Stars and Stares

Elizabeth Bluemle -- April 7th, 2020

Times of crisis test tempers, fortitude, and endurance, and reveal so much about our temperaments, attitudes, and resiliency. In addition to watching our leaders grapple with all the uncertainties, shortages, demands, and disaster this virus has wrought, we are witnessing ourselves and our neighbors in rawer states than we are used to, seeing all our strengths and weaknesses exposed in the face of our particular challenges. Out in public, on our necessary errands, we are balancing on thin edges of welcoming and distancing behaviors. Walking our dog, for example, we dart away from strangers on the sidewalk to keep six+ feet of distance, but flash a rueful smile and a quick wave as if to say, “I’m sorry I’m leaping away from you like you have the plague, but you might, and I might, and so there we are. (And please don’t pet my pup right now).”

Like everyone, I can’t help thinking of the various categories of experiences we are all having. There are the essential workers, all with varying levels of organizational support, COVID training, safety equipment, and compensation. There are the health care workers, who are so unbelievably courageous it’s hard to express the breadth and depth of a nation’s gratitude in mere words. There are struggling workers in all sectors out of a job with no idea where the next month’s rent and next week’s food are going to come from. There are small business owners working 14-hour days to try to save our businesses. And there are the “temporary retirees,” people who are comfortably well-off and healthy enough to feel like they’re on vacation, with paid sick time and lots of new leisure time on their hands.

There are endless varieties of experiences, but one thing has really struck me: some people rise in crisis like shooting stars. We have been privy to and heard about incredible acts of kindness and generosity and usefulness. Here’s a small sampling of acts of grace my bookselling colleagues and I have witnessed:

  • A customer emailed a bookstore to say, “I’m a huge fan of your store and I want to help. Would buying a $1,000 gift certificate be helpful?” (And when the check for the gift card arrived, it was for $2,000. Which means roughly $600-$800 stays with the store after cost of goods sold, depending on vendor discounts, bookstore discounts to customers, etc.) Yes, that would help!!
  • A customer bought a $2,000 gift card at another store — to give to the local library for new books.
  • For every gift card bought by customers, a bookstore is donating that amount of books to local organizations serving children and seniors in need.
  • A bookstore customer’s daughter teaches at a public school with mostly underserved children. The kids can’t do online learning because most don’t have internet access, so the customer is sending 500 books (ordered through an indie bookstore) to the school, one for each child.
  • Customers have dropped off homemade masks, baked goodies like lemon cheesecakes, hats, and other items of cheer and support at bookstore curbside pickup areas.
  • A bookstore heard from a customer of modest means who typically makes one or two small purchases a year. She called up the store to say she was putting $100 in an envelope and wanted the bookstore to pick out some books for her. The bookstore owner said this made her tear up; she knew it was a big give for the customer and the generosity was so meaningful. (The bookstore also plans to add ARCs to the woman’s book order.) Another customer commented on her post, saying, “I’m finding (again) that it seems to be those that have the least are giving the most.” So true!
  • A bookseller’s friend from back in high school called the store to order $100 in gift cards to give away to anyone who needs them.
  • At our store, a customer paid for her $28 purchase with $50 and said, “Please put the $22 on a gift card for someone who needs it.”
  • After a busy day of delivering books to customers’ homes, a bookseller found a jar of homemade strawberry/rosé jam at her last stop with a kind note.
  • A bookstore’s landlord said, “Don’t worry about the rent right now. We want you here when this is all over.” Note: where do we all get that landlord?
  • In addition to buying books for several local classrooms, a customer has also sewn hundreds of masks for health care workers—and offered some to the bookstore workers, as well.
  • Publishers are allowing authors and booksellers to read stories online to to cooped-up school children (check each publisher’s website for guidelines).
  • James Patterson, the amazingly generous author and patron saint/fairy godfather of indie bookstores, has announced a $500,000 personal donation and a #SaveIndieBookstores campaign to help independent bookstores weather this latest storm.

It is heartening to hear so many stories of generosity, from the small to the grand. It helps to shed the strangeness of encountering sometimes-unfriendly stares from passersby on the streets at a time when everyone has an opinion about who is and isn’t wearing masks, or gloves, etc. Or the glares aimed at people who may have accidentally inhaled a stray springtime piece of pollen or fluff blowing in the air and coughed (into their elbows). Moments of unfriendliness, balanced against a tide of caring and beautiful, sustaining acts.

There are so many stars in our world, people who rise to a crisis situation with action—creating, sewing, feeding, caring, helping, supporting, cheerleading, innovating, giving what they can to as many as they are able.

What heartening acts of generosity and kindness have you witnessed, benefited from, or provided?

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