So why do you want to work in a bookstore?" the Barnes & Noble
manager asked me near the end of my interview.
I didn't know how many would-be booksellers
he had already spoken to that day, but I bet I could have doubled
my student loan check that he had heard the phrase "because I love
to read" too many times. I wanted my response to be something self-reflective,
yet inclusive; something discerning, yet unpretentious; something
that would bring tears to his eyes.
is going to sound sort of corny," I said.
He looked at his wristwatch. "Give it
a shot," he said.
"There's something about holding a book
in your hands," I said. "It's magical. Being aware of its spine,
its construction, its physical-ness makes the world contained
in that book tangible. That's why I'd rather buy a book than borrow
The manager sat back in his chair.
"I have a real good feeling about you," he said.
I have to admit; that last line about
buying a book versus borrowing one was one hell of a strategic move
on my part. I'm no idiot. I was applying for a job in retail. Still,
I had had romantic notions about working in a bookstore. I pictured
a cozy, well lit maze of bookshelves and musty nooks where a fellow
bibliophile might stop me to say, "You look so theoretically existential
in that black turtleneck." Then I'd say, "If that's what you think,
than yes, I do." I'd thank him or her for the compliment; after
all, wearing a turtleneck in Honolulu's 80-something degree weather
affirmed my bookish bohemianosity. I'd adjust my glasses
and continue alphabetizing the hours away aligning book spines in
a perfect row on the shelves. First I'd read Ai, then take a much
needed break at Dadaism, and eventually end my shift with Malcolm
X while sipping on organic Tazo chai from a mug I had made in a
pottery class non-credit of course.
In reality, being a bookseller for Barnes
& Noble provided me little time to read, let alone Dada. Granted,
my alphabetizing skills were incomparable, but no one warned me
about having to use Books in Print to create annotated bibliographies
for Ginko biloba popping grad students who thought libraries were
passé. Who knew I'd lend my shoulder to the suddenly single
weeping in the self-help section? Where in my job description did
it say I had to bust minors hiding Playboy in the religion
section and stop vagrants from taking sponge baths in the restroom?
After I was hired, my training was limited to three things: how
to use Books in Print, collect money, and fetch.
During orientation, new hires were taught
the golden rule of book selling; never ever point the customer towards
the book. Always accompany him or her to the appropriate section,
pull the book from the shelf and place it in to the customer's hands.
My pithy interview response about "holding a book" resulted in irony.
I actually had spent more time pointing antsy customers toward the
public restroom or re-shelving "spit backs" -- magazines, newspapers,
and books that customers, who had no intention of buying a damn
thing, left on café tables, chairs and the floor.
A bookseller's "related job duties," I
had rationalized, was my way of paying my dues. I wanted to be a
writer writing, what, I had no idea then, but I was determined to
someday find my name on one of those book spines, hardcover preferably.
Since I was an English undergrad, I was certain I had a sense of
what people would or should want to read. In time, I learned to
bite my metaphorical tongue when customers would say, with great
seriousness, "where's Rodman's book?" or "I can't remember the title,
but the author talks to dead people," or "is the cover of Monica
Lewinsky's book really black?"
There was one customer who asked me, "where's
that disc jockey's book?"
I took one look at his mullet hair cut
and told him, "You mean that guy on TV? He always has strippers
on his show, right?"
"Hookers too," the customer said.
"Real hot babes."
"You'll find Stern's book with the rest
of the New York Times bestsellers near the front of the store,"
I said pointing to the appropriate shelf. I wasn't about
to escort a customer who referred to Howard Stern's book as bootilicious.
Thank God Stern's book was in stock. On certain days, I suspected
there had been a secret society of anti-bibliophiles who purposely
asked for titles the store didn't carry.
For five consecutive Friday nights, a
customer, whom I dubbed Sir Thespian, entered the store wearing
wingtip shoes, ivory slacks, and a bright knit polo shirt
collar turned up to cover the back of his neck. He wore a cable-knit
cardigan like a cape with the sleeves tied loosely at his chest.
