First Person is a daily personal piece submitted by readers. Have a story to tell? See our guidelines at tgam.ca/essayguide.
I’m near the end of my bookselling career, but I still serve up novels on Sunday afternoons in one of the remaining independent bookstores in Toronto. If bookstores were to vanish, then it will be time for me to depart as well. Until then, I will hand my customers the books they seek and sometimes offer them a journal or book bag. These days, I am obliged to suggest a candle, a T-shirt or a perfumed soap.
As a child, I fantasized about working as a waitress behind the Woolworth’s lunch counter. I was attracted to the perfect peaks of their lemon meringue pies, protected under glass domes. As a teenager, I fantasized about the characters I would meet, from the gum-cracking waitresses to the crusty, salt-of-the-earth customers who twirled on their stools as they drank their coffee. I longed to hear and record their dialogue. Woolworth’s closed before I got a chance to apply for a job.
My waitress career was short-lived when I was released from Swiss Chalet after two weeks of employment. I considered becoming a bartender, but people I trusted insisted I belonged on the drinking side of the bar.
I loved the smell of new books, so I tackled the book business and met with some success. In those days, book stores were in every neighbourhood of Toronto, open long into the evenings. My co-workers were a literary, hard-drinking bunch, prone to a certain melancholy. But they could be persuaded to forget their cares and play baseball on Thursday nights if there was a promise of a beer later at the El Mocambo, Grossman’s Tavern or the Blue Cellar Room.
We had many boozy discussions about Under the Volcano and the merits of Graham Greene. Can Lit was a new genre of literature back in the seventies. I devoured both Margarets – Lawrence and Atwood – along with Davies, Richler, Munro and Layton. I danced to the music of David Wilcox and the Teddy Bears and Joe Hall’s Continental Drift in the nightclubs of the city.
Some customers in my bookshop think we are a gift store, but that’s okay, because sidelines help us survive and booksellers are adaptable people. When I unlock the store in the morning, the aroma of new books doesn’t greet me. It’s now more like a potpourri of flowers with a touch of ink. I will adjust and inhale the books one at a time when no one is looking.
Sundays are quiet, with no deliveries to unpack; it’s just me and whoever wanders in. While I must keep my regular customers’ confidences, I do know who sleeps alone with a good mystery and who yearns for more than Fifty Shades.
Today, a woman needs a coffee-table book in a particular colour blue. “No one will ever read the book, so content doesn’t matter,” she said. “All I care about is the colour.”
She hands me the swatch and it’s a close match to the cover of Art as Therapy by Alain de Botton and John Armstrong.
A girl in Grade 9 tells me that she was shocked when she discovered marijuana doesn’t smell like cake frosting, as she had imagined. Her current book is Lolita, so I suggest she listen to the Police song Don’t Stand So Close To Me. She wants to be a writer and promises to e-mail me her submission to the Junior Authors contest.
My most memorable customer was years back, when I managed a college bookstore in San Francisco. A law student knocked on my office door requesting a private meeting. I still remember his yellow, seersucker suit and the shopping bag he clutched to his chest. I closed the door and motioned for him to sit. As he rifled through his bag, I imagined he was going to pull out a gun. Instead, he took out a law textbook, along with the sales receipt.
“This book has a strange smell. It’s making me sick,” he said. “I want to exchange it for another copy.”
He appeared to be serious, yet I wondered who had engineered this practical joke. I tried to stifle my giggles as I sniffed the book. Normal law text perfume, starchy fresh paper with earthy ink and just a hint of peppermint.
I told him he could smell the unsold copies on the shelf, but I was sure they were all going to have the same odour. Together, we went out to the stacks and sniffed in unison to discover that indeed, they all had the same aroma.
In the end, he kept the book, after I suggested he photocopy the chapters he needed for his studies. Once he was out the door, I began to laugh so loud and hard tears ran down my cheeks.
These days, I’m more controlled and most satisfied when I can introduce my customers to each other. They first discuss favourite writers and their books, but may move on to life stories and eventually exchange phone numbers or sneak away for a coffee. Although it is not the Woolworth’s of my childhood, I am the observer on this stage set, listening to the dialogue, while skimming my feather duster over the shelves, serving up my books. I know I am in the right place, on the right side of the bar.
Marcie Shlesinger Beyatte lives in Toronto.