I worked at the bookstore again this past weekend and had a brief moment to look around and really take it in. Elizabeth and I started the store in 1996 in a small building in Charlotte, Vt. Then in 2006 we moved to a new store double the size in a town twice as big. Our store has always had a cozy, book-nook feel to it, where every age reader had a place to browse. In 2016 I retired from bookselling. Twenty years of retail felt like plenty to me. Now, as a customer and occasional bookseller I can see the differences Elizabeth has made to the store, and they’re so good.
“So, I guess you’ll be getting busy soon?”
I looked up from the stack of wrapped stack of packages that I was tying together with tulle, cordless phone cradled between my raised shoulder and ear, and smiled quickly (without teeth) at the customer standing in front of the register, who was blocking the line of folks with full arms waiting to check out. My staffer at the register was quickly scanning books and bagging items, and everyone else was busy on the floor, so I’d handle this one myself, as soon as I left this voicemail: “Hi, Camilla – it’s Cynthia at the bookstore. Your titles are in, and I’ll keep them behind the counter for you. Send me a text back at this number if you’d like them gift wrapped before you arrive. We’re open from 9 am until 8 pm, no, 9 pm…. oh, we’re here all the time. Just come over when it’s convenient.”
“We ARE getting busy, and I’m glad you could stop by. How can I help shorten your gift list today?”
“Well, I’m just looking. Getting ideas, you know. Looks like you have lots of stocking stuffers. Maybe I’ll come back for some. So, are you going to be getting a lot more new stuff in before Christmas?”
Longer picture books can get a bad rap in the marketplace where short and funny has come to dominate, and highly engaging early chapter books and graphic novels offer full-color experiences for readers ready for lengthier stories. But there’s something about longer, more complex picture books that I truly love. Whether it’s a longer page count or just a longer word count, the best examples allow for the passage of time in evocative ways and allow their stories to meander and unfold in all their fascinating specificity—the kind of specificity that sometimes gets lost in their shorter, punchier cousins. To help make the case for lengthier narratives, I’ve actually created a section separate from the general picture books, featuring those that offer just a little bit more.
Inevitability, that alluring progeny of passivity, is a card often played from the bottom of history’s deck through a sleight of hand. A deft example of such a play has appeared recently in Alix Harrow’s New York Times op-ed from the future, Books May Be Dead in 2039, but Stories Live On.
Given that Harrow’s absorbing interest in the supple adaptability and power of stories is everywhere on display in her excellent debut novel, The Ten Thousand Doors of January, it is apropos that she employs these themes from her book in Books May Be Dead in 2039, but Stories Live On. Another given is that Harrow loves books, and her essay’s depiction of a world that has just barely moved across the threshold of their demise is imbued with a disarming affection for the deceased.
The last two Saturdays I’ve worked at the bookstore. Working at the store is like spending time with an old friend I haven’t seen in a while. The glow of friendship feels far larger than the petty irritations that can come with familiarity. Pulling shifts this time of year greatly increases the chances of me seeing customers I miss and meeting new ones who touch me. I was not disappointed.
There are myriad reactions from customers when they see me working. Some people still don’t know I’ve retired from bookselling. They see me at the register and exclaim, “I haven’t see you here in ages!” I gently tell them that I retired and we carry on. A few customers came in and expressed comfort in seeing that I am well after dealing with early stage breast cancer in 2018. Many customers, all women, touched my short hair and said how good it was to see me and that they liked the short hair better. I was reminded how deep the sense of community runs at the Flying Pig.