"Somebody should tell that dude the 80s are over," one of my fellow
booksellers said as we watched Sir Thespian linger in the foyer
as if he were anticipating the paparazzi. He looked like an aging
tennis pro ala Jack Lord: tanned, sun rugged complexion, sturdy
square jaw, and L'Oreal black hair with waves of gray at his temples.
I never saw Sir Thespian with the same
woman, and all of his dates fit one profile: Asian, early-twenties,
alluring, and dressed in Versace' or DKNY something or other. Most
of the women were about two inches shorter than my five foot two
frame, even if they wore stiletto pumps, and Sir Thespian was about
two inches or so taller than me. Sounding vaguely like Sir Anthony
Hopkins, who sounded vaguely like Sir Richard Burton, Sir Thespian
asked for the most esoteric textbook titles on monologue, soliloquy,
method acting, sensory technique, emotional memory, and the like,
all of which the bookstore never had in stock
One evening, as it was with every Sir
Thespian cameo, he swaggered up to the information desk with his
date toddling behind him and asked me to find a book I can't
even remember the title now that wasn't listed on the store's
"How can you not carry blah blah blah
on such and such?" was all I remember him saying.
I knew how to spell the word 'gasp,' but
I had never heard anyone actually do it. Sir Thespian definitely
gasped, turned to his date and said, "Why am I surprised? Dilettante
theatre that's the extent of performance art in Honolulu."
He obviously performed these hissy fits
complete with gurgled "r" to impress his date, but this particular
woman rolled her eyes.
"Why don't you let me order it
for you this time?" I said. "We don't seem to have it."
"Seems? Nay, it is. I know not seems,"
he said grinning at his date, who was busy pushing back her cuticles.
"I can understand why you don't carry
yada yada yada or la la la," he said to me. "After all, only the
most serious students of yada yada la la need those books, but blah
blah blah by such and such? My gawd girl!" he gasped again, "such
and such is the guru of experimental mime."
I said nothing and shrugged my shoulders.
His date yawned.
She broke away and scurried over to the
magazine section where she thumbed through a copy of Elle.
Since she split in the middle of his swan song, Sir Thespian untied
the sleeves of this cable knit cape and draped it over one arm.
"The book will only take three weeks to
get here," I told him.
"Thank you ever so much for putting up
with me," he whispered. "Maybe next time."
He lumbered over to the magazine section,
pulled a copy of Variety off the rack, and sat at a café
table while his date plucked the perfume sample inserts out of Mademoiselle.
If I wasn't hunting for the last copy
of Mutant Messages from Down Under, I was answering the phone
at the information desk. When the Sesame Street character, Elmo,
was to make a guest appearance in the children's section, I answered
a phone call from a woman who demanded I make an appointment for
her daughter to meet with him. I thought the call was a prank, so
"What's so funny?" the woman asked.
Her voice was as airy and hollow as the popular red puppet's voice.
"Elmo can't come to the phone right
now," I said suppressing a giggle, "can I uh Can Elmo
friend take message?"
"What don't you understand?" the woman
asked. "My daughter wants to meet with Elmo."
"Is this Chris?" I said. "Get off the
break room phone you dork."
I was tempted to say in my best Elmo impersonation,
"Have your people contact Elmo's people," but when Chris walked
up to the info desk, I knew I was screwed.
"Excuse me," the woman said. "Many
children will be competing for Elmo's attention. I want him to meet
with my daughter. Alone."
"I'm sorry for being so insensitive,"
I told the woman. "Would you mind holding for a minute?" I pressed
the hold button, ducked down behind the info desk and unleashed
a satisfying laugh.
What I really wanted to tell her was that
Elmo had already arrived a week ago via UPS in a trunk that was
reinforced with brass corners and a polyester strap. Some poor bookseller,
most likely a short, skinny one, was scheduled to step in to the
red shag carpet suit, slide his or her head in to the hollow round
that was to be Elmo's head and stroll through the store for a half
hour waving like a happy idiot.
