Sunday, January 14, 2007

The Bookstore Closing That Wasn't

For at least three and a half years, the Derby Square Bookstore in Salem, Massachusetts, announced plans to go out of business. The first time I went in, right after I had moved to Salem three Augusts past, I felt terrible that such a quirky little bookshop had fallen victim to the big chains. I was charmed by the tiny shop with its precariously balanced, disheveled stacks, organized more by whim than by title. Housed in one of the old brick buildings near the old town hall, the shop had more character than any new-fangled outlet could ever hope to achieve. In solidarity, I bought a heavily discounted book and told the hulking curly-haired, bespectacled proprietor that I was really sorry that they were going out of business and that I wished they would stay open, as I loved the shop.

“Thanks,” he sighed. “We just can’t do it.”

As August passed to September, and then to October and November, I got acquainted not only with the big curly haired co-owner, but also his partner, who bore a striking resemblance to Christopher Lloyd. Every time I stopped in, they told me that they would be closing any day and that the books were priced to move. Something seemed off, however, as they were still taking special orders, and they didn’t seem to be doing anything else about leaving.

I moved that December, and I didn’t go back to Salem again until that spring. As I walked through the pedestrian mall, noting all the touristy, Salem Witch Trials oriented shops, I expected to see an empty place where the weird little shop had been. They were still there, however, with their “Store Closing” signs still posted in the window. I walked in, and the curly haired man looked at me quizzically before launching into his store-closing speech.

“I remember,” I said, browsing through the stacks, worried that books might come cascading down on my noggin.

“Oh, yeah,” he said, “Haven’t seen you in here for a bit.”

I explained that I had moved and bought another discounted book from Christopher Lloyd, perched behind tall stacks of books, with a space wide enough for a stack of paperbacks. He told me that his mother was sick and that he had plans to move to Florida later that spring.

“We’ll be closing then,” the curly haired man chimed in.

“That’s too bad. I’ll miss seeing you here.”

My visits to Salem became less frequent over the next couple of years, but I would still stop in the shop whenever I was in town. Every time, I heard the same speech before I got three feet in the shop. I’d nod, and go about my shopping. While some of the books bore the signs of age, I noticed a lot of new titles and gradually caught on that they weren’t really going anywhere.

Today was gray and icky, like yesterday, and so I decided to go to Salem to do a little poking about and stop in the coffee shop. I went to the bookstore, and something was different. Hand-lettered neon signs about the discounts assaulted me, but I didn’t see anything about the store closing. I stepped in, and that Curly Haired Bespectacled Guy greeted me with news of their discount. He didn’t mention that the store was closing. Perhaps they finally caught on, too.

The books are still discounted, and some of them are still incredibly old (Fat Sparrow, I saw a number of Ursula Le Guin titles and wished that I had your recommendations in mind, as a couple of books were rather old). A fan, perched up on some sagging stacks in the back of the store, had a heavy coat of dust, and upon seeing it, I sneezed. Undeterred, I walked back to the fiction section. Milan Kundera’s The Book of Laughter and Forgetting caught my eye (I know as a feminist, I’m supposed to hate him, but I don’t—he just writes so incredibly well). I picked it up and looked around for the book I was hoping they’d have, Veronica, by Mary Gaitskill (I’ve been meaning to read this one for a long time). Alas, I didn’t see it. Oh, well, I thought, I can get it some other time.

Curly Haired Bespectacled Guy came alongside me, after telling another customer that his David Eggers book would be there early next week, to ask me if I needed help. I told him what I was looking for but that it wasn’t a big deal if he didn’t have it. “I’m in the middle of a book, and I’m picking this up, so I don’t really need it right now.”

“Oh, I can order it for you. I’m placing an order on Monday. The discount will be ten percent.”

I smiled at him, letting him know I was in on the joke, and placed the order. He didn’t react. I purchased my book through the tiny opening in the book stacks, gave him my name and phone number, and told him I’d be back when the book was in. I stepped out into the drizzly grayness, happy that the Derby Square Bookstore was still in business.


Old Knudsen said...

They had better give you discounts if the books are old, bloody liars.

Never trust a book learner.

Fat Sparrow said...

Oh, goodness, UKL recommendations, where to start? She's been publishing since the 60's, and they still go through a million reprints, so I'm not surprised they have older ones there.

Hmmmm, let's have a go:

"Always Coming Home," an anthropological study story of a future California (UKL's dad was Alfred Kroeber (hence the "K." in her name), and her mom was Theodora Kroeber; don't know if those names mean anything to you, but in anthro circles they do). A brilliant book.

"The Left Hand of Darkness," I think you've already read that one?

"The Dispossessed," a "utopian" novel which explores the nature of mankind, anarchy, government, and dissent.

Both of those won the Hugo and the Nebula in the early 70's.

