Thursday, December 28, 2006

Heaven's Suggestion

Back when I was a struggling writer I used to harbor this Christmas fantasy so embarrassing I blush to think of it. I was reminded of it this year when the doorbell suddenly rang in the midst of my annual writer’s group Christmas party.

“Maybe that’s it!” Nancy shouted, waving her wineglass. “Your Christmas fantasy come true.”

“Ha-ha,” I replied. “As if.”

In order for a publisher to be sending me a big, fat Christmas contract I would first have to have written a big, fat new book -- which we all know I have not. Turns out it was just UPS working late into the night to drop off the DVDs I’d ordered from But the unexpected intrusion got me to thinking about old dreams and Christmas miracles and what it would be like if they really did come true. I knew it was silly, childish even, but part of me longed for a Christmas miracle. The publishing thing was out, of course, and I had no notion of what might replace it, but my heart was definitely open to heaven’s suggestion. So it was in that frame of mind that I answered the phone a few days later.

“Can you help me find a book?” a sweet elderly female voice asked.

“I’d be happy to try,” I replied. “What the title?”

“Well, that’s just it. I don’t know.”

“Do you know who wrote it?”

“No. All I know is that my sister and I read it in the 30’s and it changed our lives. We still talk about it to this day. I want to get it for her for either Christmas, or her birthday on January 4th. She’ll be 82.”

“Hmmm, that might be a little tricky,” I said. “But think hard. What can you remember about it?

"Oh, I remember a lot. It was dark, the cover I mean, and I think it might have been set in a little brown house. But then again maybe it was published by Little Brown.”

At this point many booksellers would have rolled their eyes and suddenly realized they had a call waiting on the other line. But when Greta laughed at the absurdity of what she’d just said, I knew she was my kind of girl. For better or for worse, I’d been tapped to be her book finder. For the better part of half an hour we laughed and talked and finally nailed down a few concrete details. The story was about five sisters whose names were Faith, Hope, Charity, Peace and something that didn’t fit. They baked cakes and Peace, the youngest, was a hell raiser of the first order. Armed with these details, I was ready to sally forth into the valley of vintage children’s books.

Trouble is, neither Google, Yahoo, nor all the king’s men or all the king’s horses cooperated. I tried so many things I can’t even remember the sequence of events, but it concluded with a plea on booksleuth at where I hoped and prayed that someone would recognize the sketchy plotline. Almost right away the suggestions poured in, but it didn’t take long to realize that none of them were right.

“You tried,” my husband consoled me. “Now give it up. It’s nearly impossible with so little information.”

Of course it wasn’t impossible! And anyway, impossible or not, I was Greta’s book finder, not her book looker. Finally on the afternoon of December 20th I went back to booksleuth on the half chance that someone else had logged on. And there it was – At The Little Brown House by Ruth Alberta Brown.

“That can’t be right,” I muttered. The first day she called I’d asked Greta about that very book which I’d sold last year and she’d assured me it didn’t ring any bells. But the guy on booksleuth was almost certain that was it.

Quickly, I did a search and found two copies on the net. I emailed both dealers with my sketchy info and one wrote back immediately. Faith, Hope and Peace were all present, and accounted for, as was someone named Gail. There was even a part about cakes, but there was no reference she could see to Charity. It took several calls to local librarians and a copy speedily sent through interlibrary loan from the Burton, Ohio library to confirm it. I'd done it -- I'd actually found Greta's book. Charity was in there after all. It’s just that she goes by the name Cherry.

That night I ordered it, nearly bursting with the excitement of being part of a Christmas miracle. Actually, I ordered both of the copies I’d found, one for her sister and one for Greta. The bill for the first book came to $25. The second one was paid in full with one stipulation. Even before she knew that I used to write professionally, Greta told me that all her life she’d wanted to be a writer. For a short while straight out of high school she’d covered the military desk for the old Cleveland Post and written stories about local boys serving in WWII. But then life took several unexpected turns. She became a wife, a mother of five, a widow much too soon, and a baker of fabulous cakes and never wrote again. Lately she’s been thinking about maybe writing down a few stories for posterity, but so far hasn’t picked up a pen. She never went to college, she explained, and it had been too long since she’d tried composing anything. So there’s where the stipulation comes in. The price of the second book, I told her, is the promise that she’ll forget time and the lack of a degree and start writing again.

When I began this blog I thought that finding Greta’s book was my Christmas miracle, but now I see I that I got it all wrong. The book was just a conduit to bring together two people who share the same old dream and needed the same exact thing. The real miracle was that in giving each other the gift of belief we found it in ourselves -- if only for a little while.

Friday, September 29, 2006

Sundays with Joe

As always, I find myself fascinated by how life’s seemingly inconsequential threads silently weave themselves together to bestow a sense of meaning to those willing to seek it. While I was writing about my love for the movie 84 Charing Cross Road and bemoaning my neurotic perfectionism, a new piece of cloth was being woven in the background. It’s a bright, crazy explosion of color– orange and purple I think – one of those open weave sort of things where the threads run downhill and end up with a crooked fringe on all four sides. Every time I think about it it makes me laugh, primarily because it’s bright enough to send distress signals to the moon yet I only now realized it for what it is.

