Once, I Sold Books

I was hiding in the backroom again, perusing the new shipment of Harlequin Romances and giggling with a co-worker over the titles. My favorites always involved secret babies born to millionaires, who for all their money could not be bothered with birth control, and had to either win the woman who bore them back into their lives, or hire women to take care of the children. Love and thrusting genitals inevitably occurred.

Am I the only one who finds the title and cover really inappropriate?

I hid in the back room often. There was a man who had been assaulting our store continuously over the past several months, leaving Maxims in the Children’s department with the centerfolds faced-out over copies of Pat the Bunny and the Hungry Caterpillar, and touching himself in various corners. We’d had two complaints about him – a young woman about my age, saying that he had thrown his semen on her, and then a young girl of about seven who said, her face pink and wet, that he had done the same. Because I was seventeen at the time but looked younger, my managers told me I should escape to the backroom whenever I felt nervous around the male patrons. One had even given me a two way radio to report suspicious behavior, but after a few half-hearted, static attempts I gave up and claimed I felt safer behind the locked door. I often simply did not want to stock the magazines, my primary job.

I always thought it would be a magical occupation, surrounded by books and people who liked to read. In my interview, even though they wanted someone older (you had to be eighteen to work the cash register) I promised I would work hard, because I wanted that twenty-percent discount miserably bad. In many ways it was magical, except for the customers.

There was the one man who came in asking for every book written by Proust. Every translation, every biography. I printed off scores of lists and watched him painstakingly examine each title, shrugging when he asked me my opinion. There was another man who asked that I save copies of Playboy for him (he always bought two, one to read and one to collect) and had to stand over him while he shook their plastic coatings and made sure there were no indentations or bends in the page. Another would wander in late at night, make a mess of the Astrology books, and tell me he could forecast my future. He has yet to be correct. There were always those who purchased The Da Vinci Code and were astounded that I had not read it, and then complained that it was, as of then, not out in paperback.

Hint: If you stop buying it, it’ll come out in paperback faster. 

 Once, a woman came in and asked me for a copy of Oprah’s latest book.

“Anna Karenina?” I said.

“I guess.”

I handed her a copy.

“No,” she told me. “Oprah wrote it.”

I handed her a copy with the Oprah Book Club sticker on the front. She beamed and bought it.

Then there were the athletes of a certain retail type, the kind who saved their sport up for weeks in their colon, and let it loose in a rage all over our public bathrooms. That’s when my favorite manager would rush into the backroom, her eyes wide, saying that we’d had another Olympian Shitter, and our only male manager (it was always the men’s bathroom) would sigh, grab his pack of cigarettes, and go outside to get the hose.

After the man who assaulted our store had been caught – he was not terribly clever, as he always wore the same necklace and hat, and my male manager stalked him through the store, notified the police and, if memory serves, ran outside after him and got his plate information – I wasn’t allowed to hide in the back as much, and so to avoid alphabetizing the perpetually messy categories (Religion, Hobbies, Transportation) I learned the value of extending out shelving the magazines as long as possible.

“Be careful,” the woman who trained me on the job had told me. “Once I reached in to clean the rows and found a used condom.”

It was a Books-A-Million, a Southern based store perpetually out of place in the Chicago Suburbs, where even though no one wanted a copy of Southern Living we always received hundreds. I was not allowed to send them back before their return date. This lead to creative shelving and, when I was frustrated enough by Paula Deen’s omnipresent face, I would sneak issues to where I knew the security cameras could not see me and rip the covers, the only acceptable reason for sending anything back early.


Books-A-Million loved its magazines. There was a row as long as the bookstore was wide filled with anything you could possibly be interested in: Twenty different versions of Model Plane Monthly, Beanie Baby Collector, Cooking, A whole unit devoted to guns (and the women who love to pose with them), Home Décor, Weddings, News and Propaganda were shelved together, and a small but large, considering, section of literary magazines. We never had copies of the Missouri Review, but we would get The Kenyon Review and Tin House, occasional copies of the Virginia Quarterly Review, and a handful of others. Sometimes I would play a game to see how often Joyce Carol Oates appeared in an issue, which eventually lead me to her collections and novellas. At night, when only one manager worked and they were often in the backroom doing “paperwork”, I would hide in a corner and read.

