I just read a book improbably titled The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society. I say improbable because my editors always advised that less is more when it comes to titles. Readers, after all, only give you seconds to catch their interest. It took me longer than that to sound out all the syllables in the aforementioned book. But all the seconds in the world would not have convinced me to read this except that it was recommended by an extraordinary person: a bookseller.
Which brings me to the lament the day and it goes like this: I miss real, true, dedicated booksellers like Mr. Bruce Raterink, Barnes & Noble, Virginia. He knows exactly what I like to read and what I write (contemporary thrillers and mystery, true crime) but he also instinctively knows how to broaden my reading horizons. Considering I live in Los Angeles and he lives on the east coast his talent goes beyond gift to pure wizardry.
The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society, written with great verve, exquisite sensitivity and deceptive gentility, is set in a time of great sorrow, distress and courage â€“ Europeâ€™s recovery after World War II. Juliette, the heroine, is a writer and the cast of characters are all readers (of sorts). A bookseller is early engaged to attempt to find a book in the ruin that is England. The intersection of my normal read and this book pivoted on excellent characterization and astounding pacing.
But it was Julietteâ€™s praise of booksellers – selfless people willing to endure long hours and no pay simply for the love of books and their readers – that gave me pause. Booksellers have played an intimate role in my professional and personal growth and I fear I have met the last of them.
Over twenty years ago Michelle Thorne enticed me to do book signing at her independent store. Unlike my first cool and corporate experience, signing at Bearly Used (and new) Books was like a riotous party at the Mad Hatterâ€™s table â€“ always joyous. My books were piled in an optimistic pyramid as if Michelle knew they would sell by the bushel. There were cookies, praise, decorations, readings. Michelle was a social director, best friend, stern mom and cheerleader wrapped into one. She made me confident about writing when I was anything but.
Robin Elder was a beautiful red-haired woman who moved gracefully through her store lined with English mysteries, intrigues and thrillers and a select few American authors. I was thrilled to find my books on the shelves of her bookstore/tearoom. Having just moved, finding Robin made me feel as if I was home. But what I remember most is that she embraced my youngest, my curious little boy who preferred books to soccer in a new neighborhood that didnâ€™t have much use for the athletically challenged. For over a year, before she was forced to shut her doors, she discussed books with him and allowed him to read as long as he wished, settled on a small window seat, kept company by her cat. He is now a playwright. His ability to write may be somewhat genetic, but his love of a good story was nurtured within the walls of a small store stuffed with unique books and overseen by a perpetually thoughtful bookseller to whom words meant the world.
Corki Brucellas, the energetic corporate angel who launched my last five books at my local Borders was a literary earth mother who believed each novel was a special delivery. She could discuss individual authorâ€™s strengths and weaknesses. Knowing how fragile a writerâ€™s ego could be, she never voiced the later. Now my local Borders is closed. Corki will always be a friend but it is sad she will not be a bookseller any longer.
Of all the booksellers who have helped me, nurtured me, celebrated with me, it is only Bruce who continues to ply the trade. The others have moved on to other things, their small stores unable to turn a profit for their wonderful owners, the corporate stores failing to recognize how vital the roll of a true bookseller â€“ not a clerk – is. And, yes, in this age of internet, IM and Twitter, good reads are recommended by people Iâ€™ve never met, my books are reviewed and criticized but there are few left who will look a reader in the eye, pluck my book from a shelf, press it into someoneâ€™s hand and say â€œI have read this; you will love itâ€.
In my own backyard there is no one left who will call me by name when I walk into their store, I will no longer sign my name on the flyleaf of my book, I will not sit beside a pyramid-stack of real paper in anticipation of meeting people and being cheered on by the bookseller.
Oh heck, I miss them. They will never be back because a good bookseller is inefficient and unprofitable. A good bookseller takes too much time to read, to understand, to seek, to find, to chat, to listen to author and reader alike. I am happy that at least one of them is still standing. He makes me lists of books to read and bucks me up when the writing is slow. He picks out passages of my work that he believes are particularly inspired which makes me work all the harder. Because he is there, I write and I read and I am better at both. Lucky me to know him and others like him and lucky Virginians to still have Bruce to press a book in their hands and say â€œI loved this, so will youâ€.
The real booksellers were driven out by the big chains, and now the chains are being driven out by e-readers. Do you ever wonder if the tea and sympathy style of book store might come back, a cozy oasis for those who live to read no matter what the format? As much as I love my Kindle, I sure miss wandering through Bearly Used Books, finding little treats on the shelves and between the books.
So touching, Rebecca. Wonderful tribute to Michelle and other indie booksellers.
I so love that book. And I read when I was in Guernsey for my daughter's wedding. Total joy.
Booksellers, sadly – proper booksellers – have been crushed under the weight of three-for-twos, pile up the celeb books and sell 'em cheap of the chains and the supermarkets. We all buy what Amazon tells us we'll like now. 🙁
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