originally posted at Inside Flap Feb 2009
- I was a nerdy bookish fourteen year old and spent hours hanging around the downtown Schwartz Bookshop. One day an older guy cruised me as I looked at some remainders. It was spooky, unnerving, but memorable. I’d never registered the look of desire pointed at me before. Later, I managed that store!
- I was not a great manager. I was only in it for the books, I hated the business aspects. And my staff management philosophy boiled down to Please Love Me. I could never really settle disputes, even the most petty. I thought making a grumpy face would just make people fall into line. But I was mostly good at picking people. They were good booksellers and I liked most of them and loved some of them. Of course, there were some bad decisions. Once I needed a receiver urgently so I just hired the first guy who showed up. An older gentleman, he had a good story about being a veteran and seemed super responsible. But within a couple days it was clear he was an alcoholic, couldn’t open a box, and would disappear for hours. Later I found out that he had “borrowed” money from every bookseller, and booksellers didn’t generally have money to lend. I should have re-imbursed everybody, this was my fault.
- There was one customer who came in every single day and every single day asked the same two questions: 1) what time do you close? 2) is there a tax on magazines? Mainly it was sort of comical but one day I lost it and screamed at him “Six o’clock!!! We closed at six o’clock yesterday, we’re closing at six o’clock today, and we’ll be closing at six o’clock tomorrow!!!” It wasn’t fair, I was taking out frustrations about other customers on him. But I don’t think I hurt him too much, he was in the next day to find out what time we closed and whether there was a tax on magazines.
- I miss the rhythms of those days. Phones ringing like crazy in the morning, the lunch crowd, the quieter afternoons. I miss the regulars. John Norquist, the nerdy bookish mayor! Many others. Some customers knew every bookseller by name and made the rounds greeting them in a ritualized way. Others would come in day after day, week after week, and we’d never exchange a word with them. But a bookseller could mention she’d seen “pop culture guy” on the #15 and we’d all instantly know who she meant.
- Book reps from the publishers would parade through the store on their way to meetings with buyers. It was sort of an upstairs downstairs situation. Some would march right by all the booksellers on the way to these more important things. But others would go out of their way to talk to the staff, invite them out for pizza, find out what they’re reading. As a rep, I’ve tried to model myself on these schmoozers but it hasn’t always worked too well. Social networking of any kind feels unnatural to me.
- Bookselling: it always seemed like the one honorable profession. Maybe the last place in retail where authenticity could be profitable. Maybe that’s not the case any more.
- Most of our books were delivered by Leroy, the UPS man. He was the sweetest, nicest, most consistently upbeat person with a really hard job I’ve ever known. When I get stuck in some road ragey jam, even now, so many years later, I think to myself, “Be Leroy.”
- We had a nerve-wracking, stone-age, 1.0 version computer system that broke down or fucked up constantly. Fixes were always quite elaborate and required late night stays and many floppy disks. Occasionally the genius behind this system would fly out from San Francisco and crawl under the front desk and would take our computer apart. He was sexy, looked a little like Richard Gere, and wore shades while he worked. He made me nervous.
- Once, we had an author signing for a book about local beers and microbrews. The publisher supplied cases of ale. For some reason, not a single person showed up. So the staff got drunk.
- Once, Deeelite was in town at the Riverside and Lady Kier came in to peruse the magazine section. This caused a stir, but not as big a stir as the time Lara Flynn Boyle was spotted in the poetry section.
- Once, some anti-abortionists from Wichita converged on the clinic down the street. For days it was under siege, and for days a bunch of booksellers got up at 4am to join the defenders, who were trying to keep a pathway to the clinic open amid the scary mobs. David Schwartz didn’t allow political expressions in the store - “express yourself with the books you sell,” he’d always say - but half the staff would be bleary-eyed and out of it for the rest of the day. I remember standing in front of that clinic, screaming over and over until we became the words, as if by the force of our collective will we could make it true: THIS CLINIC IS OPEN. THIS CLINIC IS OPEN. THIS CLINIC IS OPEN.
In my dreams there’s a wicked mad defiant crowd like that in front of every great Schwartz-style store in America, screaming THIS BOOKSHOP IS OPEN.