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Siri Hustvedt's latest novel, The Blazing World, is aptly titled; it is a tour de force about a larger-than-life artist, Harriet "Harry" Burden,... Continue »
Confessions of an American Bookstore Junkieby Danielle Trussoni
Who knew that I would end up with such lovely addictions?
Not my parents, although they shouldn't have been surprised. When I was six, I began to read all of my mother's Danielle Steel books (we had nothing else on the shelves, other than a World Book Encyclopedia set, which was interesting reading to be sure, although a bit dry). One day I decided (perhaps because Ms. Steel and I shared a Christian name) that I, too, would be a writer. I looked long and hard at her author photo, went to the bathroom and plastered my mother's Farrah Fawcett-blue eye shadow from lash to brow. I plunked down on the sofa, a pen in one hand and a yellow legal pad in the other. I remember the moment vividly, because it is the one thing in my life that makes me believe that we can remember the future: I would be a great writer like Danielle Steel! I just knew it!
My mother, who was boiling corn on the cob in the kitchen, walked by the sofa, stopped dead in her tracks (my eye shadow was, I admit, arresting) and said: "What in god's name are you doing?"
"I'm being a writer," I said, biting the end of my pen and batting my eyelashes, seductively.
"Not looking like that you're not," Mom said and, taking me by the hand, she led me to the bathroom and scrubbed my face clean.
The Writers Named Danielle solidarity club soon faded away, but my book addiction did not. At seventeen, I was hopelessly, madly, desperately jonesing for bookstores. They were the only places in which I could find solace, inspiration, and a good many of my boyfriends who had to, absolutely had to, concur with my taste in literature, which was a mix of Morrissey's lyrics and Colette. I wasn't about to find such friends at school.
Why? Because I was never there. I skipped my classes regularly in high school, a cause for concern in most cases, but not in mine. Was I one of the kids under the viaduct smoking crack? No. Did I make crystal meth in my basement? Not I. When I skipped school, I hung out at Red Oak Books, a tight, slim, Escher-painting of a place on Main Street, where I met Tom Mutz, the first of my many bookseller mentors. Tom was in his forties, had shaggy black hair, wore a floppy gray unstructured cowboy hat, and rolled his own cigarettes on the countertop between stacks of books. Tom also worked part-time at the People's Food Co-op which was, at that time, still a small operation run by hippies. Tom encouraged me to apply for a job at Red Oak, which I did. I was hired and began working part-time, on evenings and weekends. Straight away, Tom taught me two rules to live by:
Tom would let me hang around Red Oak after my shift and listen to his opinions, mostly about books, but also about God, love, marriage/divorce, the Balkans (where he would one day move), and the tragedies of the left. Tom's ideas were wildly different from any I had heard before his main source of information being the Village Voice but I was enraptured. My friends (bad influences, anyway, I'm sure) saw less and less of me; my reading list grew, expanding to include Tom's favorite writers. Even my diet improved: Tom brought his homemade soup to work, our lunch.
You might say that Red Oak Books "kept me out of trouble" or "helped me find myself" but the truth was: The bookstore was the most happening place in town. My fellow employees Tim, who taught sociology at the university part-time, and Peggy, the owner, whose husband played the accordion in his spare time talked books like nobody's business. They knew which writers were "the real thing" and which ones were "faking it," a distinction that I still have trouble making. Everyone of interest showed up at Red Oak. Writers and readers and People's Food Co-op members stopped by to drink coffee and trash the bestseller lists, which often included (to my chagrin) Ms. Steel. I had never felt more at home.
On the days that I actually made it to school, I fantasized about the kind of life I would one day live, a Red Oak sort of life filled with books and friends and part-time employment. I had simple desires (books, boys, books, music, books, shelter, books), and I was sure that if my life could include these very basic things, I would be happy to live with nothing more. Perhaps it was during one of my daydreamy high school afternoons that I devised my Big Plan: After graduation, I would rent a small apartment with big windows and hardwood floors in some city far away (what city, it didn't matter). The apartment didn't have to be expensive; it didn't have to be in an exclusive, hip, or otherwise distinguished part of town. It did, however, have to be within sight of a bookstore. Preferably inside or above or below a bookstore.
When I moved to Madison, Wisconsin, my apartment was two blocks from Canterbury Booksellers, where I got a job working for $5.25 an hour (plus free coffee!). My apartment was small and expensive but, due to its proximity to State Street, I could crane my head around the side of the building and voila, Canterbury. I also could leave my apartment one minute before my shift began (10:59) and be to work on time (11:00).
I was in heaven! I loved my job beyond reason, especially when I was "shelving," the process of bringing new books from the back room and, you guessed it, putting them on the store's shelves. The problem was, I had a tendency to read on the job instead of work. Purely unintentional, this habit, but unavoidable. I would grab a stack of new hardcovers to shelve and find myself, an hour later, on chapter three of the new Salman Rushdie. Fortunately, my boss had a soft spot for people like me, employees who just loved being in a bookstore because of all the, well, all the books.
Unfortunately, both Red Oak Books and Canterbury Booksellers closed years ago, a fact that still breaks my heart. These stores gave me an appreciation for books and the people who spend their lives reading, arguing about, and championing writers. Without them, I would be a much different person than I am today. Now that these bookstores have closed, I have to wonder: Where do the teenaged girls with ripped jeans and Sylvia Plath poems written on their arms hang out? Where, now that these bookstores are gone, will all the bookstore junkies find employment?