Wearing the costume, I had experienced
once, is akin to slipping in a personalized sauna. Synthetic fur
just doesn't breathe. Children spill cocoa or smear snot on the
suit. They trip, punch, kick, tackle, and love the character
to death. Seeing out of the Elmo head (or the Cat in the Hat head,
the Pooh head, and the Clifford head) is problematic. The range
of vision is limited to the two screen covered holes that make up
the character's eyes. Elmo can't see a four foot child unless that
child is at least four feet away in front of Elmo.
Not only is the bookstore Elmo visually
challenged, the bookstore Elmo is also mute. The 'real' Elmo only
talks on TV because a professional Muppeteer's hand moves Elmo's
mouth. Unless this woman happened to have a personal Muppeteer lying
around her living room, her daughter was going to spend quality
time with red fuzz and foam rubber. She might as well have invited
the neighborhood's collection of carpet remnants for a slumber party
or offered to take the kitchen café curtains on a trip to
I regained my composure and released
the hold button.
"I'm sorry," I said, "We aren't taking
reservations, but don't let that stop you from visiting the store."
"Whatever," the woman said and then
I heard dial tone.
Puppet groupies, seekers of booty,
nay-sayers -- the bookstore attracted all sorts. There was one woman
who had spent at least five hours one morning roaming the aisles
without ever picking up a book. I had noticed her earlier that day.
She had a striking head of white hair shaped into a long shag
sort of like Edgar Winter's hair, only fuller. She looked to be
Chinese maybe, almond complexion, about sixty years old. Purple
caftan and a pair of rattle snake skin boots; she was hard to miss,
but I didn't pay much attention to her once I started loading an
L-cart a smaller version of a hand trunk with romance
novels I was suppose to shelve. As I pushed the L-cart pass the
horror section, I realized that the woman was following me. What
was even stranger was the way she'd narrow and bat her eyes. I looked
up at the ceiling expecting to find an air conditioner duct spewing
dust or cold air on to her head, but all I saw was the etched portrait
of Edgar Allen Poe glaring back at me from a store column.
I pulled my L-cart down the romance aisle
as she stalked me making sure she kept a distance of about two yards.
When I parked the cart, she maundered in about three feet away from
me near the Danielle Steel novels and started skimming through the
book spines on the shelf. She'd sporadically glanced at the L-cart
and then at me. I figured she was too embarrassed to ask for one
of the romance novels I was about to shelve. But then she turned
to squint at me for what seemed like a very uncomfortable two minutes,
so I squinted too.
"Can I help you?" I asked her.
She lifted her right hand to her face
as if someone were aiming a flashlight at her eyes.
"If you're looking for Malice,
I've got a copy here," I said looking through the stack of books
on my cart.
"You're a Leo, aren't you?" she said
I was stunned.
"That's pretty good," I told her.
"I knew it!" she said clapping her
hands. "I took one look at you, and I said to myself, she is a,"
she paused, fanned her hands out in a circular motion and said,
She stepped in closer. I maneuvered
the L-cart between us.
"You are surrounded by an intense
yellow and orange light," she said. "I can't even look at you for
long. Just like the sun. You hurt my eyes."
For a while, I rather enjoyed being
told I was as bright as the sun. But isn't that just like a Leo
vain, self-absorbed, a real sucker for a compliment. I don't
have a psychic vibe in my body, but I knew she'd be trouble. One
look at her dream catcher earrings told me she couldn't be trusted.
"Who owns this store?" she asked.
I laughed. I'm an ethnic mixture of Hawaiian,
Chinese, Japanese, and Filipino. I'd have a hard time passing for
a Barnes, let alone a Noble.
"No really," she said. "You are a
natural born leader. You could own this store if you wanted to."
"I don't think so," I said giggling.
"So, uh, what else do you see?"
"Your aura tells me that you will
be very successful. You are dynamic, passionate, intelligent, kind,
and," she paused to look up at the ceiling as if the light fixtures
were sending her telepathic signals, "you will be rich and famous
someday." How strange, I thought to myself, those words seemed
so, well, familiar, and yet, there was one small snag. I had already
read my horoscope in Vogue, Harper's Bazaar, Marie Claire,
and Vanity Fair, and none of their charts said anything
about me being kind. I went back to shelving romance novels.
