I was invited by a warehouse club near Portland to sign books one recent Saturday afternoon. It was in East Vancouver, Washington, an area not featured in any of my books. With a bit of trepidation about that, but thankful they were carrying my books, I arrived and checked in.
2 p.m. I settle in. Passersby and I nod or smile. Sale number one comes after 16 minutes. Was my gratefulness to the couple uncomfortable for them?
Get out the notebook. To shoppers ambling by, eyes focused on the opportunities ahead, it's meant to telegraph that while interested in my surroundings and in them, too, of course, I have a notebook. A purpose. I am not desperate.
"Daddy, can I be the pusher?"
"But I can see!" The girl, about seven, demonstrates her ability to see over the cart handle. But her father's attention has transferred to the display of iPhone docking stations. He didn't hear that last bit, or even notice me. I shouldn't have worn earth tones.
2:24 p.m. Still just one sale.
Typical scene: one person pushes the cart, musing aloud about potential purchases and perceived needs to the other person, who ambles behind, talking to person number one's back; both heads swivel rhythmically: left, right, 45 degrees, 90 degrees, then come to a stop at an object that connects with their desire.
2:36 p.m. No further sales.
"Maybe I should just get me a buggy," says a middle aged woman. A buggy. Is that a Vancouver term? Interesting. She dumps her broccoli and bread into her friend's cart and the friend waits for her at the book aisle. Her eyes flick over me and past, like I'm cauliflower and she's not planning on cooking cauliflower tonight.
Only every third metal halide light in the ceiling is on. On this December day, when the air feels like bright shards of fractured cold, blue daylight pours in through rectangular windows in the ceiling. Some appear to be openable. Nice green touch.
The floor provides an incentive to stay and buy: it's concrete, tinted a quiet, eye-soothing gray, so smooth carts practically flow over it. A cart/buggy filled with four giggling kids is pushed as effortlessly as the empty carts just entering the arena.
What a great place to roller skate. Did the contractors let their kids in to do that before handing it over to be filled with all this stuff?
An abandoned cart with meat in it has been sitting behind me. I snag a red-vested employee and point it out. She grabs the meat expertly and tosses it right back in the cart. "It's done," she pronounces with the air of an ER doctor. Too warm to sell. She ferries the cart away. I wonder about the meat's fate: homeless shelter, or too much liability?
"Bob, are you going to stay right here?"
Bob is middle aged. He nods yes and two women who look like they could be his mother and maybe her friend walk off. He picks up a book and after a bit notices me sitting at the end cap. He smiles and comes over to talk to me.
"I was thinking of writing a book, but I need some bad guys," he says. "I have good guys — half human, half elves."
Bob, I love you! I am so ready for a chat with someone who likes books. But before I can ask Bob any questions about his protagonists, the two women appear, corral Bob between them and disappear.
3 p.m. Light outside is fading; now two out of every three lights are on.
3:03 p.m. Sale number two.
I write down ideas for potential blog posts: should I kvetch about bits of grit that get under my prickly skin — young women in stores who say "thank you" in faux little-girl voices, swallowing the "ank," or people who don't say "You're welcome" on NPR. After they've been thanked by the interviewer, they invariably thank the interviewer back. "I see your gratitude and raise you one." Whatever happened to "You're welcome!" But I veto crankiness as a blog topic. As Oregon's congressman Earl Blumenauer says, "No whining on the yacht."
Maybe I'm just getting in the way of sales. In this vast sea of commerce where computers to diamond rings to frozen spanakopita are for sale, books are like phytoplankton — vital to a healthy ecosystem but near-invisible among the dominant sharks, happy dolphins, and other eye catching reef dwellers. An expectant author sitting in front of her books may actually be exactly what a shopper doesn't want. As a warehouse shopper, you've got a list, and you're not expecting literary conversations. You're not expecting any human connections at all — until you reach the sample ladies.
3:33 p.m. All the lights are on now as the blue light outside deepens. It's quiet in here; at times, I see no one in the main aisle ahead of me. It's a brand new store, open just two weeks, as I learn from a kind employee who has been observing my isolation from the electronics section.
"Are you busy today?" a woman asks a red-vested guy at the jewelry counter.
"No," he answers in a friendly way. She wants to be shown something in automotive. He leaves off polishing the glass cabinets and walks off with her.
At 4 p.m., I fold up my chair, return it to the box of chairs for sale, and head out into a beautiful sunset, happy, mostly, with where I've been today.
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Laura O. Foster is a writer and expert on the history of Portland, Oregon, and the small towns around it. She is the author of The Portland Stairs Book, Portland Hill Walks, Portland City Walks, Lake Oswego (Images of America), and the writer/editor of Walk There! 50 Treks In and Around Portland and Vancouver. When not writing about Portland, Foster is busy creating new urban adventures or leading walks for local governments, civic groups, and nonprofits. She blogs at portlandwalking.blogspot.com.
Books mentioned in this post
Laura Foster is the author of The Portland Stairs Book