JUST A couple of weeks ago, I got a a piece of mail in my box. A handwritten postcard. That alone surprised me. I can’t remember how long its been since I’ve received anything from anyone that was handwritten other than a greeting or sympathy card. When I looked closer, I saw that it was from my local independent bookstore. But it wasn’t one of the usual — XYZ, author of, ABC will be here next week to read from and sign his/her new Thriller. No. It was a real note. Chatty and full of energy. Before I read who signed it, I knew exactly who it had come from.
“I just got finished reading something amazing!”
It was a quick note of appreciation — very specific and personal, like something a friend would write. It was from one of the store’s book sellers: one who always was quick with a retort, sharp with her observations. And with it came a recommendation for a book, also very specific and personal, like something a friend would write. “It’s beautifully written! Poetic and moody and smart . . . ” This is an entire universe away from Amazon’s “Since you bought _____, you might like _____.”
Another life ago, I sold books for a living. As a college student, I worked myself up from a night and weekend clerk and eventually became a manager. Book selling felt like a perfect compliment to being an student. I worked with at least three other college students, also English majors, who were at different places in their academic travels. One read philosophy in his free time. Another only the tawdriest of bodice rippers between dips into her Norton Anthology or onion-paper Chaucer texts. Still another was more dreamy and distracted and tended toward published versions of film scripts, I think he figured this English major thing had its limitations and, well, he was looking for alternatives. I was reading lots of short stories, experimental fiction and novels by young authors not too much older than I was at the time. I was immersing myself in literary fiction and essays, trying to figure out the rhythms. I read during my shifts — we all did — but only when it was quiet at night and we’d have only a few customers in the stacks themselves — reading. This was long before the super chains put in cozy easy chairs and encouraged customers to bring their gear and coffee and settle in for awhile. They were striving for a sense of community within a corporate structure. A way to soften the idea of the big corporate beast.
Back then, even in our small bookstore, during daylight hours that sort of “camping” was mostly frowned upon. Customers were there to purchase something. You spotted a title, ran through the back cover blurbs, maybe you scanned the index, at most you read a few pages of the first chapter, but then you had a decisive moment: “I’ll take it.”
But later in the day, when the pace slowed, it became another place entirely.
As booksellers, we tried to get to know our clientele: We knew who would come in midweek, what section they might be found in. I had a couple of customers whose tastes I’d memorized and would routinely fish titles out of the new arrival boxes and put them behind the counter with a slip of white notepaper with my name written vertically down the spine: I was putting them “on hold.” I’d present them to them when they arrived on their usual shopping day or evening. During a lunch respite or Friday after work looking for their big weekend read. One woman, an architect, always bought at least four books at a time. Mostly literary fiction, some biographies and poetry. I always had new titles for her waiting. We would talk about books — but also the struggles of her business, my graduate school plans.They call this “hand selling” but there is so much more at work in these interactions. There was a connection beyond the books themselves, but there was something about sensibility and world-view, a curiosity that linked us.
Years later, I saw the architect in another westside bookstore, pursuing the stacks. I was now on the other side of the counter, a buyer just like she was, balancing my choices in my hands. We chatted. She was sorry that the other bookstore had closed so long ago. It was small and special, a bookstore of another era. Yes, I agreed. It was. She said she missed my recommendations, that feeling of being able to walk in somewhere and have someone not just know you, but really understand you.
(Coincidentally, just last week, I was having a coffee at my usual place — not a big corporate chain — and struck up a conversation with one of the stalwart countermen. We had a winding conversation about city life and race and driving across the country. The next day, he appeared at my table with a scrap of paper on which he’d written a title of a book. Considering our conversation, he figured, I might be interested in it. When I came in the following week, he asked if I’d gotten the book yet. “It’s on order.” I told him. “Let me know when you get to it. And I’ll re-read it and then we can talk about it.”)
Now, that I’m on the other side of the counter, I know precisely what that feels like and just how much it means.