"You are destined to do big things. Big!"
she said. "I can see your future."
"You're psychic too," I said.
"Auras, palms, tarot, numerology, crystals,
séance, channeling, automatic writing, income taxes
I do it all," she said.
"Then tell me something," I whispered.
I picked a Danielle Steel paperback off
of the shelf and held it out in front of her.
"You see this lady?" I said.
The woman lifted her hand to her face
and squinted violently.
"Oh her aura is bright too," the woman
said. "Very very bright."
"It says on the back of this book," I
whispered, "that this woman has sold 410 million copies of her novels,
and that everyone reads Danielle Steel."
The woman nodded.
"So, what do you think?" I said. "Will
I be the next Danielle Steel?"
The question was a rhetorical one
of course, but enquiring minds wanted to know.
The woman slid her hand in to her
jeans pocket and pulled out a business card.
"Make an appointment," she said handing
me the card. "Only twenty-five dollars for the first hour. Ten for
any additional hours. That's cheap these days. I'm not getting any
more messages about you right now. Must be the lady on the book.
Her aura is blocking yours."
That did wonders for my morale. I
didn't have anything against romance novels. Escapism is a healthy
excuse for broadening one's vocabulary to include words like "heaving"
and "supple." But how was I supposed to be the next Colette or Dorothy
Parker if my aura could be eclipsed by the likes of Steel? I didn't
dare show my new psychic friend a copy of Fabio's novel.
"You cannot solicit your services in this
store," I told the woman.
"I could change your life," she said.
"Believe me," I said. "You already have."
I put the novel back on the shelf, pushed
my L-cart back to the storeroom where I suffered from yet another
"maybe-it's-time-to-apply-for-law-school" moment. About a half hour
later, when I walked back on to the floor, I saw the woman following
the store manager towards the exit. She squinted all the way out
It didn't take long for me to realize
that what sold well was never an indication of what was written
well. I might as well have worked at the Gap or the Sunglass Hut:
retail was retail was retail. At the same time, I knew I'd get fired
if I had to push Hello Kitty cell phone cases or moisture infusing
shampoo. "Oh save your money," I'd say to a customer. "Who the hell
needs a botanicals and olive oil hydrating masque blended by indigenous
Guatemalan women anyway? It's not like you're basting a donkey."
But a book? I could sell a book, even if I had to contend with a
few bookstore regulars who had no intention of buying one.
A bent, elderly wisp of a man named Earl
was a regular customer who frequented the cook book alcove, and
he wasn't interested in Pacific Rim cuisine. He had permanent dibs
on one of the two overstuffed arm chairs in the section. When the
doors opened at 9:00 a.m., Earl shuffled into the store carrying
a tattered duffle bag. He greeted all the booksellers by name, especially
the women since he was an incurable flirt. "Good morning, Tina.
I thought you were off today, Gail? How was your day off, Lynn?
Didn't you close last night, Lisa?" We'd wave back and then ignore
him since he would spend several hours napping in the comfy chair.
Once 5:00 p.m. rolled around, Earl left the armchair, zipped up
his duffle bag and shuffled out the store.
One would think that a congenial old man
like Earl couldn't possibly be a pain in the ass, but he had a habit
of interrupting staff with attempts to make small talk while they
were trying to get work done. One morning, while I was busy
shelving an entire L-cart of cookbooks, I saw Earl shuffle towards
me. Since I knew he'd want to chat, I decided to stare at a copy
of The Joy of Cooking. "Joy" isn't necessarily the word I'd
use to describe the act of cooking, but I was desperate. I wanted
to avoid Earl.
"You look very busy this morning Miss
Lisa," Earl said interrupting my attempt to memorize a stuffed cabbage
"What do you think about this weather
we've been having lately?" he asked.
I thought Honolulu's weather was about
as predictable as my attitude towards cabbage in general. It never
changed. Why bother asking. But since Earl looked to be about eighty
years old, I couldn't bring myself to be impolite.
"Pleasant," was all I said to him as he
stared at my breasts.
