Playing God—With Books

Essay by Lisa Solod

My Post-Divorce Bookstore Year

 


 

books

Time in a bookstore is time stopped: I gaze at the shelves and forget where I am. In the late 1970s, when I first entered a bookstore café in Boston—a combination that was very avant garde at the time—drinking coffee while thumbing through books seemed as close to heaven as was humanly possible.

Only one thing could be better: a bookstore of my own.

Wouldn’t it be great if I could say I eventually got my desire? I can’t, but decades later, suddenly divorced and strapped for cash, I did live a bit of the dream.

In the summer of 2005, fresh off a divorce and my mother’s diagnosis with Alzheimer’s, I took a part-time job in my local bookstore. This was in a very small Virginia college town that I’ll call “Riverton,” where I’d lived for twenty years. I’d often visited this independent store as a customer, long before you could buy anything online, and when it was owned by a well-meaning couple of professors.

After 2000, it was bought by a woman I knew cursorily, whom I’ll refer to as “Angela.” A kind but somewhat misguided owner, she was neither much of a reader nor a book lover. But still, the stacks of dusty remainders in the front of the store, along with the displays of more current books on the front table, called to me every time I went downtown.

I needed money, and Angela needed someone who could sell books. If it wasn’t a match made in heaven, it served its purpose.

Angela was more interested in making sure the coffee pot was full, even though I’d never seen anyone spend much time drinking coffee at the small café table she’d set up in front. She poured the rest of her energy into buying items for the shop that were more profitable than books: elaborate games, toys, stuffed animals, book bags.

I understood. She needed to make money, too. Even eight years ago, real books were becoming an anachronism. The fact that tiny Riverton supported a brick-and-mortar bookstore was proof of its serious quaintness, not to mention the two universities that brought in intellectuals and a certain loyalty among townspeople to a local business.

But within hours of getting the job, I focused on selling the books, and sell them I did. After I completed the long list Angela left me each morning—cut the headlines out of unsold New York Times from the previous day so we could get credit for them, shelve books that shoppers had left lying around, make the coffee, unpack the new books that had arrived, pack up the books going back as remainders—I perused the shelves, checking to see what we really needed.

Her list was quickly accomplished, although Angela seemed convinced it would take my whole shift. I read the New York Times Sunday Book Review and trade publications to see what was selling and what people might ask for. Then I’d settle onto the stool behind the counter and wait.

It was a strange time. I’d been a university wife, part of a couple, all the years before in Riverton. Now I wasn’t. And I knew the town’s propensity for gossip: If people didn’t know your business, they would make it up. So, what were they saying about me? Suddenly working part-time in a bookstore?

But I soon discovered that a good number of the people in this small Southern community also knew me as a writer and reader—and they were happy to talk to me about books.

Both strangers and regulars came to me every day with questions: Which book was right for a child of 5, 10, 15? Had I heard of the new book just reviewed on NPR and could I find it for them? And the question I liked most: What should I read next?

Never hesitant about dispensing amateur advice on what to read—which I’d been doing, sometimes unasked, for years—I now gladly offered professional suggestions. I kept up with each customer’s tastes and ordered things I knew they’d like. A local dancer loved literary novels. Several people were Oprah’s Book Club followers. There were men who just needed the latest history and nonfiction, on any subject. They came back to me again and again—for books.

 "Interior of Angus & Robertson booksellers" (Sydney,Australia, 1946) by Bradford Pty Ltd

• • •

Until I was ten years old, most of my reading material came from the town library. I'd taught myself to read at three. I was fast and voracious. After realizing that the usual limit of two books a week would not suffice, the kindly librarian in Morristown, Tennessee, allowed me as many as I could carry. Those books transported me out of the dullness of real life and into the magic of many other places.

In the tiny library housed in my old elementary school, I read biographies of great women in history: Clara Barton, Jane Addams of Hull House, Florence Nightingale. My parents, exasperated on long road trips, constantly asked me to put down my book and look out the window. I declined.

When the empty field less than a mile from my house turned into a large and (for the time) modern shopping center, it held, wonder of wonders, a bookstore. Amid its long and narrow space, which housed hundreds of glossy new comic books in racks near the checkout counter, the temptation was profound. I spent every bit of my allowance there.

My friends and I usually walked up the long hill from my house and navigated the busy street that separated us from the shopping center. But once in awhile, we took a shortcut across a field, shimmying through the gap in a barbed wire fence to exit onto the street.

One day, when I was ten, the barbed wire sliced through my knee and left me bleeding and crying. I hadn’t been paying attention, which often happened when I was thinking about books or buying books. I’d been counting my money in my head, seeing if I had enough for the newest Nancy Drew. I knew I needed to duck and breathe in to get through the gap, but I’d paid no attention.

My enterprising friend Jennifer dumped her bag of penny candy onto the field and pressed the white paper onto my knee. I hobbled to a neighbor’s house, where the woman at home there promptly called my mother, even as she dumped stinging alcohol onto the wound.

