Monday, May 23, 2011

Closing Chapter 4 - Foot Notes

Reflections on my Time as a Bookseller
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.

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