Once in a while in retail, you have a charmed day. Every customer who comes in is pleasant and in a good mood, and there are customers who surprise you with extra charm. I recently had a day like that, and the highlight was a young tourist from New Jersey.
He was a little short for his age, so at first I pegged him at around 7th grade. He had brown hair and a husky voice, and he came striding up to the counter with purpose.
“How can I help you?” I asked.
“Do you have those plastic CD cases?” he said. “I just need the case, not the CD.”
My colleague Laura and I thought for a bit about places nearby that might sell only CD cases, but he’d tried the two that came to mind. I rifled through our store collection of open CDs and found a double, so I nested two CDs together and gave the boy the extra case.
“Thanks!” he said. “I’m making a hologram.” Then he said, “You kinda have to like books, right, working here?”
“Yes, we do,” I said, smiling.
“Here’s the thing. I just finished To Kill a Mockingbird and I can’t decide whether or not to read the next one. I’ve heard that everyone who’s good turns bad.”
“It’s a little more complicated than that,” I said.
“Not so black and white?”
“I think so,” I said, and we talked a little about the book. That’s when I found out he’s actually heading into ninth grade. I told him we’d hung up an interesting short article by Ursula LeGuin by the bestsellers, and he might want to read it while considering Go Set a Watchman. I added that he might also just want to bask in the glow of To Kill a Mockingbird for a while longer.
Then he said, “You’ve read Catcher in the Rye?” I affirmed that I had, and he said, “Everyone thinks he’s just a whiner. My brother hated the book when he had to read it for ninth grade.” Here he paused to explain that every rising freshman at his school is required to read Catcher over the summer. “My brother thought — what’s his name, Holden? Holden — that he hated everyone. But I think he’s just been thrown around a lot. He talks a lot about how people present themselves on the surface and what they’re really like underneath.” He paused again, then said, “I’d love to be in an author’s brain for a while to understand how they create such complicated characters.”
We talked for a while longer about Holden Caulfield, Salinger and other writers. This 14-year-old kid was so thoughtful and earnest. At one point, he mentioned a book he loved with a football player who secretly read poetry. “I’m an athlete,” he said, “and I’m also connected to my intellectual side, so I’m in both of those worlds, too.”
Then his phone rang. He glanced at the screen. “It’s my dad, I gotta go. Thanks again!” He walked toward the door. We could hear his dad on speakerphone.
“Where are ya, buddy?”
“I just had a really good conversation with the people at the Flying Pig,” he said, and walked out the door.
I’m not sure I’ve been able to recall and replay the unusualness and wonderfulness of the conversation adequately. Afterward, Laura and I just looked at each other and shook our heads, beaming. I have every expectation that someday that kid will come back to the bookstore to do a signing of his own novel.
Then the jingle bells on the door sounded again, and in walked a visiting family with kids we love to see once a summer, a sister and brother pair who are now 11 and 13 and are great readers. They wanted regular grownup books on natural science and foreign policy.
It was an EXCELLENT day at the Flying Pig!