The family doctor, who gave out lollipops on loops of string so as to be less of a choking hazard, said the cut didn’t need stitches. He told me—in all seriousness—that the scar would be gone by the time I got married.

It was not, of course. The three-inch hook on my left knee has survived not one but two marriages. Yet, faded as it is, I don’t mind. It’s a testament to how far I’ll go to find a bookstore.

skinned knees

• • •

The day Roy Blount, Jr., entered the Riverton store, I recognized his voice before I even looked up from behind the counter. I’d been entertained by his thick Southern accent for years on NPR.

He wanted the New York Times. He was in town for a reading, and he needed his daily fix, he said.

I stared at this writer whom I admired, wanting to grant his wish, to be the wish granter of Roy Blount, Jr. Instead, I was about to mightily disappoint him. We didn’t stock copies of the Sunday Times except for customers who pre-ordered them.

“I’m sorry,” I said, smiling too brightly. “We only have one copy left today, and it’s reserved.”

“Reserved?” His eyebrows shot up. “You reserve newspapers around here?”

“It’s for a regular customer. We only order as many as we know we will sell.” I shrugged in sympathy. “I know.”

He shrugged back and turned away.

“But he’s not here yet,” I said to his disappointed back. “Do you want to give it a quick read now?”

“Here?” Blount swung around, a spark in his eye.

I knew if the person who had ordered the paper came in, I would be in trouble, but I pointed to the soft, comfy chair and the café table. I told him to help himself to coffee. Blount took the coveted copy of the Times and pored through the front section.

Then he dropped it with me at the counter before my regular customer had even appeared, thank God. He told me it was much appreciated. I told him I’d be at his reading that evening.

I encountered Blount later in the chapel of one of the two colleges in town, after he’d read from several of his works and been as intelligent and amusing as always. I picked up a copy of his 1998 memoir Be Sweet: A Conditional Love Story and brought it to him to sign. He recognized me right off.

“Ahhh,” he said, “there you are.”

This is how he inscribed my book: “For Lisa, even though she would not let me have her New York Times.

"Bookstore" © Shelby H.

• • •

When traveling, some people find churches; others search for restaurants; but I always look for the local bookstore. Yes, I now buy e-books for my Kindle, and I'll nurse a cup of tea at a Barnes & Noble, if that's the best on offer. But it's the personal, intimate moments spent in independent stores that nourish my spirit and the little girl reader who's still me.

When I was twelve, my mother began taking us to Cape Cod. For a month each summer, we’d rent a small cottage as close to the beach as possible and spend most of our time in the water. June on the Cape is the least expensive month but also the coolest. My sisters and I would have to be dragged from the icy waves, our lips purple.

Still, the highlight of the month would be the overcast days, when the beach was impossible even for us. Then we drove into Yarmouth to visit Parnassus Book Services, a small and exceedingly dusty place whose shelves of used books rose to the ceiling and could only be accessed by ladder.

I would spend hours lovingly holding titles older than my grandmother and jonesing after editions of writers I’d read in my parents’ library—Philip Roth, John Updike, J.D. Salinger—writers I’d been far too young to understand. I also discovered Doris Lessing’s Martha Quest series here.

While I’d quickly amassed an enviable Nancy Drew collection at the shopping center bookstore in my hometown, Parnassus turned me on to used books, old books, books that had been lovingly read and discarded by others. I grew from reading what are now called “young adult books” to gobbling adult literary fiction, in less than a year. And I learned that there were more books on this earth than I would ever have time to read.

Nonetheless, I started a library of my own that I eventually moved from my childhood home in Tennessee to my first apartment in Boston and to each subsequent house in which I lived. Books were my permanent friends: less fickle, more enduring than many of the people I’ve met throughout my life.

"Spines" © acute_tomato

• • •

The year I worked as a bookstore clerk for barely above minimum wage was, despite the pain of my divorce and subsequent estrangement from the university community, an extraordinarily happy one.

Much of the time, my house was empty except for me. My son had entered college, and my younger daughter spent some days each week with her father. Getting up and going to work gave shape to my days, regardless of my frequent run-ins with Angela, who refused to believe I could complete her list in less time than it often took her to write it.

For reasons I still can’t fathom, she didn’t want “her” customers to see me reading behind the counter. Perhaps she was jealous. I believe I sold more books in my year there than she had in the previous three. Maybe she sensed that I fantasized about owning the place. Maybe she just didn’t like the one quality that customers adored: my bossiness.

When I wasn’t recommending books or writing up special orders, I sat and rearranged the shop in my mind. I cleaned its shelves of the large coffee table books she’d bought for a song but that would likely never return her investment. I moved the furniture around, painted the shelves and walls, cleared out the mess of old used books, papers, and just plain junk in the back room.

