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. :-)