What it is is this – an unexpected blessing and proof positive that God has a sense of humor. The British bookseller on Charing Cross Road had his eccentric customer, Helen Hanff, and Mitch Albom had his Tuesdays With Morrie, but neither one of them had anything on me. Lucky me, I’m a bookseller who has Sundays With Joe.

Joe is a customer who came into my life via Alibris, which is joke in itself since at the time Alibris was the one online book service that worked the hardest to keep the gap between customer and bookseller wider than the Mississippi River after a monsoon. But none of their technological tomfoolery stopped Joe -- he plowed right in and found me anyhow. The big question is why he hung around. I mean all I ever did was sell him a book -- a nice book and wrapped rather prettily too -- but, even so, it’s hardly enough to make me worthy of my own private brass band. And yet a brass band is what I got. Joe laughs at my jokes, talks me out of the trees when I get hysterical, teaches me things I don’t know, and reassures me that he never says anything bad about me. It doesn’t get much better than that, especially considering the fact that he was building radios back when the only thing I was building involved alphabet blocks.

Currently he’s instructing me in the intricacies of the Fibonacci sequence. Laugh, but this is much harder than it seems, as I am profoundly mathematically challenged, though Joe won’t brook that excuse for a nanosecond.

“Come on Tess, you have to do this! I know it's hard, but the more you look, the easier it gets. Look again! It builds CHARACTER.”

This came after I whined about last week’s lesson which required the transmission of a large color photo of the heart of a flower in which all the tight little yellow seed pod things swirled in two different directions. My assignment was to count the rows of seed pod things going each way. Think it’s easy? Well, think again, as the heart of a flower truly examined not only crosses your eyes, but sends them, boinging ( yes, boinging) out of their sockets. My answer was twelve each way, but I doubt I’m right, and even if I am, I haven’t a clue what it has to do with adding sequential numbers together to arrive at the next number in the sequence. I’m sure I’ll find out come Sunday morning though

Which brings me to the cool part of the story. All this fun stuff is conducted in its near entirety on Sunday mornings, usually before the sun crawls across the horizon. Before most people are even up, much less caffeinated, heavy discussions are being conducted across cyberspace about such things as loons, the game 25 Words Or Less, the benefits of walking, basketball versus football, perfectionism, nuns, movie dialogue and, of course, the Fibonacci sequence.

Why this cloth is being woven in the background of my life I don’t know, but I suspect it’s a spiritual enterprise. (I can already hear Joe laughing at that one, but never mind.) Every Sunday morning my friend Nancy and I walk five miles, an endeavor I know for a fact is a spiritual enterprise. Since this discourse has become its prelude, it wouldn’t surprise me in the least if the cloth turns into a coat of many colors. It’s already orange and purple and bright enough to send distress signals to the moon. And Joseph, let us not forget, was the guy with the amazing technicolor dreamcoat.

Sunday, September 10, 2006

The Moral of the Chicken Juice Shower

Life has strange ways of bringing us to our knees. Sometimes it’s metaphorical and sometimes it’s literal. For me, it was both, which partially explains my silence, since the event occurred exactly two weeks ago today, the day after I wrote my last blog. It was six-thirty a.m. of the morning of my niece Mandy’s wedding shower. The afore-mentioned tarts had been baked and arranged in all their cherry-almond and apple-cranberry splendor on trays in the refrigerator. Their baker, however, was anything but splendid. I was bleary-eyed, vaguely out of sorts from the previous day’s existential angst, and looking like the remains of a gone-to-seed dandelion after a puff of wind. If that seems like an exaggeration just visualize wrinkly aqua p.j.s. and olive green socks.

Anyway, I opened the refrigerator, waved my hand around in the general vicinity of the red plastic container of Folger’s as I do every morning, and wound up plastered against the kitchen island. I’m telling you -- I never saw this one coming. The coffee container hit a bowl of defrosted chicken and sent the whole thing hurtling forward onto the floor, giving both trays of tarts a fly-by chicken juice shower on the way down. I suppose a less neurotic person might have trusted the integrity of plastic wrap, but I had not been PR director of a nursing home for three long years for nothing. I’d seen the Health Department inspector give the Dietary Director a citation for putting her purse on the counter, for Pete’s sake. Never mind squadrons of salmonella flying around inside the Maytag.

So I did the only thing I could -- dropped to my knees, picked up the chicken, scrubbed the devil out of the laminate, dumped the (perfect) tarts down the garbage disposal and began taking everything out of the #$%^&&** refrigerator. That’s right -- I swore a lot, which I have found is the best front line of defense when life brings you to your knees in small, but absolute, ways. The funny thing is, while I was down on the floor screaming like a banshee a couple major thoughts occurred to me. First I wondered whether I had enough ingredients to make more tarts. (No.) Next I wondered what I could make in their place. (Cookies, lemon bars, brownies) And then it occurred to me that I would make absolutely nothing. That’s right – nothing. Zip. Zero. Zilch. NADA. I would go to the bakery as if I were a truly sane person who understands the reason God invented bakeries and buy some tarts.

Once that was decided, it next occurred to me that maybe it wasn’t an accident that the chicken took a joy ride. Maybe it was to show me that I really don’t have to go through life as a neurotic pleaser. (Wow! There’s a novel thought!) And maybe -- just maybe -- my whole problem with not writing anymore has something to do with being a neurotic, perfectionistic pleaser. And maybe since I'm writing a blog it means that I'm technically writing anyway. And maybe if I can write a blog then it stands to reason that maybe I can write something else too!

