words, going through the motions because his God so willed it. He had survived five heart procedures, all but lost his sight and even his hearing was going south. Such a series of trials would make one think that the Fates were testing his dauntless resolve. If you asked him between his perpetual visits to the nursing home and his tending to his yard how things were going he would likely respond, “not much,” few words, all action.

It was the 4th of July weekend, a holiday when all Americans celebrate what they hold most dear. These liberties were paid in full by the men and women like Arthur who faced mortality and its toll so that we could all eat grilled hot dogs and shoot off fireworks at dusk.

My job was to disc jockey the block party. Arthur attended. This was a big thing. Arthur doesn’t party, well, not any more. I was cordially introduced to him as he was escorted, much against his will, to a safe chair where he wouldn’t fall. Arthur didn’t need help. He was determined to stand on his own even if his body wasn’t up for the task.

The afternoon slowly past, tolerant would best describe his demeanor. When I approached his table I began some pleasant small talk when he stopped me mid-sentence and asked me if I had the song Quiet Village. I did.

Quick history lesson. Quiet Village performed by Martin Denny and his Orchestra was an instrumental hit single in 1959. It was a beautiful mistake. He performed regularly at the Shell Bar, a Hawaiian resort with an outside lounge. Enlisted men stationed there would frequent the nightclub. One day a soldier requested that he play the song with all the bird calls and frog sounds in it. There was no such number. On the day the troop had heard them perform live birds and animals were chattering all around. An idea was born and the band added bird calls to the lazy exotica tune and the rest is history. It was the highlight of the exotica era, a time when American servicemen could put on a record or go to a Tiki bar and recall faraway shores and boomers struggling to build a life could escape on the first of what we now call staycations.

Soon Lynda's garden was filled with the sound of tookie-tookie birds and tickled ivory. The music, Lynda’s palm trees and party lanterns, and the wave of smiles and laughter around him must have taken Arthur back to a time when his burden was not quite so heavy. He opened up, smiles were quickly swallowed and he slowly joined in the festivities. It was subtle, but distinct. The next day as we cleaned up the party’s aftermath his daughter told me, a bit astonished herself, that Arthur actually enjoyed himself that day, words Lynda so wanted to hear.

Years past and Arthur became a part of our lives. He looked forward to whenever we got together. We were welcomed to call him anytime and catch up. He even let one of our teens write a paper on his life. I personally appreciated his warm, fatherly affection as I found myself faltering. The last time we were together he hug me so firmly as if to absorb my petty tribulations and add them to his own, a burden he was more accustomed to carrying. We had become his extended family and we in turn were able to help this man enjoy once more what his sacrifices gave us, a land where freedom, friends and family could lift us all up.

On the day he past he called his daughter Lynda and matter-of-factually told her to go to the hospital because he was dying. No joke. No swan song, no dramatic bedside finale, just a man taking on the chin what life gave him once again. I was floored by this. His passing was an eventuality as much as we pushed that fact aside, but his spirit was deathless.

I will always be inspired by his time in my life and will try to learn the lessons he offered. I pray for such resolve but know that I will go kicking and screaming, nailing the door shut in a feeble attempt to keep Death from darkening my foyer.

I’d like to think that Arthur has found again a quiet village, his bride in his arms, toasting with my Mom and Dad who both shared the same spunk and heart, but that’s just me. I’m not Arthur. Me, I’m just a freshman in Art school.


 

Tuesday, August 2, 2011

Colour My Worlds

I just finished a series of creative writing workshops I presented for Dance Dimension, a school specializing in dance and theater. The oldest group were tweeners (10-14 yrs.) During the first session I told them about the different elements that comprise a story and the magic of brainstorming/clustering techniques that prompt the right hemisphere of the brain. At the conclusion of the Thursday session I proclaimed that when we met again on Monda I would create a short story based on all the diverse elements we had pulled from their fertile melons. Kiss that weekend goodbye! I took the task to heart and was still editing at 7AM on Monday.

 72 hours had past. Driving to class Monday morning there is a news reports of a juvenile who threatened to blow up her school on Facebook from the very town where I was going to present this story. Read on and think how well the previous exercises tapped into the psyche of the age group.
A thank you to all the participants. This story would not exist without you!


The result was 
COLOUR MY WORLDS
a fable by
S.E. Toon

This short story will soon be published by the online literary publication,
 
The Write Place At the Write Time
 
in the Spring of 2013
 
We will provide details at that time.

Thursday, July 28, 2011

The Tale of the Girl Who Wore Her Smile Upside Down

I have just finished the first day of my Creative Writing Boot Camp with Dance Dimensions. The theme of the day was, of course, PIRATES! There were three different seminars. The youngest class was for swabbies from 3 to 6 years of age. After reading a “safe” passage from my novel The Pirates of Lobster Cove, we talked about novel writing and what makes a good story.
Afterwards we played a storytelling game where they chose a setting. They chose kids talking about pirates. Then they were given a series of nine images, one at a time they had to insert into the story they were building. Each time I repeated the story by memory up to that point we left off at and went, “and then?…” The next child would continue to grow the story.
Here are the words/images they were given in order:
Frown, Clock, Fire, Flashlight, Eyes, Magic Wand, Lightning, Flower, and Dice.
What follows is the story pulled from their collective imaginations.

