Saturday, May 21, 2011

Closing Chapter 2 - Blindsided

Closing Chapters
Reflections on my Time as a Bookseller
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.

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