So I went to the bakery, bought the tarts, took them to the shower, told a funny story about it, went home, and started writing something. And that’s why I haven’t written anything here for fourteen days. I’ve been too busy writing what might become a novel. Or not. But it doesn't matter whether it does, or it doesn't, because A.) I'm writing again and B) (this is the amazing part) I'm having a blast doing it!

Saturday, August 26, 2006

Blog Day Afternoon

It’s late afternoon, Saturday, the day I had set aside to transform myself from bookseller into domestic diva. It started out well enough – did the laundry, changed the bed linen, emptied the dishwasher and made a double batch of tarts for my niece’s wedding shower tomorrow. But no sooner were the “have-tos” done than the Martha Stewart in me took off her apron and headed south. I’m in a decidedly melancholy mood today, brought on by two phone calls and a couple odd things I’ve been thinking about all week.

First, the odd things. I was reading John Allen’s book, Opus Dei, which is about the secret Catholic organization Dan Brown made famous in The Da Vinci Code. To be honest, I thought Allen would serve it up on a gold-plated paten with a side of pap, as he has ties to both the Catholic press and the Vatican, but I was wrong. It’s a pretty even-handed account, which in summation, seems to insinuate that while Opus Dei isn't as heinous as you might think, it's not exactly the local Kiwanis Club either. Of course I may be wrong about that, as my "recovering Catholic" sensibilities recoiled somewhere around page 153 and I never finished the book. I thought about it some, but it frankly it gave me the creeps, so I tossed it into the primeval stew of my subconscious and thought instead about how tortunous it is for me to not finish a book once I start reading it. This led to a memory of the summer I was ten and tried to read every book in the library, but never got past the first shelf of A’s because every time I went back there were always new A’s.

For the rest of the week though every time I passed Opus Dei lying on a table in the family room it caught my eye. First I’d think about the creepiness, then I’d feel a stab of guilt for not finishing it. Then, invariably, I’d remember how ten year old me actually thought she could read herself around the children’s room of the library and a wave of sadness would lap at my feet.

Then this morning Jessica called and somehow we got to talking about my family of origin. We like to rehash stuff we already know, Jessica and I, just in case there might be a nuance we hadn’t chewed over in the last 25 years. There didn’t appear to be, but I still hung up feeling sort of off-kilter. A couple hours later, while I was making the tarts, Laurie called to see how our friend Nancy is recovering from the complications of a hysterectomy. Since the news is good on that front, we wandered off onto a bunch of other topics and finally settled in on me not writing anymore, which led Laurie, whom you may recall is a fellow writer, to launch into a passionate speech about why I need to start.

I wish I could recall exactly what she said because it was really good. I know this because her impassioned speeches about writing are always good. It's just that this time I got sidetracked by the fact that though none of her words implied any of these things, every single one contained in its nucleus Catholicism, guilt, and the innocence of my ten year-old self yearning to read every book in the library.

Pass the primeval stew, please, and hand me a big spoon. This may take awhile.

Tuesday, August 22, 2006

The Cat Who Would Never Make A Book

Not long ago, while I was perusing new fiction at the local library (which is currently being housed in a former DIY store until the massive downtown renovation can be completed), a certain librarian who will go unnamed (Hi, Liz!), filed a complaint with the Blog Department. It seems that this librarian is a secret reader of my blog and wished to lodge her grievance on behalf of Mickey, our former street thug turned Bookcat.

“You never write about the cat,” she accused.

“I do so,” I countered. “There’s even a PICTURE of the cat.”

“Yes, but you never write about the cat. If the name of the blog is Books Art Life And A Cat then it’s only fair that you write about the cat.”

The Blog Department emitted a deep sigh and agreed to write about the cat.

So here I am -- writing about the cat.

Before I begin though, it must first be understood that I am NOT one of those pet owners who takes the cat to get his picture taken with Santa Claus. I do not travel with this cat, nor do I force him to endure the indignity of rhinestone collars. I don’t buy fresh shrimp and albacore tuna for him. I don’t cook his food. I don’t serve him dinner in a crystal bowl and I most emphatically do not coo at him. I talk to him like the cool laid-back guy he is and he greatly appreciates it.

Secondly, it must be understood that even though “they” say that love is blind I’m not buying it. The real deal is that love sees all faults and wades in anyway. So that being said, I harbor no illusions that Mickey’s any smarter, cuter, or more amusing than he actually is. Rest assured that if something were to happen to the ultimate feline sleuth, Koko, Lillian Jackson Braun would not be begging me to let her use Mickey as his stand-in for her next “The Cat Who …” mystery. Koko knocks books off shelves to provide clues to murders. Mick does it because he’s so ungainly he could trip over The Cat In the Hat, never mind War and Peace. Koko escorts unwanted and suspicious guests to the door. Mick, who is incapable of keeping a civil tongue in his head, licks them until they settle back with tea and crumpets. Koko loves to listen to the classics being read aloud. Mick regards the classics as leatherbound mattresses. Koko can read backwards. Mick can’t even read four words.

