Thursday, November 30, 2017

A Bookseller in the Wilderness

When you've done one thing professionally for most of your adult life, that thing can become part of you.  For me that thing was bookselling, so yeah, if you cut me, I bleed books.

I didn't know I was going to be a bookseller.  Hell, sometimes, in my mind, it's still a placeholder.  I'm not really a bookseller, I'd think, I'm a writer.  But whenever I started thinking that way, I'd remind myself of a scene from Mad Dog and Glory.  That's a movie, early 90's.  Robert De Niro, Bill Murray, Uma Thurman.   De Niro, as the cop, Wayne, is talking with Thurman, who plays Glory, a bartender.  He's trying to learn more about her background.  What'd you study in school, he asks?
Wayne:  History, real estate? 
Glory: Acting.  Like everybody and his cousin.  I gave tours to make the rent, but then I got into tending bar because it paid better.  Opened up my days for more classes, auditions. You ask a bartender or waiter around here:  "What do you do?" They say:  "I'm an actor," "I'm a singer," "I'm a writer."  After a couple of years, you have to be honest with yourself.  I'm a bartender, waiter...waitress.

Bookseller.

It's a brief scene in a movie most people have forgotten, but that scene - those moments watching Uma Turman, Glory, being honest about who she was, what she was - that celluloid is in my head and I can watch it any time.  And I do. 

So I'm not a writer, but I was a bookseller.  I was okay at it.  I enjoyed it.  Enjoyed it so much that I thought Books Inc. was going to be stuck with me for a long time to come.

I enjoyed it because it meant talking, everyday, to customers - old and new - about books, both good and bad.  It was writing reviews for books.  Creating cocktails for books.  It was being invited to dinner parties, cocktail parties, for books.  Introducing authors for books - to crowds of five or five hundred.  It was being invited to hold seminars for books.  To talk to students about books.  To travel for books.

Did I mention that I did it for so long that it became part of me?  That I thought I'd run my store in Alameda well into my dotage?  Until the Offer?

The Offer was made to my wife, and it came not from the West, the West we grew up in and knew, but rather the East, the East we had visited and loved, but loved as tourists love places.  Karen was courted for the better part of a year - until the Offer was actually made.  And we had joked about it, mused over it, contemplated it, but didn't think it all the way through until then, until that Offer was made.  And here were two Californians, with two beautiful California kids, who had never believed they would live anywhere but the Golden State - who were suddenly presented with the opportunity to move cross-country.

So then we really talked about it.  We'd be giving up so much.  Family and friends.  Our careers here - one in books, one in law.  We'd be asking our beautiful California girls to leave everything they knew, everything, their friends, their schools.  My mom, Karen's parents.  All their family.  Their house, the only home they'd every known.

But the Offer was a good one.  Absolutely an advancement for Karen.  And hell, how many people are given a great chance to remake themselves, truly and absolutely, well after their molds had already been cast?  So we thought about it some more.  Massachusetts was Blue, like California.  Rich in history.  It has my favorite museum in the world, the Gardner.  Poe trod its cobbles.  Boston, like the Bay, has a thriving indie bookstore culture.  So many readers, so many writers.  And the Offer was, yes, a good one.

In the end, we decided to do it, to take advantage of a terrific opportunity in a terrific part of the country.  We'd be swapping one coast for another.  Maybe not a few hundred feet from the water, but close.

I could talk about the toll it would take on our children, but I'll leave that for another time.  I'll selfishly focus on me, training the spotlight on myself as is my hoggish habit.  Not talk about their tears, and their fears.  Not dwell on the comments after we'd moved--


Don't keep saying this was a family decision, this was your decision.

This isn't my home, this is just a house I live in.


--not dwell on those words, instead cling to the idea that kids are resilient, as we were told time and again.  I made a move like that, others offered.  I hated it at first, but ended up loving it.

It's a good age, it's not like they're in high school.

Kids are resilient. 

Kids are resilient.

Kids are resilient.

We decided, Karen and I, that the good outweighed the bad, and that the good was really really good, and so we'd roll these very important dice in this game of chance.  We'd keep our home there and try and find one here.

