Let’s face it: every writer is, at heart, a reader. Because of that, every writer probably has a Bookstore Story. This is one of mine.
The summer after I graduated from college, way way back in 1988, I believed I could best prep myself for the looming future by:
1. sitting on a ratty sofa on the front porch of a ratty duplex in Athens, GA, listening to “Born to Run” at the highest volume possible.
2. holding a yard sale in the front yard of said ratty duplex to unload what thrift store possessions I could.
By that August, believing myself to now be adequately prepared for post-collegiate life, I loaded the possessions I had left into my car and headed west, destination Austin.
It had not occurred to me that Austin, being itself a college town, already had a whole slew of recent college graduates of its own to fill the sorts of jobs I imagined I’d apply for once I got there. Or that all those graduates, with their local references and transcripts to boot, might have a leg up on me.
I arrived in Austin, found a junky duplex similar to the one I’d just said good-bye to (although this one was smaller, cost more and had an actual junkie living in the other half of it, because this was the Big City, after all). I unpacked my car and found the nearest grocery store. As I stood in the check-out line, a well-meaning Good Samaritan warned me about the neighborhood’s serial rapist. If nothing else, I should sleep with my windows shut at night.
The ratty duplex had no air-conditioning. It was August.
I came home and unpacked my bag of groceries. I promised myself that come Monday morning (it was Saturday), I’d knuckle down and find a job. But until then, I had to figure out a way to avoid thinking about what I might’ve gotten myself into. I decided to spend the afternoon at Barton Springs, the renowned swimming hole that in some ways might be the truest heart of Austin. And on my way there, I promised myself, I’d buy a paperback to read, the greatest comfort — and most indulgent luxury — I could think of.
Way back in those dark ages, there was still an independent bookstore on the Drag, that street that borders UT campus (hard to believe it now, but there may have actually been two or three). After a coffee at the cafe next door, I pushed open the door of Garner and Smith Booksellers, which is of course long, long, gone.
I remember Garner and Smith as long and narrow, wooden-floored, shelved floor-to-ceiling with books. It was the first bookstore I’d been in that had a bookstore cat (he weighed close to 20 pounds and it was the most senior sales clerk’s job to feed him). It contained a large Literary Theory section. What was that? I’d majored in Journalism; I hadn’t the foggiest. The fiction section was in an alcove at the very back of the store, where there was a wing-backed chair.
Money was tight; though I was not adult by any real definition of the word, I was still mature enough to realize I had very little business squandering any of the money I’d spent all summer earning and squirreling away on a book. The one I picked had better be… the best one I could possibly find.
I must have been there for hours. I studied every single book in the fiction section, methodically, walking from shelf to shelf. After much deliberation, I whittled down my selection. First to three books, then to one. (It was Braided Lives by Marge Piercy, which seems an odd choice to me now). I brought it to the front and set it carefully on the counter.
It felt like my life hung in the balance. If I’d picked the wrong book, if it was unreadable, how on earth was I going to get through the weekend? I knew no one. I was going to have to sleep in that ratty duplex with the windows shut! Within twelve hours the junkie next door was going to initiate his habit of knocking on my door wanting to use my phone!
The guy behind the counter was longhaired, goatee’d. He looked like the sort of person I imagined understood Literary Theory (I ‘d come to learn that he in fact did). He rang up my purchase, pushed it back across the counter.
— Need a job? he asked. We’re hiring.
I could have kissed him.
So in part that’s why I’ll be “hand-selling” books at Bound to Be Read Books on Saturday, November 3o, from 2:00 – 5:00 as part of Indies First and Small Business Saturday.
Because, like, I owe them.
If you’re in Atlanta this Saturday, come on down and say hi.