Bottom line --Mickey is nothing more than a big, loveable goofball who was rescued from the mean streets of suburban Medina and has a few missing teeth to prove it. Which is not to say he isn't a great guy. He is. He keeps a low profile, asks for little, keeps me warm in the winter, makes me laugh, doesn't claw the furniture, understands the purpose of a litter box, plays well with others, and never runs with scissors.

That's it.

Which means that I have now officially written about the cat.

Saturday, August 12, 2006

Good "Book Feel"

Every once in awhile a movie comes along that causes me to break Cardinal Rule #1 of Movies -- never watch the same one twice or you’ll never live long enough to see everything you want to. I broke that rule this week and may even break it a bunch more times once I buy my own copy. Of course, such a purchase will be breaking Cardinal Rule #2 of Movies – never, EVER buy the movie, as movies take up space and have to watched in order to justify their existence, which therefore automatically runs amok of Cardinal Rule #1. But I don’t care. I made the stupid rules and I can break them if I want to.

So what’s this great movie causing so much flagrant rule breaking? 84 Charing Cross Road. It’s an oldie based on the book of the same title by Helen Hanff. I’d read it some years back, and though enchanted by the 20 year correspondence between the author in New York City and a British bookseller in London, I was more taken with the situation than the actual letters. But that was before Anne Bancroft and Anthony Hopkins transmitted themselves into both my family room and my heart -- he so genteely and she so NOT. I laughed, I cried, I even clasped my hands like a Victorian lady having a case of the vapors. The latter occurred at the part where Ann rhapsodizes over the joys of a used book – how wonderful it is to have it fall open to the page where the last reader left off, how delightful to be informed by notes, or marks, of the significance of passages you might have skimmed over left to your own uneducated devices, even how a gift inscription is not a flaw, but a part of the book’s unique history.

But what really had me in need of smelling salts was the part where the first parcel of books arrives from across the pond. Anne crashes up the stairs of her walk-up and, once inside the door, falls on the package like a ravenous dog on an untended beef roast. As soon as the first book is released from its packet (which itself is fetchingly tied with string) she’s a goner. Just the feel of it, so much more sensual than its plebian modern counterparts, which to this day tend to be paper over boards with paper jackets, sends her into a swoon of ecstasy.

Right then and there I knew this was the movie for me. It had it all – humor, pathos, intrigue, a touch of romance, and good book feel. Name one other movie with good book feel. You can't. So, Cardinal Rules be damned, I have to buy – I just bought –84 Charing Cross Road.

Thursday, August 03, 2006

The Deer Stalker

I’ve mentioned before how, for some inexplicable reason, something seemingly innocuous will happen, and I’ll hang on to it like it was my last dime. Well, it happened again and it’s partly why I haven’t written anything new lately. I’ve been trying to figure out why in the world a deer, albeit a gorgeous one, has become my latest mind stalker.

It all began last week when my writer’s group met, as they often do, at my house. I was tidying up a bit before their arrival when I looked out the expanse of bay window in the living room and nearly cut an antique table off at the knees with the Hoover. There, not six feet from the glass, stood a magnificent deer sheltered in a stand of trees. It’s not that we haven’t seen deer in the suburbs before – they flit by on a regular basis these days. What they do NOT do, however, is stand at attention in front of an open window in broad daylight staring at me eyeball to eyeball while the vacuum cleaner’s roaring like a race car engine! Once I got over the surprise I managed to finish cleaning and dash upstairs for a quick shower. At first I hated to run the water for fear of scaring off my visitor, but it didn’t prove to be a problem. In fact, afterwards I even decided to say something to her (never mind what) out the bathroom window. All it elicited was a minimal twitching of the ears.

By the time the writers showed up a full hour had passed and all that had changed is that the deer got tired of standing and had the good sense to sit down. Dandi and Laurie, unlike me, are country girls, so you’d think they’d see this sort of thing all the time, but I guess not, as they were over-the-moon enchanted at the sight. I thought the deer exuded a feminine presence myself, but Laurie, who is decidedly more interested in body parts than I am, was convinced it was a male. I suspect now she was right, as the whole thing ended up being a one night stand. Every afternoon and early evening since, I’ve looked with great expectancy out that same window only to be disappointed.

As I’ve thought about this odd event all week it brought back another event I’d almost forgotten. Some years ago when I wrote a lot for the Akron Beacon Journal Sunday Magazine I was sent on assignment to interview an ex-Dominican nun who purportedly communed with higher beings and was able to conduct conversations with her clients' guardian angels. My friend Jessica, who has always had a yen for psychic dabbling, went along as my assistant. To tell the truth, it was a little disappointing at first. Except for the Egyptian music being played in the background for a cat who was in labor in the laundry room, the angel psychic was about as exotic as a soccer mom. I asked questions, she politely answered. At one point she grabbed a sketchpad and started drawing furiously with colored chalks, but the interview continued seamlessly, so I thought little of it. Wen she finished drawing, she tore off the masterwork, and handed it to me.

I glanced at it and then over at Jessica whose eyebrows by then had shot up to hit her hairline. To the left of the page lay a blue lake, to the right a gazillion trees. A stone path wound through the center bordered by drifts of daffodils. In the foreground a magnificent deer stood at attention gazing straight out at me. Minus the deer, the soccer mom psychic had just whipped off an exact rendering of my backyard!

“Wh-what does this mean?” I asked, a bit disconcerted.

