DIARY OF A COUNTRY BOOKSELLER
The Wearing of Disreputable Sweaters
I wish I had a dime for every time a person walks into the bookstore, smiles sadly, and says, "You are living out my dream. It must be so great to own a bookstore!"
It is great to own a bookstore. Obscurity and poverty notwithstanding, booksellers are frontline defenders of the First Amendment, and they get to take the cultural and intellectual pulse of the towns and cities where they live -- every day. I doubt that anyone is better prepared to answer the question, "Is this a good place to live?" than is a bookseller.
The life of a bookseller is also chock full of tender mercies. Let me count the ways:
It beats gutting chickens.
Books can't get wet so you are not expected to work in the rain.
People assume you read everything in your store and therefore must be right smart.
It makes no difference if you come to work or not. Books have to sell themselves.
You get to beat widows and orphans out of huge fortunes when you buy their deceased loved one's fine "library" for pennies on the dollar.
You feel "green" when you take the fine libraries to the recycling center.
You get to hear Zane Grey's name 16 times a day.
You can wear disreputable sweaters and talk to yourself. No one thinks it is odd.
You make more money than writers. (You both make less money than anyone else.)
You get to read any time you want and your wife thinks you're working.
This list is not entirely facetious. I've worked in the rain and once or twice the work involved chickens. I recommend bookselling if you have the choice.
Zane Grey was also the author of the first book I ever read (Riders of the Purple Sage) and I still get a little twingey about Mormons as a result. Hearing his name is not precisely a tender mercy, but I am happy to sell any book and happier still that an old warhorse like Grey has a robust audience. I wish that Floyd Dell, Sinclair Lewis, Gene Stratton Porter and a slew of other bygone writers still had as vital an audience. Then again, if wishes were warhorses they'd all be Zane Grey. Believe me, one cowboy writer is enough.
Truth also be told, there are no flies on my wife. She knows that I hardly ever hit a lick but is kind enough to believe that when I read during working hours it may yield some benefit to a customer. Maybe I'll be better prepared to recommend a book, or to steer the customer away from a particularly dreary read. Of course, it is possible that she knows I'm just screwing around and doesn't care. For me, our marriage has certainly been a match made in heaven.
The beating of widows and orphans is a lesser pleasure, and I hardly ever enjoy buying books from local people. Most sellers believe you are taking advantage of them and none seems to know about the laws of margins. It may certainly be true that Tarzan of the Apes was seen on the Antiques Road Show for $700, but in Berryville, Arkansas -- and in reputable bookstores everywhere -- Tarzan is worth about 40 books retail if he is clean and tight, wears a nice jacket, and isn't an A.L. Burt or Grosset and Dunlap reprint. Then, Tarzan and I have to agree to wait weeks, months or years before he finds a home.
That aside, and the fact that booksellers along with certain types of owls, egrets and tiny fishes are all endangered species, the selling of books is wholly a pleasure. I know that booksellers are frequently the object of envy among the many people who dream of owning a bookstore. And I know that they can only dream of the ecstasy that comes from the wearing of disreputable sweaters.