Teenage naiveté, perhaps, led me to believe that the product you sell will entice a certain kind of person into your establishment, but open doors, open seats and an open bathroom will lead anyone in, for better or for worse.

There was an old man with a pierced tongue who wore a green hat and a green jacket. He used to watch me shelve the magazines. He would turn his body to face mine as I passed him. He would stand with a slightly hunched back and pick up a magazine and glance down and look at me for hours three times a week. He would not leave until he muttered a hello, and even though I felt a particular ache in my spine to run, I was required to say hello back. I looked forward to his stumbling hello’s, knowing that after he would leave. When I aged to the register, he would wait until my line was open and purchase a Times magazine or a newspaper. I always smiled, because my smile was bought and paid for seven dollars an hour, and asked him if he wanted to buy a discount card. He never wanted to buy a discount card.

Still, once, I remember very clearly, a young father came in and asked me if I knew anything about fantasy. His son was into dragons and knights and magic, and he wanted something they could talk about. There was in him a yearning for connection with his own blood, something that, when broken with the abstract language we communicate in, can still be heard and understand when we share stories. I led him to the back wall and picked out my favorite books from my childhood: Dragonlance novels, the ones by Margaret Weis,  that I used to read in my bedroom to the light hours of the morning and yawn through the next day.

“Do they have happy endings?” he asked me.

“No,” I said. “Not really.”

He lifted the book to his face and half-smiled and said he would take it. A week later, he came in and bought several more. Three years after I stopped working there, after I had gone on to graduate school, the bookstore went South for the winter, and locked its doors.

List of the Week: "Our Favorite Bookstores"

Though the ongoing shift to online retailing may have radically changed the way many of us interact with bookstores economically, these emblems of literary culture still hold a powerful sentimental, social, and even aesthetic attraction for us. In this week’s list, we invite you to share your favorite bookstores or memorable bookstore experiences, whether through a plug for a survivor who’s still flying the standard for brick-and-mortar-and-people relevance or through an elegy for a bookseller lost.

1. The Hungry Mind (St. Paul, Minnesota)

In 1975, the music blasting out of 75 percent of the stereos on the Macalester College campus in St. Paul was Bruce Springsteen’s Born to Run album.  Garrison Keillor’s Prairie Home Companion was a new phenomenon on public radio, and all the Minnesota students listened to it (I was from out of state, and not impressed).  There were two bookstores, one near the corner of Grand and Snelling Avenues; I remember it as being called the Macalester Park Bookstore, but my memory isn’t perfect.  The other was the Hungry Mind, just east of campus on Grand.  It had been founded five years earlier by Dave Unowsky (“Hungry Dave”), and it was everything an independent bookstore should be.

I’d fallen in love with the Twin Cities before I applied to Mac.  Once there, I fell in love with the school, the Grand Avenue neighborhood and, especially with the bookstore.  For four years, almost every book I bought was purchased at the Hungry Mind-and I bought a lot of books, ranging from Camus to A.A. Milne to Claude Levi-Strauss. The atmosphere was very ‘70s, intellectual and vaguely counter-cultural. Upstairs, if I’m remembering right, we could find our textbooks.  I knew a couple who met there and later married. Downstairs was a wall of literary magazines, something I’d not seen in bookstores before. I took a couple of semesters of creative writing from poet Alvin Greenberg, who required us to read a journal a week.  Some I must have found at the college library, but a lot I bought at the Hungry Mind, prompting Dave, the owner, to comment one day, “You go through those things like water.” I think I’d found my niche.  TMR hadn’t been born yet, or I might have been reading it, too.