“I don’t know,” came the reply. “It’s yours to figure out.”

And so it was, though I never really did. For a day or so after the interview I tried in a half-hearted sort of way, but then promptly lost the artwork and forgot all about it. Now fifteen years have passed and here I am suddenly thinking about it again. Crazy as it sounds, I have to wonder if the chalk drawing is somehow mystically connected to last week's deer.

I think Carl Jung's been stalking me too.

Thursday, July 27, 2006

To The Library -- With Love and Lament

You would think that a bookseller flailing eyebrow deep in a sea of books would never darken the door of the public library except to attend book sales, but such is not the case. Or at least, not the case with this bookseller. I have harbored a deep and abiding love for libraries ever since I made my maiden voyage to the Goodyear branch of the Akron Public Library one cold, rainy Friday evening in October, 1957. (And no, I am not using poetic license to add details. I was six years old and I remember.) Probably the main reason this memory lives in technicolor is the fact that my aunt and my mother, neither of whom are, or were, readers, instigated this foray into the world of culture. Growing up in south Akron, reading material at our house consisted of the daily Akron Beacon Journal, Reader’s Digest and Popular Mechanics, all of which were read only by my father. So to be escorted into the serene, oak-tabled splendor of the Goodyear branch library was an event of epic proportions.

What I remember most is the hush -- rather reminiscent of the old lady, the comb and the brush, and the bowlful of mush in Goodnight Moon. In those days you whispered in the library, even in the children’s section. The other thing I vividly remember is that my friend, Isabelle, who was with us, picked out a book called B Is for Betsy by Carolyn Haywood. One look at brown-braided Betsy earnestly gazing back at me from the red buckram cover and I was sure I would die if I didn’t read that book. Izzy promised I could have it later when she was done, but even a promise from my very bestest friend in the whole wide world was faint consolation. As it turned out though, later came much sooner than I’d imagined, as she never read it at all. That week the future was pretty well determined -- Izzy became an abstainer and I became a junkie.

But something else even more memorable occurred that night we first went to the library. On the way home, in the backseat of my aunt’s turquoise and white 1956 Crown Victoria, I latched onto Betsy for a quick read by neon light as we whizzed past stores and restaurants home to Kenyon Steet (and another sorrows). Betsy’s world was as alien to my experience as a visit from the Pope, but it didn’t matter. A timeless something living inside Betsy also lived inside me. Deep in the marrow of my bones I knew this to be true, just as I knew that books unleashed a power greater even than Superman’s. I also realized that night that Betsy did not magically turn up on paper by accident. Somebody had to invent her. Somebody had to write it all down. And that somebody was Carolyn Haywood, who was an author – a writer of stories who got paid to do the most magical, miraculous job in the entire universe!

“When I grow up I’m going to be an author,” I announced from the backseat.

“I don’t think so,“ replied one of the occupants of the front seat. “Writing books is not a real job. You would starve to death.”

“I don’t care,” I said. “I’m going to do it anyway."

And I did. For awhile. Sort of. Except that I quit a couple years ago and am now a very happy bookseller. I wonder though. Is it possible that even the happiest of booksellers still yearns, maybe just a little bit, to write something that would make a child feel the way I did on that cold, rainy night in 1957?

Maybe. Well, if I'm being totally honest -- yes, I do sort of yearn. I just wish I didn't. Writing books can break your heart.

Friday, July 21, 2006

Buying Books With the Big Boys

Haven’t written for awhile, I know, but life’s been busy. I did scratch out a piece about an auction I went to, thinking it was rather breezy and fun until I realized it wasn’t even true. Oh, everything happened exactly as I described it -- it just wasn’t emotionally true. Reluctantly, I hit the delete button and never tried again for the simple reason that I had no idea why the whole thing kept dogging me in the first place. But then last Saturday night at my niece’s wedding my daughter’s boyfriend made a casual comment that triggered an audible click in my brain. What happened at the auction had very little to do with what I thought it did and everything to do with ME.

So here’s the story as true as I can tell it. The Sunday before last, Eric and I went to an auction located about fifty miles west of where the sidewalk ends. It was a beautiful day for sitting outside watching the contents of someone’s home being carted away piece by piece. If I let myself get too worked up about the passage of time I’d never go to an auction again, so if you don’t mind, I’ll move past that part . The thing that had me so excited was the promise of fifty – count ‘em, fifty -- boxes of old books. Of course, a promise like that can never be taken too seriously, as “old” in auction-speak is very often a synonym for smelly, dirty, and/or broken. Sure enough, this auction was no exception, though I did catch a few winks here and there from a stray swan penned up with the ugly ducklings. Still, my heart wasn’t exactly fluttering. That is, until I found THE BOX.

It looked like all the others, down-at-the-heels, raggedy brown cardboard. But inside lay the treasure of the Sierra Madre in the form of pristine, Easton Press editions of Roger Tory Peterson’s field guides, leather bound with gilded page edges and satin ribbon markers as clean and soft as sticks of new butter. Strains of the Hallelujah Chorus wafted through the air as I staggered to my feet swearing I would not go home without them.