The Tale of the Girl who Wore Her Smile Upside Down
by Brooke, Ava, Riley, Lylah, Sophia and Olivia

It was a humid summer day when the children came to play. All the talk was pirates which made them all very happy. That was save for one lonely little girl in the corner wearing a frown. All that she could do was look at the clock hoping that time would fly by and all talk of pirates would cease.

While the other girls talked pirate this and pirate that she looked anywhere but at them. It was then that she saw a spark in the opposite corner. The spark turned to flame and the flame grew into a fire.
“Look, look, use your eyes! Can’t you see the fire? Look, smell, can’t you smell the smoke? Look, smell, hear, can’t you hear it crackling in the corner?” she cried.

She waved her hands over her head and back and forth to get the attention of the only other girl in the group she called a friend. The girl always carried a flashlight that dangled from her belt. This was unusual since her parents never let her wander by herself after dark, the only time when a flashlight would come in handy. Still, every day she wore her “ flashi”e which made her stand out as much as a frowning girl afraid of pirates.

She turned and saw the spark, now a raging fire, and ran to her friend’s side. Suddenly between the two girls and the hungry flames appeared a wand, a magic wand they assumed since there really isn’t any need for a wand unless it is so.

“If we can just grab that wand we can magically make the fire stop,” the flashlight girl shouted all full of spunk. Before the girls could muster the courage to run towards the heat wouldn’t you know it, the very thing the other girls had been chatting about walked through the door. A pirate sneaked in and saw the magic wand on the floor, its gold glistening in the glow of the fire. “Arrr, that’s gold, me must have it!” He mumbled a laugh as pirates do, especially when considering stealing treasure.

He was able to grab the wand before the girls and felt its magic power and laughed. “Harr, this be better than gold. With this thing-a-ma-bob’s magic, I can find all the gold I want and that be quite a lot.” He cackled and raised the wand towards the ceiling to give it a whirl.

The girls cowered as it began to rain. Rain inside! If that wasn’t bad enough they could hear the threat of thunder rolling in. Then there was a flash as lightening bathed the room in white for an instant followed by an immediate boom that made all the girls in the room as scared of pirates as the girl with the frown.
The floor was covered with water. The only good thing was the storm snuffed out the fire. Now smoke filled the room which wasn’t much better but at least it couldn’t burn you.

The floor tiles then began to crack then peel away altogether and from beneath a flower sprung up. It sprouted full grown, a sunflower with a thick green stalk and a beautiful bloom of chocolate brown, butter yellow petals lining its face like a wreath.

It looked surprisingly like a wand the girl with the frown. To be fair at this time there wasn’t a smile in the room. She grabbed the flower by the base, snapped the stem, then pointed it at the wand-wielding pirate. He pointed his weapon back at her and sparks sputtered between them.

“Drat! This be a stand-off.” the pirate grumbled determined not to be beaten by a sad little girl brandishing a magical flower.

The other girl, realizing that if someone didn’t do something soon they would be in the smoky, rainy room all day, pulled her flashlight from her belt and aimed it at the pirate. With a flick of a switch into the on position, a powerful beacon of light cut through the smoke. It took the pirate all his might not to drop his wand in defeat.

“Two against one ay? Spare me you wily lasses and I will give you me pirate’s dice. They be magic as well. Just let me have the wand and I’ll be on me way.” Everyone knows that, save for treasure; dice is a pirate’s favorite plaything even if they weren’t magical. The two girls chatted together, all the time keeping the flower and the flashlight locked on the pleading pirate.

Unannounced to the pirate, Flashie’s batteries were low and soon the girls would lose the fight. They had to take his offer. They agreed and on the count of three they all lowered their magical weapons. The pirate kept his vow and gave each of the girl’s one die. The pirate chuckled to himself for in his mind the deal was far from fair. All the girls received were his magical dice; one roll of good fortune and that was it. With his newly acquired magic wand he could get infinite wishes. He could possess all the riches of the world. His life would be lined in gold.

The girls looked down at the dice in their hands and whispered to one another. The two girls turned to face the pirate. They rolled the bones and when they stopped, two single dots, snake-eyes looked up.
“Arr, so what be your wish? Diamond-encrusted tiaras?  Stunning beauty? Eternal life? Puppies??”

“We… wish… we wish there was no such thing as pirates.”

And with that he girl from the corner, the one would could not find her smile, finally did. It was a smile most unpleasant, unbecoming for a little girl with a wish come true, was the pirate’s last thought.

And at least the girls lived happily ever after.

The end.

Friday, July 1, 2011

The 3rd of July

In celebration of the holiday weekend I am posting the following excerpt from The Pirates of Lobster Cove, It is the back story of Francis “Frankie” Gambino, the trusty compatriot of Tyler Bryne, the narrator.
He is one of the four teens who call themselves The Cyrkle. His friends include Sandy Womack, the resident drama queen and bookworm, Bess Duvall, a tomboy’s tomboy, and Tyler, his inquisitive and over imaginative best friend who believes he has seen a flesh and blood pirate walking the streets of Lobster Cove.
During the years it took to complete the first novel I read this passage countless times to the children of my own seaside town by the light of a campfire. Those evenings were always special to me, made me a better writer and kept me grounded in the world of the teenager. Thank you to all who listened and stayed enthusiastic as months turned into years. 
Feel free to read it aloud. Celebrate the holiday and the ensuing fireworks but remember, be careful. We are all not as lucky as Gatto Gambino.