The Hungry Mind offered an incredible selection and a chronic chocolate-box conundrum:  what to read next?  You could cash checks there, too. I spent one semester reading everything I was not supposed to and not attending any classes.  The bookstore was my accomplice in academic failure, which I later righted.  It was staffed by more men than women, including Dave and Jim Sitter (who later went on to direct CLMP, among other things) and my RA’s boyfriend, another Dave. Intermittently I had mild crushes on all of them because they were young, longish-haired guys who read books.  I eventually married someone of that description.

Next year will be my thirty-year reunion, and I’m thinking of going back to St. Paul to see who else shows up.  Sadly, though, the Hungry Mind passed on in 2004.  By then the name had been sold in an attempt to keep it alive, and it was going by Ruminator Books-not really the same.          –Evelyn Somers


2. Brazos Bookstore (Houston, Texas)

As far as I can make out, Brazos Bookstore (http://brazos.booksense.com/NASApp/store/IndexJsp) is the only independent bookstore in Houston, Texas.  It was certainly the last of its kind when I came to know it first, in the late summer of 2000 (in Houston, by the by, late summer tends to stretch well into November).  It was a heady time to be sure. I had never before lived in a city that honestly deserved that designation, and I was beginning a master of fine arts degree at the University of Houston.  All of a sudden, I found myself in the midst of a few dozen really smart people who were just as crazy about reading and talking poetry and ideas as I was.  Brazos Bookstore, an immaculate nook looking out across Bissonett Avenue at Hair & Nails salons, tattoo parlors, and high end leather furniture stores, was our weapons cache.  Back when I roamed the shelves, Karl Killian was the owner and proprietor, a kind and savvy guy with a welcoming smile and an impeccable memory for someone who plays host to some of the biggest literary talent passing through Houston.  He’s since moved on to become the event planner for another of Houston’s cultural staples, the Menil Museum (http://www.publishersweekly.com/article/CA6346561.html), but Brazos has kept up its rep as a first-class stop for huge talent (http://brazos.booksense.com/NASApp/store/IndexJsp?s=storeevents) and a peerless encourager for the local talent and the young and gifted writers of the University of Houston’s estimable Creative Writing Program.  It was one of the first places that I read poetry to a willing audience, and its incredible poetry section (then curated by the encyclopedic network of verse and culture that calls himself Michael Dumanis(http://www.umass.edu/umpress/spr_07/dumanis.htm; http://www.ysu.edu/neomfa/faculty.htm#dumanis) and its really has-to-be-seen-to-be-believed kiosk of literary magazines.  I wish I could say just how much it meant to me as a reader and a writer, but it shall have to suffice for me to call it one of the most powerful conduits to the other worlds of thought and feeling that great writing can introduce us to, and any time in the future I have the opportunity to cruise through Houston, it is on my list of destinations.  As of this writing, I’m still not certain of how it fared in the maelstroms of Hurricane Ike, but if I know my Brazos, it will take more than a hurricane to curb its literary enthusiasms.          –Marc McKee

3. Wonder Book and Video (Frederick, Maryland)

Wonder Book and Video served as the key ingredient for wooing attractive, bookworm members of the opposite sex while I was in high school.  The store was the most important a surprising number of small-town gems in the town of Frederick, Maryland.  From the Washington, D.C. suburb of Rockville, Maryland, the 20-minute voyage to Frederick was a passage through central Maryland’s endearing rolling hills practically never crossed the mind of any city or suburb dweller, let alone a high-schooler.  I could always count on the obscurity of my dusty gem.  In addition to Wonder, the town also boasted an “antique furniture store” only accepting the most gaudy and unintelligible items I have ever witnessed – a small portion of a Frederick date would always include a gander at the shop’s seven foot statue of a human nose, not to mention a similarly-sized pissing cherub holding a bow in one hand and a gun in the other. 