Fast forward to the auction. The boxes of books sat lined up on the grass like the remnants of a rag-tag army. The auctioneer decides it’s going to be choice out. That is, everything from here to there will be up for bid at the same time, winner take however many he/she wants at the winning price per box. Fair enough – except I can’t see where from here-to-there IS. First I run to the left end of the line and, being small, try to sneak into any available holes in the crowd. No luck. So I run to the right and try there. No good either. Finally, I duck under an elbow and almost get decapitated. Try, as I might, I simply cannot get to the books! All I can do is calculate the proximity of my box to the location of the auctioneer. I do, and figure I can sit this round out. The bidding goes on until all the boxes are gone. When the next batch comes up I’m ready and this time succeed in squeezing between two men, both with the girth of ancient sequoias. Quickly, I scan the boxes. No Roger Tory Petersons.

For a second I’m confused. But then a guy three guys down from me hefts a box onto his shoulder and I catch a fleeting navy-blue-and-gilt glimpse of MY books being carried away for the paltry sum of $35. If I were less circumspect I’d have wailed like a professional keener at an Irish wake. As it was, I inwardly blamed everybody from the the auctioneer, to the phalanx of unmoving men, to George W. Bush. Right then and there the auction ended for me. Never mind that a few minutes later I was the only one smart enough to bid on, and win, a box of trash for a dollar, knowing full well it housed a deluxe book of Lennon Sisters paper dolls in magnificent condition -- the auction was OVER.

Countless times in the days that followed I bemoaned those books. Conjured them up in my mind until they darn near materalized. My beautiful books. Gone. All because of the way they ran the auction. All because of the unyielding men who never let me in. All because …

“Whenever anything comes up where Catie needs to assert herself, she always wants me to do it,” Joe says to me at the wedding. “Hard as it to believe, she can be timid that way.”


A terrible truth had just been revealed over the roast beef and string beans almondine. It was not the auctioneer’s fault that I didn’t get the books. It wasn’t the men’s fault either. It wasn't even George W. Bush’s fault. It was mine. I tell myself I’m confident, know how the play the game with the best of ‘em, but it’s not always true. The fact of the matter is, sometimes I’m just too ladylike for my own good.

Friday, July 07, 2006

Ephemera -- Excavating For Treasure

To me a great evening at home is a box of ephemera the size of Rhode Island and a glass of chilled pinot grigio. There’s magic in life’s flotsam and jetsam – letters, postcards, instruction manuals for 1940’s pressure cookers, receipts for the sale of cows, holy cards from great-grandma’s funeral in 1918 -- and I am totally caught in its thrall. Ephemera is my guilty pleasure, a sneak peek into the dresser drawers, cupboards, basements and attics of strangers, a chance to time-travel back to eras defined, at least in part, by what their people saved, bought, and had to say about their lives and times.

Of course not all this stuff has great monetary value, or even any monetary value at all, but some of it does and it’s these gems which make me feel like an archeologist digging deep to find an untouched sarcophagus. The good news is I am happy to wait for a big find, as I enjoy even the smallest shard unearthed along the way. What I don’t sell I keep for collage, as I am also an amateur dabbler in the art of the altered book.

Ephemera, if you have the patience and passion for it, is also the great teacher. I have learned more from motley scraps of the past than I ever have from school, or even books. An old cardboard key advertising the Redpath Chautauqua led me down a fascinating path to the bygone era of tent chautauquas and the culture, fun and excitement they brought to small towns across America. The Redpath Lyceum Bureau took luminaries such as Warren B. Harding and Susan B. Anthony to the masses – up close and personal.

Another time a booklet of recipes from an old TB sanitarium led me to learn what it meant to have tuberculosis in the early part of the 20th century – its treatments, its fears and the endless days of lying bundled up on cold porches far away from home. I could go on and on with examples, but the point here is that if ephemera is to matter than the buyer/seller must be willing to do some serious research. For me the research is great fun, but it’s also the marketing tool that helps each piece find its perfect home. Both of the above examples were quickly snatched from the marketplace, the former by a European buyer and the latter by a woman who had just visited the site of the old sanitarium in Indiana and was haunted by its history.

The word ephemera comes, of course, from ephemeral, that which is not meant to last. The fact that so much of it defies the odds of marriages, moves, divorces and deaths is, to me, one of life’s small miracles. But the fact that the very best of it achieves a level of importance in the 21st century is no miracle at all. It’s a direct result of the hard work of excavators who not only see diamonds in the rough, but are willing to get their hands dirty -- both figuratively and literally.

Saturday, July 01, 2006


Today was a book sale day which means the orders had to be wrapped, shower taken, bagel eaten, and make-up applied by 7:30 a.m., so we could grab the book bags and head for Hudson. It's a small sale which used to be a good one, but isn't anymore for more reasons than I want to bother enumerating. Despite it's failing attractions, we go anyway because booksellers on the whole are a hopeful lot. Even the morose ones (and there are some) harbor a secret flicker of hope that just maybe a treasure will emerge from the chaff.

Today we got there third in line, which is okay by me at this small sale, as the goodies aren't exactly standing up and whistling Dixie. The first fifteen minutes or so of the hour-long wait for the sale to open are the best because it's usually just Paul, Linda and us. Paul and Linda are two of my favorite sellers because a.) I like them and b.) they' re "old school" like we are -- no electronic devices to scan ISBN numbers and no aggressive behavior. They rely on their wits, experience, and love of the books and the business the same way we do. Soon enough the "weekend warriors," or "penny sellers," or whatever you want to call them, show up and then it's a countdown to bedlam.