At first, the nickname Gatto came from the uncanny way he cheated death. Like his namesake, he had nine lives. At the beginning of this summer he was on life three.
The end of his first life was a mystery to us. It had something to do with his birth, tentative first months and his mother’s tears. All we knew was that Gatto was damn lucky to be here . His mother frequently warned him of this fact whenever he was even remotely in danger. Her voice would peal through the screen door of their porch.
“For the love of St. Pete, Francis Anthony Gambino! If I told you once, I told you a million times, stop it! You know you’re damn lucky to be here, don’t push it!”
Every summer, pushing it became our favorite pastime. It was more than just the thrill of the risk; it was about testing the patience of Mama Gambino and Gatto’s guardian angel. We swam past the bobbers at the beach, cannon-balled off of the high ledge of the jetty, shot tennis balls out of a makeshift cannon, anything to set off his mom.  We’d time how long it took for her to remind Gatto of his lost life. Summers are long on the Cove, you find fun where you can.
We weren’t daring, we just liked to appear so. Every stunt was performed with the utmost regard for safety. Take the homemade rocket launcher, Gatto’s invention, it sounded dangerous as all get out but was fortified with precautions. The tennis ball can was secured on a cinder block anchored with duck tape lit with a match attached to the end of a yardstick. One of The Cyrkle stood poised with the gun nozzle of a garden hose at the ready. We weren’t stupid.
Gatto’s second life had been snuffed out just the summer before. It went out in a blaze of glory.
The Fourth of July weekend in any coastline tourist community is a celebration of everything American.  Every stoop and railing is festooned in our nation’s colors. The marches of John Phillip Sousa drift in the air intertwined with whispers of Kokomo, Hot, Hot, Hot and rump-shaking dance beats blaring from boom boxes. The lapping surf, the occasional racket of firecrackers and the laughter of the young and old join the medley. Every patio has barb-b-q; charcoal and burnt hot dogs fill the air. Everyone is at leisure; all is right with the world.
The shore slowly transforms into an American Carnivale. The sun hangs low; clouds glow in bursts of orange and red. Freedom is in the offing. At this time the illicit proceedings dial gets turned up to eleven.
 Now, fireworks are illegal in our state, but you wouldn’t know it by the evening’s proceedings. There are no fewer than six bunkers of amateur fireworks simultaneously being shot off the Cove’s beachhead alone. Sulfur taints the pleasant scents of late afternoon revelry. The gathering crowd breaks into swells of “Ooos” and “Ahhs”.
These aren’t every day, ‘look, honey, what I smuggled out of South Carolina during my last golf outing’ brand of fireworks. These are ‘You need a permit, a fire truck at the ready and at what time would you like the Boston Pops to break into the 1812 Overture type of fireworks.’
The proceedings are four straight hours of unsupervised mayhem. It is an adult recess with no fear of timeouts. Ramparts and fountains of ill-directed color shower from the trenches on the beach. Fishing boats join the fury with their own displays shooting from their top decks. Looking through the smoke you can see the distant glowing balls of bonfires littering the shoreline. More fireworks blossom in miniature in the far distance. The night is on fire.
On the last summer of Gatto’s second life, a group of us local kids decided that the view wasn’t good enough behind the safe confines of the concrete seawall. That wouldn’t do at all. We had to climb down to the rock and sand of the beach to get closer to the action, we had to push it.
To our credit we were in a group. There was safety in numbers.  The Cyrkle plays it safe, right? Wrong, not that night.
Why the following occurred is still up for debate. It could have been the beer-goggled lack of judgment of the yahoos shooting off artillery grade fireworks at high tide. It could have been a freak act of Nature like an East Coast version of the Santa Anna Winds. Perhaps Fate the Dealer was sending the message to Gatto that he’s been gambling at his table of life a bit too long. Whatever the cause, folly or fate, what went down that night still plays in my memory in slow motion.
This all occured in less than twenty seconds. One firework, instead of going skyward, burst forth in a horizontal trajectory, only inches from the sand. Its direction moved from the water’s edge toward the seawall with us, the Cyrkle, stuck in-between. We all dove from its path, that is, everyone except Gatto. As if aware of our counter move, the white-hot comet made impact against a rock that protruded from the shore like the molar of some ancient animal skull, and burst into four separate projectiles fanning across the entire perimeter of the beach.
Instinctually, I dropped flat and rolled into the safety of the sand. I would have burrowed to China if I’d had time. Others grabbed one another, forcing themselves to the ground. We were all safe; that firework had Gatto’s name on it.
I remember Gatto’s eyes­­, brown, awe-filled, and puppy dog wide. He fell to his knees as if the pearly gates themselves were opening to him. I could see the reflection of the orb growing wider until it eclipsed his pupils. I didn’t have the time to open my mouth, never mind call out.
Then there was sizzle, darkness and silence.
That accounts for the snuffing out of Gatto’s second life, but what happened in the minutes that followed astonished me more, binding Gatto and myself as friends for life. The accident called up something in him that, frankly, I had never possessed.
I thought back to when my mother would try to rattle some religion into me. Whenever I was the least bit blasphemous she say, “Who do you call when you are at your most troubled, what is the name you call out? God, that’s who”.
I would look back at her and shake my head. “No, I holler, Maaa!”
Gatto didn’t set off the Ma alarm that night. He deftly peeled the loose firework from his cheek. It fell to the ground shattering into embers. Cupping his eye like an EMT at an accident site, he stared through the haze for the first adult that came into view. He said in an unsettling rational voice, “It burns.”
The neighborhood panicked for him, grabbing him up by the arm and carrying him to safety like a fallen soldier. Once inside the nearest seaside estate, Gatto remained cool as a cucumber giving his caretakers information when asked. “Can’t open it”, he instructed, the pressure building moment by moment. “Hot.” “Blurry.” “Ice.”
Only when danger was a good distance past him, when the hysterical adults had given him a moment alone, did he cry. He never told me this, but I knew he did; he had to. If a flaming ball of consequence attempted to blind me, I surely would have.
Gatto’s coolness under fire and Angel Gabriel’s intervention scorched a badge of courage across his young face. He was Rocky Balboa in miniature; his stocky twelve-year-old Italian features highlighted with a plum of a shiner around his left eye.
They took him to his family cottage to rest. I finally battled through the distraught crowd to see him. Opening the door, I got a good, long look at his face. ‘Too close!’ my inner voice stammered.
We looked at each other… well, I looked, he half-squinted, half-winced. I held back the quiver of my concern. I hollered, “Adrianne!!” in the best Sylvester Stallone imitation I could muster, cracking a forced smile. A trembling grin replaced Gatto’s wince-squint.
At that moment our friendship was forged; a bond tested during the months ahead. This summer would take Gatto’s third life. He was the Robin to my Batman, the Poncho to my Quixote, and that summer, the Black Bart to my Captain Blood. In truth, the roles should have been reversed.
(excerpt from The Pirates of Lobster Cove by S.E. Toon)