In all of our talking, and decision-making, I knew the impact I felt would be deep (there I go, narcissistic me), and I tried to envision its scope, tried to picture what it would feel like to give up talking to customers, going to dinners, introducing authors, working with a great team - for great people - all the perks that doing one thing for almost 20 years could bestow upon you...

I tried to imagine the crater that might result - and I failed righteously. 

So much of the person that I projected to the world was wrapped up in books.  I was that book guy on the streets and restaurants and bars of our Island City.  Cocktail party talk is often consumed with finding out what people do, and by "do" we all mean what is your job and how does it rank in the pantheon.  If I left all that behind, if I was no longer that book guy, then who was I?

Who am I.

Sure, it should be fine that I was the trailing spouse.  No one, that long ago, would question a wife following her husband if he had a better opportunity somewhere else.  But, please.  Let me be a clich√© for just a moment, ok?  I'm a guy, I'm Greek, and yes, both of those things make it hard to accept that Karen is, in the eyes of many, more accomplished and certainly more successful than I am.  And don't tell me to forget a lifetime of being told otherwise.  Don't tell me to be progressive, to let go of the patriarchal trappings that are under such constant attack - please listen to me for just a moment, let your own ideas go, and admit with me that it's a sticky wicket my fragile male ego found itself in.

Cue the violins.

Maestro, I said, cue the violins.  We need musical accompaniment if we're going to get this crowd to feel anything for this schlep.

So I spent a lot of time feeling sorry for myself.  I got really good at it.  And then?  Then a funny thing happened on the way to the forum, and it happened because of book people.

Book people can be wonderful people, and my book people came through in spades.  Phone calls to check on how I was doing - though most went unanswered.  Thanks, Michael #1.

Messages asking me if I still wanted that book, the one that Famous Author signed for me at a bookstore that wasn't my own, and if I did, then what the heck was I waiting for?  Pay for that thing and get it sent from West to East.  Thanks, Michael #2.  Thanks, Andy.

Emails saying, I still want you to do Drinks With Nick for us, so you'll do that, right?  Thanks, Margie.

Emails saying, Margie thinks you need books, so I'm sending a box your way.  Thanks, Elena.

Being told, Hey, I can get you into the Fall Conference for the New England Independent Booksellers Association, you should come - there will be friendly faces!  Thanks, Keith.

One of those faces turning out to be a publishing friend who promptly bought me lunch and then introduced me to gads of New England book people.  Thanks, Karen.

Emails to let me know about a book person I had to meet, like now.  Thanks, Cheryl. 

Phone calls to let me know about job openings.  Thanks again, Michael #1.  Thanks, Oren.

Impromptu meetings to discuss job openings.  Thanks, Tim.  Thanks, Gillian.  Thanks Dana, Peter, and Lisa.  Thanks, Marshall.

More questions, like:  Do you need ARCs?  What's your address and I'll send you some of my favorite advance copies.  Thanks, Michele.

Still more questions:  Can I introduce you to some of the reps in Boston?  They'll take care of you.  Thanks, Wendy.

My mom who doesn't travel alone who traveled alone to cook us dinner.   For a month.  Thanks, Mom.

Texts - only somewhat book related - just to check in.  Thanks, Luisa.

Customers who had long ago become friends reaching out, letting you know they're visiting your old store, that it's in good hands.  Thanks, Jengiz.

Knowing the store's in good hands.  Thanks, Melanie.

Thanks, Tom.  And Josette.  Thanks, Larry.  Thanks, Elizabeth.  Thanks, Gene.  Thanks, Michelle.  Thanks, Ann.  Thanks, Joanna.  Thanks, Jessica. 

Other customers, who had long ago become friends, who sent you on your way, who sent you East after one last drink, with one last gift - a book, of course.  A gorgeous, beautiful, meaningful book.  Thanks, Jack.

Your old partner in books who became your editor writing to let you know that he'd created a radio channel to celebrate the anthology he edited.  Thanks, Jerry.

Another old cohort who took your call without hesitation to talk about the bookselling landscape in the east vs. the west.  Thanks, Calvin.

Two book friends letting you know that they missed you during the tradeshow that you so enjoyed, that you tried to help with every fall.  Thanks, Cheri, thanks, Carolyn.

Authors doing long-distance introductions of a west-coast bookseller to an east-coast publishing rep.  Thanks, Gabriel.

