Elizabeth Bluemle has been my best friend for 20 years. We’ve owned the store for 17 of those 20 and yesterday we threw her a party. Here’s what you might not know, when she’s not busy working at the store, doing our graphics, teaching writing classes, she’s working on her own writing. Dogs on the Bed is her second book of three books, and it just came out in paperback.
The book is a rhyming romp through one evening of the family dogs deciding that the only way they can sleep is if the humans forsake their beds. The meter is infectious and the examples, oh so true. The art is humorous and anyone with a dog will recognize the doggie pouts as they are denied the bed. As a dog lover (and someone whose dogs were the impetus for the book) the book just makes me laugh.
Friends and family streamed in and got a piece of cake and perhaps a dog treat while Elizabeth signed books. This was a preview of what’s going to happen in March when her fourth book, Tap Tap Boom Boom, comes out in hardcover.
One of the great things about our location is its proximity to authors. We were thrilled to see Dayna Lorentz pop by with her son, Josh. Dayna will be doing an event with us later this month for her newest book, No Easy Way Out. Though a little young for cake, Josh thoroughly enjoyed the book. It was a great day. And even our dog Ink got a tiny piece of cake.
One of the great things about being a neighborhood bookseller is that little favors are easy to do. Several of our customers live in a nearby retirement community center and don’t drive. They call in their orders and we drop them off at the main building’s front desk on our way home. So easy to do, and it makes us feel even more connected to our customers. Sometimes regulars come in and get to the front counter, only to realize they’ve forgotten their wallets at home; no worries, we just treat their transaction as an account sale and give them an invoice to take home. People have dropped off puppies to stay in the cool bookstore on a hot day while they run up the street to the supermarket. We’ve often delivered “emergency” orders of books at schools for teachers who are too busy to run to the store on a crazy day. We’ve dropped everything else to read stories to cranky kids so their parents can browse in peace, we’ve made many a phone call to local restaurants and inns on behalf of overwhelmed tourists, we’ve stayed open late for desperate book buyers, and we’ve hung book orders on the store door handle for customers driving by hours after we close. There are a million and one small ways to help people out, and they make everyone feel better.
The good will goes both ways, as so many of our past blog posts can attest. Customers bring us flying pigs and baked goods, poems that inspire and babies who charm. They make us laugh and often share the highs and lows of their lives with us. So, whenever we can, it’s an easy thing to do something like drop off a book for someone who doesn’t drive. And if they ask nicely, we might just bring them something from the cafe/bakery next door.
Yesterday was one of those days that felt endless. No project ever got totally done, lunch never got eaten (a yogurt at three hardly counts) and by five I was literally careening from thing to thing not being effective at all. I sat at the chair at the register debating whether or not to play a mind-relaxing game of solitaire when two children walked in.
Half an hour before the kids came in Sara called utterly desperate. “I don’t have a book for tonight. I can’t sleep without one.” We were out of Bitterblue, her first choice (and an excellent one at that). I could hear the growing panic in her voice. “Just pick something. I trust you.” I chose Cinder and told her about it. She loved it. Paid with a credit card over the phone and then said she’d send the babysitter in to pick up the book. The kids, Anna and Emily, came in with the babysitter as scheduled. But something was different. There was a smell. A good smell. Kids smell good, but not this good.
Anna approached the counter shyly and pulled a Tupperware container from behind her back. “Would you like a brownie?” Without even looking I said no because I’m trying to not gain back to recent weight I’ve lost. But then the smell really hit me. That inviting-hot-out-of-the-oven smell that’s hard to resist. “Did you just bake these?” Anna’s smile widened. “Yes.” Well, who can say no to fresh hot brownies delivered by a smiling child? (I’d wished right then that I had just said yes first; an important lesson for the next delivery of child-baked treats.) My co-worker and I each picked small brownies and thanked Anna profusely.
Were the brownies fabulous? Um, not so much. But that didn’t matter; a few egg shells won’t hurt anyone. They were warm and chewy and went perfectly with the glass of milk I got to go from the bar next door. By the time we were done chewing, it was closing time. And that was a great way to end the day.
Every day at the bookstore people find books they love. Oftentimes people come in on a quest, a ritual that might get repeated in every store they visit. Over and over again. We all know them, the people who loved a book so much as a kid that they spend much of their adult lives looking for it. Every once in a while someone finds that book in our store; the fates align and the book falls into the hands of the eager, long-seeking reader.