Saturday, June 25, 2011

Closing Chapters

In celebration of Save Bookstores Day I am posting this 5 part chronicle in its entirety. Read it, become a person of interest, sign up for email alerts, share my reviews of Young Adult titles with the readers in your life, and, for the sake of the printed word, buy a book. If we make a blip on the radar of retail book sales today it will prove that it is the readers who have the real muscle in the industry.





Closing Chapters
Reflections on my time as a bookseller

Closing Chapter 1 - Lip Service

photo: Bill West
We’re closing. The death knoll was rung on St. Patty’s Day and outside of the fact that it gave us all a damn good reason to drink nothing positive could come from it… or so I thought.

In the days that followed we festooned the retail space with garish banners that transformed our beloved bookstore into a bargain basement. The signs proclaimed, ‘Everything Must Go!’ which was truth in advertising for it included my entire staff. We were all given one-way tickets to the curb, departure six to eight weeks.

We did our jobs. It’s what we do. It was all part of the work ethic I tried to instill into each of my teammates during the past six years. Even though the task of masking every square inch with signage felt like we were measuring and cutting planks for our own caskets; we toughed it out. We knew no other way.

I had it in my head that I needed to be strong for my staff. I was upbeat, always lending a shoulder to anyone who needed it. I must have appeared delusional to the others, wallowing in the denial pool of Kubler-Ross’ stages of grief. It was what they needed, what I needed.

As the liquidation began I found a comfort level incorporating a script in my mind to use when interacting with the public. It insulated me from the barrage of emotions on the sales floor. “yada yada… no coupons.” “blah blah blah… no checks.” “wink, half-smile… all sales final.” Each word was delivered with the bravado of a bartender barking out last call, “Ya don’t hafta go home but cha can’t stay here!” Insulated, effective… safe.

As I faced customers one-on-one it became harder to divorce myself from the grim reality of the situation. Inevitably the words, “I’m so sorry this store has to close.” I would nod, biting my tongue not to extrapolate on just how true those words were to every one of the soon to be unemployed on the floor. Many, whose faces were not familiar, quickly switched gears. “So when are you closing for good? When are the prices going to lower? Why is everything such a mess?” they would ask while their fellow shoppers trounced about like pirates pillaging a village. I again gave an anesthetized nod of the head and would reply, “We don’t know, don’t know, and…” and concluded our meeting by looking out across the devastation that was once a bookstore, again a measured response.

Then there were the regulars who began the same way, “I’m so sad…” It wasn’t merely a formality, they meant it. They were sorry for us, sorry for themselves, sorry that we lived in a world where the greed of the few can so easily decimate the futures of the many. Mostly they were sorry that they were losing a safe haven. We became a part of their social life, a habit of sorts and going cold turkey was going to be a bitch. Then came the silence; as strong as the space between ex-lovers. Words would not suffice. Assorted small talk would follow closing with the obvious, “It’s a damn shame.”

Near the end of the first weekend a woman came to me. Her eyes were glassy, tears held back. With a fragile warble in her voice she opened up to me how much our store had meant to her. She had met the love of her life amongst the stacks of books, searched for answers and solace during her pregnancy in the parenting and baby board book section, shared with us the upbringing of her children through our story times and numerous kiddie events and watched them grow from learning to read to an independent reader who couldn’t wait for our next Harry Potter extravaganza. Now she had to face telling her children that one of their favorite places would be gone forever. It was a life lesson no parent wanted to teach until a family member passes.