"I understand you Oriental gals make great
wives," Earl said noticing the book I was holding. "You need a good
husband to take care of."
I had needed a good husband like I needed
an abacus, but all I could do was smile, nod, and alphabetize.
Comments like, "your slip is showing,"
"that neckline is lovely on you" or "you look like you could use
a back rub" grew to be a little annoying after awhile, especially
when I was combing the self-help section for the last copy of The
Road Less Traveled for a less than patient customer carrying
a bottle of St.John's Wort.
I couldn't decide what was more annoying:
Earl's guilt free licentiousness or the guilt I suffered from because
he was obviously old and poor. Since he had spent the majority
of his day sleeping in the cookbook alcove, I wasn't sure if Earl
had a home. It wasn't my place to ask, but I imagined him to be
a vagrant or church charity case. On Sunday mornings, he'd show
up wearing a baby blue leisure suit blessing everyone like some
evangelist from Three's Company, but during the rest of the
week, he dressed in what looked like Goodwill giveaways. Sure, he
was a dirty old man, but it was the "old" part that rapped my knuckles,
so to speak, whenever I envisioned the possibility of him hobbling
at a crosswalk or watching the TV weather report in a shelter.
If Earl wasn't asleep or ogling women,
he was copying quotations from Bartlett's and proverbs from
the Bible onto the backs of crumpled fliers or scratch paper that
he would stuff in to his duffle bag at the end of the day. He had
elegant cursive sharp letters of equal height written within
straight margins. He told me he had plans to publish his collection
someday. He wasn't loitering; he was doing research. He even helped
collect spit backs and occasionally scolded customers who had left
half eaten bagels or empty drinking glasses on the table in his
cook book alcove.
One morning, Earl tried to return a hard
cover coffee table book.
"I didn't know you were interested in
Harley Davidsons," I said trying to lift the book off of the cashier
"It was a gift," he said.
It was a common scam; steal a book from
another store or buy a bargain book for cheap and then try to exchange
it for cash. Earl was able to get cash for his motorcycle book,
and he bought himself a mug of Starbucks and a bowl of soup. When
he tried to pull the same con a few days later, management refused
the return, and Earl eventually stopped coming in to the store.
A woman we called Rat Lady a petite fantasy fanatic who wrinkled
her nose while she blathered on about dragons and mice armed with
swords -- had already moved into Earl's armchair by the time I realized
he wasn't showing up anymore. He was like that old tree that no
one paid attention to until it got cut down.
"You seen Earl lately?" I asked one of
the other booksellers.
"Earl who?" she said. "I'm kidding. Maybe
he's at Borders."
"Traitor," I said.
I imagined him lying in an alley behind
a Borders Books and Music a stolen Bartlett's splayed open
on his chest; duffle bag ripped open, scraps of paper strewn over
the sidewalk. What if he had had a stroke? Or tripped and broke
a hip bone? I wondered if he had family, or even better, a trust
fund. I pictured his safe-deposit box bulging with gold bullion
and Mark Twain aphorisms scribbled onto promissory notes and Swiss
francs. What if he lived in one of those million dollar Kahala mansions
up the street from the store? At least that's what I had wished
for him; a comfortable home where he could obsess over a book that
would never get published. Maybe that's why I cared about Earl.
He was, in a way, like me: an aspiring author, an earnest wannabe.
I never saw him again, but his infamy paralleled the fictional characters
surrounding what was once his comfy armchair. He had a name, a place
in time, and an open-ended conclusion that had left me wiser for
Barnes & Noble was never meant to
be just a bookstore. It fostered community, culture, literacy, and
sex. On weekend nights, the store transformed into the thinking
person's meat market. Espresso shots took the place of tequila.
Customers preferred peppermint ginseng tea over Long Island iced
tea. Standard pick-up lines like "haven't we met before?" or "I
bet you're a Libra" changed to "have you tried Erica Jong?" or "I
bet you do The Utne Reader." Art Deco fixtures and Chopin
drifting from the PA system displaced the mirrored disco ball rotating
to Funkytown. The reclining female nude painted on black
velvet displayed behind everyman's bar was swapped for a Mark Summers
"scratchboard" portrait of Amy Tan.