Thirty-plus pulsating bodies jammed into a space the size of a master bathroom. Great sport.

Anyway, Paul, Linda and I were talking about book sales in general when Paul brought up a peculiar phenomonon that I truly, even after all these years, thought was my own private place in hell. Every once in awhile you get into a sale, hit your favorite category early -- and FREEZE. The rows of books beckon, your eyes scan them ever more frantically, but the titles blur around the edges and bleed into one giant block of nameless nothing. Meanwhile all around you hands are flying like flags at a NASCAR race, books are thumping into bags and boxes -- and there you stand as inert as the Lincoln Monument.

"There ought to be a name for it," Paul said.

I agree. I even tried to think of one, I truly did, but no luck. The best I could come up with was "bookfuzz" which describes the first part of the sensation pretty well, but doesn't even begin to grasp the panic that ensues before you can talk yourself out of the trees. For the mental health of booksellers everywhere I'm going to keep thinking on it though. As they say in psychology -- before you can tame it, you gotta name it!

Thursday, June 29, 2006

It's All About the Customers

We attract the world’s best customers. How, this continues to happen I don’t know, but we do. I think it’s a sort of magic, a divine alchemy of the spirit. For sure it’s more than plain dumb luck, as it’s happened repeatedly ever since we opened up shop. Our customers are kind and forgiving when we make mistakes, lavish in their praise when we get it right, funny, interesting, and amazingly constant. Though we’ve never met a single one in person, an email from Zippy in Israel, or Zee in New York, a phone call from Wendy in California, or Norman in Kentucky never fails to produce a little zing of pleasure. I am so grateful to them all, not only because of their faith in me and their repeat business, but for the joy they bring from all over the globe.

Sometimes these wonderful customers have even sent us presents. Once a beautiful handmade, leaded glass angel nightlight arrived from Virignia. Another time a red plaid tin of black licorice came from Pittsburgh, via the Vermont Country Store. And a winter afternoon’s darkness was brightened by the surprise of four delicate brass, filigree bookmarks from Korea. They’ve sent books, photos from their fishing trips in New Zealand, bookends from Paris, and the video Stone Reader, which engrossed and delighted us every evening for a week. Not only did we watch the film, but all the add-ons too. Lisa from Brooklyn thought we’d love it and she was right.

Our customers have also given us untold amounts of useful information and advice. When I broke my arm, Michael from Oregon came up with a brilliant suggestion for acquiring inexpensive help. And when I needed to know whether or not to spend a hundred dollars on a drop-dead pair of vintage Hattie Carnegie earrings, Pat from Missouri, an antiques dealer, checked them out online and told me to go for it – NOW. They’ve also taken an interest in our family. When our youngest daughter was abducted and briefly kidnapped at gunpoint this past year at college they calmed my spirit, sent me their prayers and good wishes, and rejoiced with us in the outcome. Ditto for the long months we waited for our first grandson to be adopted from Korea.

Over the years we’ve sold books to great museums, famous authors, a senator at his yacht, Ivy League colleges, and even to a maven of manners and etiquette. While we enjoyed the thrill of brushing up against the lofty and important and appreciated the business, when all is said and done it’s the golden old faithfuls and the quicksilver enchantment of those who come by only once, but leave behind a piece of themselves, that remind us how very blessed we are to be booksellers.

Wednesday, June 28, 2006

Bookseller's Holiday

You've heard of a busman's holiday? Well, yesterday was a bookseller's holiday -- a rare and accidental treat brought on by the delivery of the new dining room chairs. It's important to know that very few things will deter me from my work, as I live, breathe, eat and sleep bookselling. When I'm not listing books, buying books, communicating with customers, wrapping books, or shipping books, I'm thinking about all of the above. I even dream about it, though that's most definitely NOT a good thing. It's always the same recurrent dream in which I miss an order and fail to ship. Never in real life has this happened, but in the dream I am always supplied with a name and the title of an actual book I own, so of course as soon as my feet hit the floor I scramble to the office and search frantically for this errant order, heart pounding like a jackhammer. Yes, I'm neurotic, no question, but that's another story.

The point here is that yesterday I declared a holiday and devoted myself entirely to the transformation of the dining room. Once those gorgeous brown leather chairs turned up everything suddenly seemed old and tired. So off to the paint store for a new color -- Laura Ashley, Taupe #4 --and a fresh new coat of white to spruce up the considerable trim. A rearrangement of the art, the addition of a tall urn with "sticks" -- some sort of skinny, dry, tall, natural things that are graphically fantastic despite my inability to describe them and -- voila! -- transformation. All I need now are some wall words, but I have already placed at order with for 4" high lettering in burgundy reading "Art is not the bread, but the wine of life." These will grace the area above the almost full wall mirror trimmed in white wood.

There is something so deeply satisfying about the creation of beauty. Even this morning I stood at the doorway to take it all in as the morning light began to filter through the blinds. But now that I have had my moment of design creativity it's time for creativity of a different sort. "Back to the books," as we used to say in college. Only at this stage in my life it's not with resignation, but a grateful heart.