I nodded, thanked her and shared with her that inspiring children to be excited about reading is one of the highlights of the job. You don’t get that spark of fulfillment by meeting your quota of widgets but opening a young child’s eyes to the world of Dahl, L’Engle, Reardon and Rowling makes being a bookseller more than just picking up a paycheck. I invited her to bring her children on by next time so that I could put on my jester hat, strike up the band and give them a jovial goodbye. I closed the conversation with the lightest hand on her shoulder and the calculated and safe closing, “The best we can get from this is a bargain.”

I continued through the shift, insulated from the unruly shoppers. (all I could think of was Peter Lorre in Casablanca, ‘Vultures, vultures, everywhere.’) I charmed the twenty minute line that ran half-way through the cavernous store. “yada yada… blah blah blah… all sales final.” I closed my autotron speech by putting my two palms together before me, so Buddha-esque, and concluded, “… and thank you for your years of loyalty, you will be missed.” I should have stayed on script. Looking across the line my eyes fell upon the same young mother looking up at me. I took a ten and I never take a ten. It was her lip, quivering, that got me.

None of us are safe.

Closing Chapter 2 - Blindsided

photo: Bill West
I didn’t see it coming, not that our store became just another unit number of over two hundred stores shuttering their doors. Sure, we were a profitable store when others wallowed in the red during the recession, so yeah, I was a bit dumbfounded by the news. What took me more by surprise was the importance my bookstore had in my life and the lives of the regulars who frequented it.

I was confident that we would ride the storm of corporate restructure with nary a scratch. I was a veteran of downsizing, having three companies in my career go through the motions. Two companies did the bankruptcy mambo and one avoided having their dance ticket punched. The end result was always the same, me having to again redefine myself.
There was an unintentional cruelty to it this time though. The List was posted online for the world to see. We were not on the list. Huzzah! My team was elated and quickly worked at fluffing down the feathers of our skittish patrons. “It’s because of you that we still are here! “ It was all about the love. Because of the numbers, a product of our customer’s loyalty, we dodged a bullet. Gratitude re-energized the staff.

Then the hammer came down. The landlord of every remaining unit were approached and asked to come to the table to renegotiate the lease. Twenty-eight refused, twenty-eight were slated to be closed. It was business and we were about to get struck with the business end of the stick.

What was I going to do? I was currently being paid 50% less than my last career job, barely enough to pay the bills (welcome to the world of retail). If something didn’t happen and quick I would see my mortgage, already a monkey on my back, slip quickly into foreclosure.  I spent over six years of my life slaving for this company and for what, to be collateral damage of some real estate overlord’s tax write-off? 

All those years wasted… or so I thought.
It would be so easy to hold a pity party my every waking hour if it wasn’t for my staff. Each had their own situations, many far more dire and urgent than mine. I am humbled in their presence not only by their coping mechanisms but how they continued to do their jobs unflinching. Damn, they make me proud.

Our fate hit the news. Customers arrived in droves, heads hung low; emotional husks approaching each and every one of my booksellers to pay their respects. Each day that I made announcements to the shoppers it felt like a Twilight Zone episode where I was the lead character who for reasons unbeknownst to her was doomed to be the director of their own funeral. The wake is 9AM – 10PM, come as you are.

The patrons shared the same emotion we all felt, loss. At first it seemed rude and absurd that they would come up to us with, “I just feel horrible about this store closing.”
Each member of my staff fought back the response, ‘You feel horrible!’  The customers after all were just losing a local haunt, we were losing our livelihoods. I pictured myself in a month or two homeless, galumphing in the rain while playing with a stick and contemplating the moral of Ferdinand the Bull. It was hard to be empathetic.

As they fumbled with their words, it became clear that their sadness wasn’t just self-serving. We had become a fixture in the community, more the spirit of a library than a retail store. We were a part of their lives, the good part. It was here they escaped the day to day grind for a cup of joe, a comfy chair, and a momentary escape into a world of intrigue, romance or heady meandering.

When I was young my mom told me “You can go anywhere between the covers of a book” That was in part an excuse for the family not going on any fancy, shmancy vacations, but as I lived my life no truer words have ever been said to me.

My regulars (or irregulars depending on the given day) took those words to heart as well. They would find a place in the store and prepared to be transported. I would recommend titles based on their likes, more a travel agent than a bookseller. Many would head to the registers to take their new found destinations home. We didn’t sell books, we sold dreams; some escapes, some aspirations, some meditations on or from this thing called life.

Our closing wouldn’t just be another empty storefront, a blight on the landscape of the American dream. It would be the removal of a part of the town square. Each customer (and I mean our customers not the myriad of bargain hunters who never frequented our store in the first place) shared their sadness in their own way while trying to keep a lid on their pent up anger. Then there was the silence, nothing more to say and they would leave to find new treasure in our now depleted stacks.

We cared. We made them feel welcome. We love books and were willing to share that love with them. We sold books and we were good at it. 

It made no difference now. It was over. The weeks that would follow would just be a long stream of farewells and crowd control.

All my staff and I can do is what we do. My store is well into its second week of liquidation, its stock growing increasingly lean. Still, I can commune with my guests, perhaps pull out of the rubble a small gem to capture their imagination and for a few moments take them away from lower pay, higher prices and an undetermined future.
Perhaps they can find passion in a war torn land, rise out of poverty and abuse by their bootstraps or discover just how cellophane the human experience while contemplating the miracle of the opposible thumb.