When we arrived at the bookstore I would always take them on a run through the stacks, just to accentuate the book glut of the place, the overwhelming smell that I’d buy as room spray, and the towering shelves that seems to disregard year in some strange Twilight Zone of American histories all alive at once.  In actuality, the store was about the size of a Blockbuster and a half, and probably less in ceiling height.  It was oddly shaped, and a lot of half steps between sections would often send books and their worms, fumbling through pages in a careless gait, tumbling.  The poetry section was half of a row, but it overflowed with collections and single works of the romantics, epic poets, and hundreds of hardback-print Shakespearian sonnets.  I would usually plan impromptu motions – I might whip out a Rilke, find a short poem I remember and start reading with a slight tonal sense of melancholy. The store became so connected to my image that when our history teacher showed up in a Wonder Book t-shirt the students accused him of copying my interests, even if he did actually live in Frederick.

Every holiday I would buy my best friend a copy of a Count book, meaning a children’s book based on the Sesame Street character the Count.  He would unwrap The Count Counts a Party, the fifth or sixth in the mix, and still laugh to tears before ever reaching for the more practical gift.   The last time I went to visit him, it was propped up on his dresser like a book store showcase piece.

After I got my license, the girl here was first person I took to see Wonder.  When we broke up, she started taking other boys to see the stacks, which made me as proud as I was jealous.          –Seth Graves

4. Green Trails Bookstore (Chesterfield, Missouri)

I cannot suggest any little known literary gems, no sacred spaces for bibliophiles. I can, however, tell a woebegone tale of a common fate: the small, independent, often unusually charming, neighborhood bookstore’s descent into financial ruin.

In a nutshell, this hole-in-the-wall place, tucked inside an oddly designed network of businesses (including a music school, Domino’s Pizza, and a hair salon out of the ’80s), occupied a seemingly deserted plaza near a semi-suspicious gas station, was an adventure alone to locate (think labyrinth on a miniature scale). Green Trails Bookstore in Chesterfield Missouri,(wo)manned by an affable and knowledgeable staff–tried-and-true book lovers–offered new material at reduced prices, an Arcadia of children’s literature, and used books stretching back to the 19th century.

The typical winding shelves and stacks of countless books created a waterfall effect that immersed its browsers, but the most notable feature was the completeness of its collection of literature, drama, and poetry. And better yet, the astonishing prices of masterpieces great and small. Fifty cents to two dollars for Kafka, Chekhov, Woolf–you name it. My favorite find was a hardcover pocket-sized edition of Hamlet printed in the 1890s priced at, brace yourself, one U.S. dollar!

As far as atmosphere goes, this treasure trove of mine was marked by the absence of noise–in many senses of the word–and, unfortunately for the livelihood of the bookstore and its potential bibliophiles, the absence of people.

And so the story goes.   –Robyn Allen

5. Prairie Lights (Iowa City, Iowa)

Any list of bookstores must include the legendary Prairie Lights (www.prairielights.com). It has a great deal to offer, starting with knowledgeable and passionate staff-Paul is always ready to help visitors select the perfect book. Their reading series, “Live from Prairie Lights,” always astounds me. Local, national, and international authors flow through the independent bookstore with the regularity of the Iowa River streaming through the University of Iowa campus. And the coffee shop is a great place to hang out, write, and meet other writerly-minded friends.          –Richard Sowienski

6. Open Books (Seattle, Washington) and Politics & Prose (Washington, D.C.)

When I’m in Seattle, I like to visit Open Books: A Poem Emporium, which is one of the few poetry-only bookstores in the country.  It is a small bookstore in Wallingford, but as volumes of poetry tend to be slim, they have an impressive selection. I’ve never gone there and not found what I’m looking for.  They have a frequent-buyer card system, where you get a free book after you purchase a certain amount, and the best part is that they keep those buyer cards on file for a couple of years-so poets who are scattered across the country have plenty of time to find their way back to the Pacific Northwest.

When I’m home in DC, I like to go to Politics & Prose.  First of all, Politics and Prose has a great atmosphere-it’s spacious, sunny, and has a nice café in the basement with delicious food.  Second of all, P&P is one of those bookstores where every book seems carefully chosen, so that no matter what you pull of the shelf, it’s bound to be quality.  I like how they support the local writing scene, and also, I am a sucker for their “remainders” shelf, where you can get brand name authors at discount prices.          –Katy Didden