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Crossing the Borders

Yesterday I did it -- went to check out the new bookstore in town. Our once small city has finally come of age I guess, as Border's recently moved in. Not downtown, thank heavens, where the picture postcard Victorian store facades march in a perfect square around a leafy park crowned with a magnificent white gazebo. No, they're out north where strip malls and fast food joints litter the road on both sides. Wal-Mart, Home Depot, Kohl's etc. push up out of the earth to join them like toadstools after a hard rain. Ugly, yes, but nonetheless vested with the inalienable right to exist.

It's not that I never patronize SOME of these stores. I do, and sometimes I even enjoy it, but a part of me always feels traitorous too, as their presence makes it harder for small businesses to not only thrive, but to stay ALIVE. Collectively, they also wash the landscape of America with a coat of the same bland paint. Gone are so many vivid, hand-raised businesses that have been part of families for generations. I could weep over that loss and all the losses to come if I allowed myself the luxury of it, especially since I am ever cognizant of the fact that even internet businesses can be torn assunder by the Big Guys. Unfortunately, it was in that frame of mind that I opened the door to Borders.

The first thing that came to mind was Hemingway's short story, "A Clean, Well Lighted Place." Borders is indeed that -- clean and well lit. First I checked out the shelves to see how many copies of my friend Dandi Mackall's books were stocked. I found a reassuring four, one of which was even shelved face out. I didn't bother looking for copies of my own books, as I knew there wouldn't be any. After that I quickly bought a copy of Anne Tyler's Digging To America, and left. No coffee bar for me -- I'd had enough sampling of the wares for one day. Will I be back? Probably. No, not probably, The answer is yes, I will. It's the only game in town. But it has left me with a sense of sadness that has spilled over into today. How I long for an old-fashioned bookstore with a little bell above the door, shelves crammed and jammed with a smattering of everything -- bestsellers, oddities, new voices we ought to hear but don't because their books never make it to the shelves -- the same, familiar face or faces behind the counter, stimulating conversation, a bookstore cat of fine proportions and, no less important -- the sense that we are HERE in Medina, Ohio, and not Anywhere, USA.

It's A Wrap!

On Sunday mornings I languish in bed late -- at least until six-thirty, as Sunday is the one day of the week I don't wrap books. Instead I creep down to the kitchen, make a pot of strong black coffee (the way God intended), toast a bagel, and repair to my favorite chair by the french doors with a book. The pleasure of early morning reading is so consuming that sometimes I actually look up from the page just to savor the deliciousness of it. Today it was Frances Mayes's new book about traveling the world and leaving behind, temporarily, her beloved Tuscan home, Bramesole.

But that being said, I also love the timbre of the mornings when I DO wrap books. At precisely five a.m. my inner alarm clock sounds and I literally leap to the floor to begin. Down two flights of stairs, cat in tow, to the workbench beneath a shelf lined with the tools of the trade -- book cleaners, adhesives, fourteen kinds of erasers, bone folders, tiny scalpels -- all of which arrived from Talas in New York City, those amazing purveyors of all things archival. From the ceiling hang the rolls of wrapping paper and bubble wrap and on the shelves to the left are piled the various boxes, ribbons, mylar covers and polybags. To the right the latest orders await my ministrations.

After ten years, wrapping the books is still a satisfying ritual. Most sellers I've talked with find it their least favorite part of the business, but in some strange way it feels to me like a connection with the book's new owner, a gifting in a sense. Not long ago I read an old book about a New England bookshop which began operation in the 30's. The owner was discussing a deluge of Christmas orders and how she wanted to send the books off into the world wearing their holiday best. Remembering an album full of old Christmas cards she'd acquired, she hit upon the idea of using the face of the cards against plain white paper on the top of each package. I will probably not remember much else about this book, but I will always remember Margaret Hard and how much she cared about the esthetics. How cool to slip back in time and find a kindred spirit!


If, at this moment, you were perched in a large tree overlooking the office window, you would see a small woman sitting at a big desk typing like a maniac with her two middle fingers on a non-ergonomic keyboard. A couple incarnations ago I used to be a newspaper reporter who somehow never really mastered the art of touch typing. But since ow the words get on the page are less important than the meaning they impart, I won't indulge a sudden surge of nostalgia for my beloved Royal manual typewriter bought at a farm auction in the 70's. The beast weighed more than I could carry, but the pleasure of pounding on those perfect shiny keys and zinging that carriage return convinced me that I might produce a bestseller. I never did, of course, though I did do a lot of writing, got published, and even wrote some books that are still in print.

However, over the past ten years of being both a bookseller and a writer, a quiet metamorphosis took place. In fact, it was so quiet I never really noticed until one day someone asked me what I did for a living. Always before I would reply that I was a writer who sold books. But that day, without thinking, I said that I was a bookseller who did a little writing.

Under duress.
When her writing group was meeting.

Wow -- talk about shocked! I was stunned by the words -- not only because I knew they were true, but because they made me much more uncomfortable than I wanted to admit. It felt as though by choosing book selling over book writing I was selling out on the old dream of becoming an author that had literally grabbed me by the collar on my first trip to the library at age six. It's taken a long while (and I'm still not entirely there), but I'm beginning to get the picture that dreams are allowed to be reshaped. Pretty soon I'll even be able to admit that I'm totally in love with bookselling! Who knows? Maybe it'll even in my next post. :-)