"The Earthsea Trilogy," (which is what got me hooked on her, back in 6th grade), which includes "A Wizard of Earthsea," "The Tombs of Atuan," and "The Farthest Shore," seemingly written for adolescents, it still holds up well in adult readings. The most painless introduction a child can ever have to Joseph Campbell. You'll see where J.K. Rowling got a couple of her ideas. There's an adult follow-up to the Trilogy, "Tehanu" and "The Other Wind."

"Malafrena" and "Orsinian Tales," in which UKL puts her background in various European studies to work.

"The Compass Rose" and "The Wind's Twelve Quarters," collections of short stories. The short story "The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas" is in one of these. I can't praise that story enough.

"The Language of the Night," a collection of talks and papers she's given over the years, having to do with her writing, and the craft of writing in general. I get a deep satisfaction imagining me taking my lovely hard-bound copy and sneaking up behind anyone who has ever had anything to do with bad SciFi or Fantasy, and whacking the shit out of them. They know who they are.

There's a lot of newer stuff that I haven't been able to keep up with, as I can't afford the books, and our library doesn't get them. UKL's official website is here.

You really can't go very far wrong with any of her books, and most of them are excellent. Oh, there's poetry, too.

Shutting up now.

dive said...

I LOVE bookshops like that.
We've got several of them dotted around Norwich; family or enthusiast-run shops that always seem to be on the verge of being "Border"ed out of business.
Peter Crowe's dishevelled antiquarian book and print shops are probably my faves. They look like something out of Harry Potter, and Peter kind of looks after his regulars.
I once got a phone call off him to say that a Cotman (Norwich school painter around 1800) I had asked after around five years before had come up for auction. How he remembered that, I'll never know.
I gave him a price and he bought it for me.
Lovely man.

Robyn said...

What a great story, Sassy! We have a new shop like that in town, and it sells ice cream in the front.

But usually store that is continuously "going out of business" sells crap furniture.

Before Girl said...

Hahah, I LOVE this-the SAME thing happens to me every time and has been happening for the last six or so years-the standard line about closing the minute you walk in, and it never happening. Dan and I pretty much mouth it to each other when we walk in there. I'm still waiting for the day where it will actually be gone, and my deep disappointment that alas, it wasn't really a joke-they were closed and gone, just a decade after they originally said that.

I LOVE that bookstore. The precarious stacks-when one falls, you know it's because a newbie to the store has just walked in. I have never had a stack fall on me. I love the radio station they play in there sometimes, and I love how, when you ask for a book, they immediately know where it is in that menagerie. I also love how you basically have to slide your book lengthwise into the narrow slit on the counter and a hairy paw will reach out and grab your book, and a disembodied voice will tell you how much and you slide your cash in, the hand comes out with your change and a book in a bag. I took some really great pictures in there once, covering the click and whir of my digital camera with coughs, just in case they don't like you taking photos.

You SO hit this on the head in description. On a rainy cold Monday, you've brought me a little warmth. Thanks.

Sassy Sundry said...

They are lovable bloody liars, Knudsen. A little book learning is a good thing, but all book and no life makes for a dull person.

Fat Sparrow, thank you for the suggestions! Wow. I have read The Left Hand of Darkness, but aside from a couple of short stories, I haven't picked up anything else. Will read.

Dive, the funny thing is that the guy never seems to remember me. But he can always find the books.

Robyn, books and ice cream are a great combination. There's a place like that in a town I used to live in. And we have a fair share of crap furniture places.

Before Girl, isn't that place great? I just love it. I had my camera, but since I was the only one in there, and the guy was talking to me, I didn't want to start snapping away. The dusty fan is just begging for a photo.

dive said...

"All book and no life makes for a dull person."
Now I know where I've been going wrong all my life.

Sassy Sundry said...

Could be on to something, there, Dive.

dive said...

No contest. It's still books.

Bock the Robber said...

Sassy, are you really Stephen King?

Sassy Sundry said...

I've developed a pet theory about you, Dive. I think you are secretly happy. Enjoy the books.

Damnit, Bock. It was supposed to be a secret.

dive said...

I'm outrageously happy. My life is intercoursingly groovy.
The only thing missing is someone to share the bloody thing with.

Sassy Sundry said...

Bock, someone from Germany found my blog with this search term: "spanking bock." They didn't stay.

Bock the Robber said...

Yeah. They went straight to my post on bondage furniture. They're still there. Maybe I should pour boiling water on the dirty bastards.

Bock the Robber said...

PS The Left Hand of Darkness and the Dispossessed were my first real introduction to quality SF writing.

Although I haven't read that kind of thing in some years now, I still remember Ursula's writing with great affection.

Sassy Sundry said...

Try ice water. It might help.

I loved the Left Hand of Darkness, so I think I might try some more of her writing.

Dive, I know exactly what you mean. Life is good. Just need someone to come along for the ride. Someday...

RICH said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
RICH said...

long live the independant bookstores