Then, for as long as those pages turn, everything will be alright.

Closing Chapter 3 - Madcap
photo: Bill West

“Got mad?”

His eyes were brimming with glee, this perfect devil fallen from my shoulder now before me, full size, confronting me eye-to-eye. The Pigman was a manager cut from the same cloth; loyal to his staff and his local clientele with the uncanny ability to interject levity into the most menial of tasks. Instead of the printed word he hawked B-B-Q and if smoked meat were books his would be on the New York Times bestsellers list.

I paused, then replied with a tone as confused as his, “No, not really.”

I suppose I should be. Our bookstore was closing by no fault of its own. While many of the stores in our district wallowed in the red during the recession, we remained profitable. Heck, it is rumored that Dennis Lehaine announced at a national mystery writer’s convention that we were the best bookstore in the country. When our company decided to celebrate Stephanie Meyer’s Twilight franchise with première edition parties (klieg lights included), they funded three stores; Los Angeles, natch, Ann Arbor, the company’s hometown, a given, and yes, or lowly store on the South Shore.

Was I dismayed? Yes. But mad… ?

While waiting for the best smoked chicken wings this side of Tennessee, I explained to my inquisitor what you may have read already, about being there for the staff and consoling customers. 

“Then ya got mad, huh?” my impish Beelzebub prodded.

“No.” I replied too quickly.

Perhaps I was repressing some pent-up anger that was simmering just below the surface. It’s not like I was moments from turning into a crazed, disgruntled employee, climbing onto one of the library stacks, holding my employees captive until they each purchased a copy of Wicked Appetite by Janet Evanovich and America by Heart by Sarah Palin (both titles which I had an excess of two hundred copies.) Still, for the sake of my mental health and my innocent patrons, I decided to list some of the annoyances I observed during the past two weeks in hope that by doing so, I will ferret out my inner mad woman.

THE STACKS: To the best of our ability we struggled day and night to keep the titles in each section in order, alpha by author, the more tempting titles faced out to attract potential readers. Before, when a customer asked for a certain title, we could strut briskly to its shelf and procure said title as if my magic. We no longer had smoke and mirrors. Due to bargain hunters filling their arms with books only to discard the titles that didn’t make the cut anywhere they happened to be, and the sneaky shoppers who squirreled away titles hoping to unearth their little chestnuts a week later when the discounts increased, the store was a shambles.  The only assistance we could offer was informing the customer that a title might be in house. Then their scavenger hunt would begin. No more hand holding, no more suggestive selling. So much for the magician’s reveal.

 THE QUESTION: Everyone is inquisitive when a store closes, I get it. A series of answers are scripted by the home office which each bookseller is expected to know by rote. One question however eventually comes up in every conversation, “Soo, when are you closing?” Even the loyalist of patrons ask, the tone changing from Sméagol to the Gollum. One of my veteran employees, a good quarter century of bookselling in his rear window, tapped into his anger and inserted a sheet of paper into his lanyard tag. The plastic pocket was reserved for ‘Hello my name is…’ , current promotions and announcements of personal merit. Now it held a sheet of paper with the coarsely scratched words WE DON’T KNOW all in capitols, accented with an exclamation point. The manager in me went ‘No, No No’ but my off-the-clock, soon-to-be-unemployed self went ‘way to go.’ The liquidator was cool with it and so it stayed, dangling from his neck, point made, anger abated.

SIGNAGE: We play by the liquidator’s rules now. Attention to merchandising standards has been thrown to the wind replaced by the tree depleting overkill of posted flyers and garish signage turning the bookstore from a streamline of maple shelves and cover art into an imploded piñata. Old standards served a purpose when we were a bookstore; the current signapalooza has been proven to work for what we are now, a clearing house. It takes a while to understand that you are no longer a bookseller.

FIXTURES: Everything must go! Nothing held back! That means every display, every tool of the trade. The desks, the shelves, even the paperclips were up for grabs. Understandable, it’s what a liquidator does, liquidate. No harm, no foul. Still, rectangles of neon orange stamped with For Sale and an indiscriminate price tagging every square inch of where you spent the majority of your waking hours gnaws at the bottom of your stomach. That was a good six years for me.  The first day price tags were put on my past I exclaimed, “You’re selling my trident!” which I used to help bring Rick Reardon’s words to life. “You’re kidding, my cauldron too!” referring to my mystical bowl where I conjured up countless celebrations of all things Harry. Thankfully my vampire cape and fright wig were at home, now made powerless, no longer able to entertain young and old customers enamored by the sparkling undead. Some things, like my costumes and this store are fixtures, fixtures in this community you can’t put a price on.

THE VOID:  As product dwindles, we consolidate the titles; migrate the remaining stock closer and closer to the front door where it is expected they will past with all-sales-final receipts. Two things happen in result. First, sections move every other day, shrinking like puddles after sun showers. This means the location of a certain category you could walk to in your sleep was no longer there. God forbid if you took a day off. This made it near impossible to guide a customer where a desired book may be hiding. Second, as the categories constrict, they leave the back empty, sanctioned off by yellow caution tape. Walking the back of the store surrounded by bay after empty bay, walls ribbed by vacant shelves, you feel like you are in the belly of a beast. The ghosts of retail past reside there. Each day the hollow grows. One day soon all there will be left is this whale carcass with a padlock in front. I don’t like to go there.
                 -  -  -  -  -
I head home, battled commuters, stopping and starting my way towards my humble abode. I may soon lose that as well as my job if fate doesn’t intervene. The devil’s burning question and this burgeoning list buzzed in my head.
Once home I opened my to-go bag to discover that the tray tipped to one side in my car seat and the hot ‘n sloppy sauce had leaked away from the wings, pooling in the bottom. I let out a series of expletives that would make a longshoreman blush. Coughing through a well of tears I salvaged my guilty snack that I soon would not be able to afford.