On Friday nights, whenever I was assigned
to stand behind the information counter, I'd watch the players arrive.
The magazine section was the barrel in which one could shoot fish.
All one had to do was pretend to be immersed in the pages of a magazine
and wait for the right person to inadvertently bump. "Excuse me,"
followed by "you read that often?" was exchanged, and the rest of
the conversation would take care of itself. Choice of periodical
was a demonstration of one's personal interests and professional
status. If one's face was buried in The New Yorker or
Harper's, one was considered the well-read metropolitan. The
already coupled and content read People magazine since they
had no one to impress. In the Barnes & Noble singles scene,
connecting with a prospective partner not only depended upon literacy;
good taste in reading material was as important as coming from a
socially prominent family or attending the right college, which
had to have been better than, say, waking up with a hangover next
to someone who doesn't know the difference between "lain" or "laid."
One Friday night, near closing, there
were a dozen or so customers left lingering in the aisles. It was
time for the Good evening Barnes & Noble shoppers. It is
now 10:45 p.m., and we will be closing in fifteen minutes announcement
given over the PA system. The announcement, which was the passive
aggressive form of "we want to go home," ended with the much-anticipated
"mahalo for shopping at Barnes & Noble."
That night, before we closed the doors,
I had to fulfill restroom duty. I pushed the women's restroom door
open and saw two pairs of feet a pair of Air Jordan's and
a pair of red platforms in the gap between the floor and
the wall of the handicap stall.
"Excuse me," I said to the feet. "We're
Both pairs of feet levitated and disappeared.
I was in no mood for handicap stall sleaze.
I had just spent eight hours at the information desk responding
to customers like the woman who had screamed, "How many times do
I have to tell you; I don't know the title. All I know is that the
cover is blue."
"Are you sure it isn't beige?" I said.
"That might help me narrow the possibilities here."
"Neeyoh, I said ba-loo.
And I think the word "love" is in the title."
"Love? Well why didn't you say so
in the first place?" I said.
"Borders has the book," the woman
yelled. "Why don't you?"
Then there was the observant young
man who had asked me, "Why isn't there a clock in this store?" I
looked at my watch and told him "it's about nine o'clock."
"I didn't ask you for the time," he said.
"I asked you why there weren't any clocks in this store," and then
he walked away.
An equally young and observant woman stopped
me in the history section and asked, "Why isn't there a Xerox machine
in this store?" I figured I might as well tell her the truth, since
it was the stupidest question I had heard that night.
"Because," I said speaking slowly, "we
. . . want . . . you . . . to buy . . . the book."
"That's the lamest excuse I've ever heard,"
she said. "You obviously don't want to spend money on a copier."
She had a point.
Then the infamous president of MENSA,
who found perverse pleasure in pointing out the fact that I was
not a member of MENSA, had asked me "do you speak English?"
"As a matter of fact," I said, "I do."
"I reserved the cookbook alcove for our
MENSA meeting," she said pointing to the customers sitting in the
comfy chairs. "Can you tell me what those people are doing there?"
"Reading cookbooks," I said.
She was not impressed with my dazzling
display of logic.
Eight hours of this nonsense can push
a humble bookseller to the brink of hostility, so when the couple
in the handicap stall tried to hide their feet, I rapped my knuckles
on the restroom wall.
"Listen," I yelled. "I'm going to
count to three and walk out of this restroom. Then, I'm going to
count to ten, and when I come back, I expect to find you
both of you gone.
The feet gradually reappeared.
"One." I crossed my arms over my chest.
"Two." I took one last look at the handicap
"Three. I'm leaving now," I said and
I returned to the information desk
without any intention of counting to ten. I should have been finding
books for that couple, not finding them in the restroom making out.
To my surprise a girl, who looked to be about thirteen trying to
be twenty, took all of ten seconds to teeter out of the restroom.
She hadn't yet mastered the precarious art of walking in platform
shoes, but she semi-sashayed down the wide center aisle of the bookstore
anyway, as if she were a fledgling Naomi or Cindy working the catwalk.