I jettisoned the silly bags and toys, displayed the books far more invitingly, and added comfortable chairs. I vacuumed and cleaned the dusty shop, which before Angela had bought it, had been even dirtier and dustier. I made it mine, even if it would never be.

Yet, even given the store’s drawbacks, the odd way the books were shelved, the racks and racks of bags and cards and other gift shop paraphernalia people had to maneuver around, customers were fiercely loyal to this local shop. They knew they could get a book cheaper online, but they came in search of it with me first. When I didn’t have what they wished in stock, they ordered it from the shop. Although customers would sigh when I told them the book would take three days to a week to arrive, still they placed their orders, deferring gratification with grace.

Eventually, though, I had to leave. A job that initially brought me a sense of comfort while I coped with being single and losing a community, became a place to which I dreaded going. Angela became obsessive about my cup of tea on the counter, about the way I thumbed through the newspapers before setting them back on the shelf for those who had ordered them, about the way I suggested that, perhaps, she could declutter the store.

Recently, I’ve eagerly followed the adventures of bestselling writer Ann Patchett, co-owner of Parnassus Books in Nashville. Her stories of “suggesting” books to people mirror mine. A bookstore of my own remains a fantasy, but it’s an unrequited longing I can live with. As Patchett says in a 2011 Salon interview:

Just the fact that I have had the chance to be a spokesperson for books—to stand up for all my friends across the country who are independent booksellers, the people who have supported my career for the last 20 years—the fact that I can go on CBS and the front page of the Times and say, 'Books are really important. Support your local bookstore.' Unbelievable. It would be worth every dime just to do that.

I haven’t been able to make that kind of impact by owning a shop—although if I win the lottery, I still just might. But there’s no better way of playing God than to recommend a book you love. The year I got to play God with books soothed a soul broken by loss and upended by change. It brought me, as books always have, back to the land of the living.

 "Language of the Birds" © Center for Digital Archaeology (CoDA)

 


Publishing Information

 


Lisa SolodLisa Solod is an essayist and fiction writer whose work has been published in dozens of literary magazines, journals, and anthologies. She is the author/editor of Desire: Women Write About Wanting (Seal Press, 2007) and regularly blogs for the Huffington Post. Her work is often reprinted in everything from textbooks to websites and blogs.

Her piece, “Letters From Spenser,” appeared in TW’s Summer 2011 issue.


 

Comments

Oh Lisa - I loved this. I was the kid with her nose in a book, always. I love how the bookstore and the people and the books reconnected you to a new life. This was a delicious read.

Wonderful piece. It took me back to what I loved as a child. A book was my best friend and bookstores, my palace. Putting books away in my college library as student employee, was really one of my best memories of college. The cart would be full and I would handle each book, skim through it before it made its way back to the shelf. Some must be read, I would sit on the carpet in the stacks and read. No one bothered me, no one cared. I was in heaven. Absolute heaven. Thanks for letting me relive those times with your piece.

Wow, I really enjoyed this Lisa. It gives me an insight into your love for books!

I love this. Brings back many wonderful memories, both from childhood and from recent trips to cities where I always end up in little bookstores, asking for recommendations.

What a lovely essay, Lisa. I, too, was reminded of how my nose was in a book all the time I was growing up. One grandmother asked me if I were crazy, I read so much. I, too, love bookstores, and visit a bookstore in every town I travel through. I now live near a small town in Idaho that has two independent bookstores. I love them both!

My parents didn't mind my book obsession in the car so much, because it meant at least one of the three kids was quiet, and when we visited relatives and I hid in a corner with my book, they just thought I was a little bit weird. But that obsession, and my love for an indy bookstore remains to this day. In southern California they are not so easy to come by, so I live for my visits to Missoula where the manager's post-it note recommendations at Fact & Fiction call my name. Great piece, Lisa.

Good point. When my two sisters and I were reading, we were not fighting! I am sure my love for books drove me to Brown: it looked to this young girl from East Tennessee like the college campus from a book. Books have saved me, more than once.

What a lovely piece, and oh how familiar this walk through bookstores. When my parents moved "out to the country," I was ten and would have lost my mind had it not been for books and the easy bike ride to the town library. My husband and I visit bookstores in every city; what a treasure they are. And what a treasure thsi article is.

Very fine piece of writing, Lisa. Makes me nostalgic for the bookstores I haunted in Connecticut the year after I graduated from college, when I realized I could finally read whatever I wanted. This should be read by every reader and writer worth their beans. Thanks so much!

Lisa, I share your fond memories of Parnassus in Yarmouthport. My family used to vacation every summer right up the street at the Colonial House, and we loved to walk over to that wonderful bookstore, with its musty smell, creaky floors and books squeezed into every nook and cranny. Entering always felt like embarking on a hunt for mysterious treasure. You never knew what you would discover, which book would find its way off the shelf and into your hands. We'd get lost there for hours. Thank you for capturing the soul of the independent bookstore so beautifully.

Wear that scar on your knee proudly! And the playing God line? So true. Books change lives.

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