At work I wear several hats; bookseller (always first and foremost), manager, teammate, friend, consult, liquidator, confidante, custodian but only in the confines of my home, surrounded by a menagerie of inanimate objects all in need of a good tongue-lashing, will I wear my mad cap.

Closing Chapter 4 - Foot Notes

photo: Bill West
The store’s closing, the date set and the banners up, 10 days left! We fight the inevitability of our situation to no avail. No matter how stellar our performance we can’t alter the demise of our store. There will be no call from the governor; we are a dead store walking.

We do our jobs to the best of our abilities. They have been redefined, we are no longer booksellers. I was the last to come to this realization. Someone would ask about a title long since gone. I would give the customer a thirty second thumbnail recommendation if the title warranted it, tell them where else in the area they may be able to get a copy, even suggestion another title they might be interested in, another title that is just a ghost in these parts.  Some would be appreciative, most merely aggravated that they would not be able to scoff up the title at half price. I would chime in, “Remember a good book is priceless.” That went over well.

Take the long short walk to my sentence with me while I reminisce.

I will miss the staff:
So few have jumped ship, granted food on the table and a roof over the head is a fine motivator but those who have stayed on aren’t merely going through the motions for the sake of a paycheck. Just when I get a case of the ‘why-me’s I am humbled by how they confront all their personal challenges. I have many with young families, some single income, still able to provide for their children on part-time pay, others juggle schedules with their partners always putting their exceptional children first. I have teammates caring for life-partners with the same selfless zeal, others, fragile survivors who don’t even know their own strength just struggling to get by.
I have had formers lawyers, dentists, teachers, students, all sharing two things in common, they were all intelligent and they all made do with what little compensation the job offers. When you interact with a bookseller in a closing store or in one issued a pardon, be respectful. Their pedigree and life experience deserves it. They have more to offer than a dot-com’s fuzzy logic search engine ever will.

I will miss the repartee:
My staff does what they can to entertain one another especially when stress and anxiety rears their ugly heads. No longer will I be able to dole out my trusty chestnuts such as when a customer asks, “Where is humor?” responding, “Humor is where you find it sir” or when a customer asks “Can you show me where self-help is?” chiming in with, “That would defeat the purpose, ma’am.” Some questions from customers are just stultifying such as, “Where is the non-fiction department?” (that is of course is 80% of the store, if  it’s not fiction or, at times, politics and government, it’s non-fiction) or “Is that a Bestseller, I love that author?” 

One of my employees, an encyclopedia of pop culture references has lately come up with this comment after interacting with such a patron. He’ll walk up to me and go, “Hand me the mallet,” specifically an Acme Brand mallet that he can use to pound his own head in feverishly like he was in a Tex Avery cartoon. The violence would be self-inflicted, his frustration momentarily abated. I respond by pulling out an imaginary mallet from behind my back. Me, I have no mallet for my melon.

 I will miss the children:
They have frequented our store during countless book events and story times. Now that we are closing they have come back one final time to stare up at me doe-eyed as if I was The Grinch and they are all Cindy Lou Whos asking me the one question I couldn’t answer, at least not in a manner that would satisfy a child. “Why, why, Santa, why?” One of these emotional stealth bombs approached my most stoic team members and reduced him to jelly within a minute. Some even presented us with homemade cards (one started, ‘Sniff, sniff,sniff.’ How can you read that without welling up?) They fight off bashfulness to tell us how sad they are we are gone. Yes, past tense, for they see already that it is over. The first section to get decimated in the liquidation was the children’s department. There would be no more stimulating their creative imaginations. All that remains is an empty space where stories and silly games unfurled. It now looked like an abandoned playing field that no one gave a Hoot about, prepped for demolition, correction, our community did but the bulldozers still came.

I will miss the authors:

It has been an honor to coddle and nurture their babies as if they were my own. I had to cancel no less than four events after my store’s death notice was issued and it broke my heart. It is so easy for authors to insulate themselves from the public when their name is sold as much as their intellectual properties, its self-preservation, but never have I had a single bad interaction with an author. Hank introduced me to her award winning doppelganger Charlotte McNally with wide-eyed enthusiasm, Her fellow mystery writer Carol McCleary also shared her simpatico with her protagonist, the legendary Nellie Bly. They both shared a similar lesson, not necessarily write what you know, but write what you feel through your characters. It shows in their writing. Dennis Lehaine shared the handwritten draft of his great American novel The Given Day, a manuscript as big as the Gutenberg Bible. Mo Willams taught me how to perform for children like an agitated elephant or a persnickety pigeon. Raffi Yessayan brought me to the mean streets of Boston, Suzanne Collins, guided me through the battle torn dystopia of the heart and countless others all shared their inspirations, not because I was good at hand selling their novels but because it was in them to do so.  They let me in; we talked of craft and method and the life of a writer. Thank you for welcoming me into your circle. I am truly blessed.