Such a thing happened this week. The Next Door Cafe in our building employs a lovely early 20-something who unbeknownst to me had been on a long quest for a book. The book was read to her in first grade by a beloved teacher whom Brianna is still in touch with, mainly to ask yearly if Mrs. Watson remembered the book she read aloud 16 years ago. Brianna could only remember that there was a dragon on the cover and it was about a boy. This quest was a solitary one for young Brianna. She went to bookstores and searched dejected almost before she started, because she was convinced the book would never appear. She was convinced she would recognize it when she saw it.
I’ve been on a quest like Brianna’s. In my case my beloved fifth-grade silent reading book, The Great Brain, was the elusive grail. I just remember loving it and only being able to remember snippets of escapades from the book. I wanted to reread the book in eighth grade and couldn’t come with more than Utah. Honestly, I think this clue would have been enough for many of my contemporary bookselling cohorts, but back then it was a mystery. It remained a mystery until graduate school when one of my classmates was talking about a book about brothers in Utah. I cried out “Aha!!! Finally! It’s the Great Brain!” I was ecstatic.
Cut back to our young heroine, Brianna. She worked at the cafe on Saturday. A customer bought a paperback of My Father’s Dragon. I thought nothing of this, since we sell that book often. An hour later, Jesse, the manager of the cafe, came in and asked, “Would you order me My Father’s Dragon? I want to get it for Brianna. She went crazy when someone laid it on the counter when they ordered lunch. She kept going on about “This is the book. This is it!!” The plot thickens because Jesse told us to let Brianna order the book for herself, but tell her it would be coming at the end of the week, not yesterday. He wanted to surprise her with it before he moved on to his new job.
True to what Jesse said, Brianna hopped in around five on Saturday to order the book. Her eyes were bright with the peace that comes from finally finding *the* book. We let her tell us the story Jesse had already shared. She was so excited to get the book, it was almost too cute. The book came in yesterday, and Jesse came in to pick it up. He was going to give it Brianna after the cafe closed at four. I swear we heard a massive whoop and some shouting at two past four. All over the book-loving world there was a tiny sigh of relief. Then someone came in asking if we “carried the book about the elephant and the circus” that he’d read as a child. And it started all over again.
Has there ever been a book you’ve obsessed about finding again?
Customers with strong opinions are the best. They know what they like, or at least what they don’t, and that can make recommending books so much easier. Let’s face it; it can be hard to suggest books to people who say, “I like everything,” because it doesn’t give us a starting point. And, frankly, it isn’t true. No reader likes EVERYTHING. (I’m always tempted to hand those folks some cowboy fiction or a convoluted space opera, any books from a very specific or relatively narrow-interest genre, just to see if I can shake loose an, “Okay, maybe not that.”)
Some of the most opinionated customers are pretty hilarious about their dislikes. Once, Josie recommended Like Water for Elephants to a customer who shuddered, then shook her head dismissively and pronounced, “I hate circus books set during the Depression!” as though that were a tired and teeming genre.
Another customer came in recently and said, “I can’t stand child narrators in adult books. Although… I did like Room.” [Which, for the record, is about as child-narrator as you can get.] She continued, “I also hate unreliable narrators. Or animal narrators; my book group read a God-awful book narrated by a dog.” [These three pet peeves, expressed so firmly stacked, catapulted me into a private mental tangent during which I pondered the viability of an unreliable child-dog (i.e., puppy) narrator — and then cursed James Howe for beating me to it with the Howie series.] I couldn’t help asking if this customer had other pet peeves. “Sure,” she said. “I always know if there’s a family tree or a map at the beginning, the book is going to be tedious.” [For the record, I disagree! Especially about maps. Although I know what she means; it does happen sometimes. Perhaps only in adult books.] She concluded her parade of personal literary horrors with, “And if a book switches between two time periods, usually the contemporary story is better. …Although I didn’t feel that way about Possession.” All right, I can work with that. I ended up recommending Jeanette Winterson’s The Passion, a rich little plum cake of a novel, in the hopes that someday this customer will return and say, “Oh, I just love books about female chicken pluckers in Napoleon’s army who are disguised as men for safety and fall in love with beautiful married Venetian women! More of those, please!”
My favorite recent customer pet peeve was a 12-year-old girl with a great, dry sense of humor whose reading taste runs toward fantasy. “I like some realistic books,” she said, “but not the kind that are, like,” [she adopted a melodramatic, quavery Southern accent], “I saw the rain … on the farm … and it reminded me … of Papa.” That made me laugh for days.
Readers, what are your bookish pet peeves?