She didn't seem embarrassed. She smiled more like gloated
-- as she adjusted her halter, yanked the hem of her black, Lycra
mini skirt, and paraded out the door. Half of me wanted to congratulate
her, and the other half of me wanted to slap her silly.
About four seconds later, her partner
in handicap stall crime, Mr. Air Jordan's, skulked down the center
aisle with his baseball cap visor worn low to hide his eyes. He
looked to be about thirteen years old as well -- baggy cargo pants,
a Chicago Bulls jersey about two sizes too big draped over a pair
of shoulders hunched over with guilt. When he finally reached the
foyer, he sprinted out the door.
I checked the handicap stall and found
The Joy of Sex, special edition with photo illustrations,
on the Koala Kare diaper changing station. I picked up the sex manual
by pinching it at one corner and said to myself, it ain't exactly
D.H. Lawrence, but at least it's a book.
On April 5, 1997, while driving to work,
I heard a radio announcer say that Allen Ginsberg had finally died
of stomach cancer. The last time I cried over the death of a celebrity
was when Jim Henson, creative genius of The Muppets, passed away
in 1990 of pneumonia. All I knew about Henson was Kermit the Frog,
Ernie, the "Ma Nah, Ma-Nah" puppets, and the movies Dark Crystal
and Labyrinth, and yet, I cried as if I had known Henson
intimately. Like Henson, all I knew about Allen Ginsberg was through
what he had created.
Ginsberg's poetry was the topic of conversation
for the rest of the night. There wasn't a bookseller in the store,
probably in the nation, who hadn't read "Howl" or "Sunflower Sutra"
at some point in his or her life, which reminded me of why most
of us worked in a bookstore. Sometimes the job seemed like just
another retail position from hell, but for the most part, the booksellers
I had worked with really did love to read.
I felt Ginsberg's presence in the store
that evening not ghostly mumbo jumbo. A bearded apparition
sitting in lotus position didn't haunt the poetry section. Instead,
like magic, he had gone from living legend to immortal in a matter
of a few hours. His ability to transform cynicism and disillusionment
into music made me look around the store and wonder if Ginsberg
would enjoy observing the crazies roaming the aisles. I think he
Right before closing, I told the manager
that we had to acknowledge Ginsberg's death. Maybe I was being a
bit melodramatic, but he agreed. After he gave the closing announcement
over the PA system, he read the first few lines of what is probably
considered the most recognizable poem in contemporary American literature.
I saw the best minds of my generation
destroyed by madness, starving hysterical naked, dragging themselves
through the Negro streets at dawn looking for an angry fix,
angelheaded hipsters burning for the
ancient heavenly connection to the starry dynamo in the machinery
who poverty and tatters and hollow-eyed
and high sat up smoking in the supernatural darkness of cold-water
flats floating across the tops of cities contemplating jazz
At closing time, there were always a few
customers who were either too engaged with reading material or too
comfortable to get up out of the armchairs. We never asked them
to leave; we'd trudge around the store yawning loudly or whistling
Aloha `Oe while collecting empty coffee mugs and used napkins.
As far as they were concerned, we were invisible, but the truth
was these people had no where else to go.
In retail, the customer is always right,
and the salesperson is always nothing but a salesperson. The roles
rarely shift, bend, or blur. But on the night of Ginsberg's death,
while the store manager read the first few lines of Howl,
the hierarchy that separates customer from bookseller vanished.
We, all of us who had heard Ginsberg's words over the PA system,
left the nooks, the cook book alcove, the music section, the L-carts,
the café, and gathered in the center aisle of the store where
we became listeners.
When the manager finished reading, there
was no applause, no hoots, no wiseass remarks, only silence. The
dozen or so customers who heard the poem brought whatever they had
been reading to the information desk and filed quietly out the front
One girl, maybe fifteen years old, stopped
in front of me.
"I know you want to go home," she said,
"but could you help me find that poem?"
"Sure," I said. "Come with me."
We walked to the poetry section, and I
pulled a trade paperback edition of Howl off the shelf and
placed it in her hands.