I will miss being missed:
It will happen despite good intentions. When this store is no more I will lose the friends I spend most of my days with these last six years. As I allude to in my novel, time can be a bitch and its greatest strength outside of the decrepitating effect it has on everything is its ability to make our past fade. For many that can be a good thing, a healing salve for the brutality of life’s tougher moments. Time though is indiscriminate at what it diminishes. All of you, my friends, employees and patrons alike, will go along with your lives, take a turn around the bend and disappear from view. We may meet once and again, smile, laugh, catch up, then return to our new familiar. 

Absence doesn’t make the heart grow fonder, it turns what’s past to fodder. Harsh, sure, maybe I’m just a little bitter for having to walk closer towards the hole left when everything that was this store is gone.

You should go now. I’ll walk the last steps alone.

Closing Chapter 5 - All Skate

photo: Laura Vona
When I entertained my minions during  one of our many celebrations of the Harry Potter novels I told the crowd manically, “There is magic everywhere!”  I would proceed in a drunken stagger, as a defrocked teacher from Pigpimples School of Wizardry and Refrigeration Maintenance, to create potions (think, volcano in a beaker with baking soda, food coloring and vinegar) and generally make a combustible mess proclaiming the natural miracles all around us. My finale would be a soda rocket ignited indoors.

“Not only do these treats have the ability to transform an individual into a maker of fresh, they can, with a little Transformium Sodaruptus, Sharkbait Brew Ha Ha and  Bippity, Boppity, Boo… show us the magic all around us!”   

With a wave of my cape I dropped in the Mentos into the bottle and a geyser of soda reached for the ceiling of our store. Fans go wild! The true magic was that the words of an unemployed woman written in a coffee shop could create such fervor over books.

We have sold much of our bookstores magic to the walls. Fixtures have disappeared as if invisibility cloaks had been draped all over. Still between the empty stacks and the shelves devoid of titles, a little magic remains hidden amongst the dust bunnies.

Our café was a Mecca for the literate and disenfranchised. It was there we had a slew of coffee house events, musicians, poetry slams, author signings; whatever we could dream up to have us stand apart from the run-of-the-mill. It has been reduced to a way station for the last lonely fixtures up for grabs, no magic here save for what the entrepreneurial minds will re-purpose these remnants into.

One of our stellar events that bonded the employees to one another and to our community were poetry/prose reading events we called Borders Bards. While I coined the phrase, all of the credit goes to one employee, Laura Vona. I have refrained from tagging any specific person during these chronicles but here I need to make an exception. Laura was not just an exemplary employee. For as long as I have known her, she has been a force of nature, a Gaelic storm of boundless energy. Her passion for the arts is infectious, her positivity makes my Pollyanna pale in comparison, and she possesses such a selfless dedication to all that is right and good that I wonder at times how we can even see her at all.

The Bards was her baby. I exploited the event, just as I have admittedly all my employees, to bring my novel to fruition, think a writer’s group with an audience needing to be entertained. Laura gathered everyone in the community, from teens to seniors, to read from their hearts. Despite the quality of their craft, the emotional sincerity and courage each brought to the events was nothing short of magic. 

They are but memories now, mostly unpublished, moments lost in this building’s past. Still, the walls resonate those words spoken as well has the words read, purchased and dreamed. I had been too busy in the day to day minutia of closing a store to feel that power. 

That was until I saw it, magic, captured on video like a lumbering ghost, a trick of light and imagination captured in the green incandescence of a ghost hunter’s night vision goggles. Where it came from I know not where. It starts with a static shot of the gutted carcass that is our store just days before the doors would close forever. I was familiar with that backdrop; it brought a lump in my throat, which I swallowed only to have it gnaw at my gut. The camera moved through the empty space, floating on air, providing an ethereal tour through the facility.
Then I heard the sound, breaking the vacated silence. It was familiar, childhood recollections of cavernous halls, sawdust strewn floors and an amplified voice from above announcing, “All skate!”  The chatter of roller skate wheels whispered as they sped up. The sound was as whimsical as the whirr of a hamster wheel. I smiled and continued watching. The visual passes shelf after empty shelf in a giddy stampede. 

Then the caution tape that was wrapped around closed sections of the store came into view. It kept the public from danger and kept thieving hands from giving purchased fixtures a five-fingered discount. ‘Danger, Do Not Pass.’ repeats across its side. The image rushes towards the tape at the far end of the building, full throttle. The message is not heeded and an instant before the screen is enveloped in yellow, the skater ducks beneath and ‘Ta-da!’ we are on the other side. The wheels dance on the floor reclaiming balance, almost applauding the feat and continue to ride in graceful sweeps through the emptiness where our bookselling selves once lived; a jubilant celebration of being in the moment. 

After one more euphoric run around the circumference of the store the video ends facing the door as if challenging the viewer to walk through them. The doubt about the future, the fear of loss, and the challenges on the other side of those doors are stripped of their strength. 

I will look back on my memories of this store and the unbridled whimsy of that video as I move forward with my life. The wheels of inspiration will propel me forward as I stand on one leg, wheels a chatter, my other leg stretched out horizontal behind me, my arms outstretched on both sides as they cut the rush of the air, my face forward and raised high with a smile, always a smile.

Magic!
video