East-coast reps welcoming a west-coaster into their fold.  Thanks, Megan.  Thanks, Karl.

Authors taking time out of their own events celebrating their own book to talk to you about the good old bookselling days in Berkeley.  Thanks, Jonathan.

Customers who had long ago become friends checking in just to see, physically, how you're holding up.  Thanks, Julia.  Thanks, Patrick.

Midwest author friends busting your chops because they had arranged to appear at your west-coast store well in advance of you not being there, since you were now east.  Thanks, Gus.

Friends arriving from all compass points to attend that reading because that's what friends do to support each other, to support authors, and to see you, too, since you'll be flying west for that important event, how could you not?  Thanks, Jen, thanks, Bridget, thanks, Jenn, thanks Marika, thanks, Jeremy, thanks, Daphne, thanks, Ben, thanks, Jaddua, thanks, Christian.

Friends coming to the bar after because they knew you were in town for the reading and even though they missed the reading they figured you'd be at a bar nearby and of course you were, you all were.  Thanks, Dave, thanks, Stephanie.

Authors tweeting from across the pond, good-naturedly asking if I want to write a Drinks With Nick book.  Thanks, Chris.

That notion being seconded by an author on my side of the Atlantic.  Thanks, Bill.

Another asking when I'm going to open a bookstore/bar so he can drink and read to his heart's content.  Thanks, Amor.

Friends from west visiting the east soon, blessedly soon.  Thanks, Julie.  Thanks, Beth.  Thanks again, Jen.

Authors inviting me to join them and their father for drinks after their event, both author and father pretending for my benefit that this was perfectly natural.  Thanks, Ivy.

Constant, constant reinforcement that things were going to turn out all right.  Thanks, Karen.

Love.  And more love.  And a bunch of hugs.  Thanks, Karen.  Thanks, Elizabeth.  Thanks, Kristina.

Thanks, Karen.


And that's why I'm a bookseller.  It's an amazing group of people doing amazing things, and while books are at the center of it all, it's all those people doing all those things.  Writing the books, greenlighting the books, editing the books, designing the books, marketing the books, packing the books, delivering the books, receiving the books, stocking the books, talking the books, selling the books, reading the books, loving the books.

Loving the books.

Because when I said, I miss the bookstore, what I meant was - I miss the people.  All the wonderful people I had the chance to meet and work with for almost twenty years.

And so, being in Boston, instead of San Francisco, felt a bit like I was in the wilderness.  Silly, I know.  Because.

Because, of course, it was home.  We were home.  I was home.  Because of my family, because of the books, because of the people west and east who reminded me that I'd just turned a page, that's all.  The wild things were there, sure.  But so was every other fabulous thing I'd known, would ever know.  Just waiting to be remembered, or met, or made.  

Cheers.

8 comments:

  1. Absolutely beautiful: thanks for sharing this. I've been wondering how you were doing.

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    1. Thanks, Lisa. And now you know! Though it probably would've been easier just to say, "I'm fine. Boston is beautiful and cold!"

      Hope all is well with you.

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  2. My partner in loving books, forever Captain!

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  3. Not being very well dialed into social media, I didn't know you were gone. And you ARE gone; don't give me that "I just moved" thing. You're dead to me. I did feel void at SF book parties. I somehow became less of the worst dressed, only because whomever replaced you wouldn't be as well-dressedas you. And I know several bookstore owners in Boston who would be crazy not to have you, so if you are still looking, email me. Not sure how I ended up here, drinking beer on the couch and telling you that you're dead to me. You're not.

    Miss you.

    --Pete Mulvihill

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    1. You were halfway there! Drinking beer on a comfy couch, that's living! But sharing that time by reading these words, c'mon - there's Stranger Things to kill, or the new Denis Johnson ARC to whip through. Priorities, Man, priorities!

      That said, I miss you and that wonderful community we have, a community I may have taken for granted just a wee little bit. Best to all - hope your season is a busy one!

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  4. Keep going, Nick, recording this journey into an old world that is new again through your eyes.I whipped through it, hungry for more. I await the next letter.
    Best, Judy Juanita

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    1. Judy! I opened a random book box this weekend (so many book boxes remain!) and there was Virgin Soul sitting right on top. Why in the world did I not have you sign my copy? Silly me - hope you're doing fine!

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