a review by Pasco Gasbarro, courtesy of Fine Books and Collections
Romance, Mystery, Drama and Other Page-Turning Adventures from a Year in a Bookstore
By Suzanne Strempek Shea
Boston: Beacon Press (2004)
Books about books is a misnomer of a genre name. If these titles were strictly about books, and nothing else, they would be title catalogs threaded with wisps of narratives: “And then I bought this. And then I sold that.” Such flat enumerations would numb the soul of the most passionate bibliophile. The best books about books are about books and people, specifically, about the sellers, collectors, enthusiasts, and oddballs, including the authors themselves. The people must be as interesting as the books. Shelf Life is primarily about people, emphasizing the relationships that a bookstore can foster among employees and customers, and even bridging the canyon between sellers and buyers.
Shea is a writer whose previous book, Songs from a Lead-Lined Room, described her diagnosis and treatment for breast cancer. Following her recuperation, she took a job at Edwards Bookstore in Springfield, Massachusetts, at the request of friend and storeowner, Janet Edwards. Much to her surprise, the author became an employee of a retail bookstore, stocking shelves, filling back-orders, and arranging window displays. She captures the mundane mechanics of selling new books, including the drudgery, the frustrations, and the job’s greatest satisfactions–answering questions and helping customers. Edwards’s customers provide the book’s most humorous and illuminating stories. A woman who needs a magazine article calls the store and asks, “I don’t suppose you could cut out the article I want and mail it to me?” A traveling businessman wants “something I’ll just read and forget.” Shea considers creating a window display–Books That Won’t Make You Think–but discreetly shelves the notion. There are schoolchildren whose excitement about books is not dampened by required reading lists and customers who would sooner skip their morning cup of coffee than their regular shop visits. An older gentleman, awkward and unsure, wants to know how to talk with women or, more specifically, how to rekindle a romance with one particular woman. “I’ve found the right one,” he says. “I just don’t want to make a mistake.”
Any bookseller or librarian will recognize these characters. These professions are kindred specialties. Both field questions and decipher the wants of their patrons, finding the right book for the right person on the right occasion. They wield empathy and patience to understand what their customers need, especially when their customers aren’t aware themselves what exactly they want. It inspires the enthusiasm of a guru in Shea. “I do indeed have what everyone is seeking,” she proudly quips. “Because I sell books.”
Janet Edwards has run the store for nearly thirty years, and her presence in the community is at once rock-solid and catalytic. “The customers call the store “Janet’s” because Janet is the heart, the soul, the furnace from which emanates the warmth, smarts, unflagging energy and goodwill that, despite the rather hidden location, a ping-ponging economy, and big-box competition, keeps the place alive.” Her coworkers (all of whom are women) have a tight-knit symbiosis with the store. It’s not simply a job for them, but a second family, providing close company, emotional support, and potluck dinners. Janet correctly claims, “This is a family business. We only hire family.”
Shea finds herself in the curious position of being an author in a store selling authors’ wares, straddling several links in the publishing food chain. She surreptitiously uses her position arranging the store’s displays to promote her own titles at the expense of big-name authors like John Grisham, who needs no help moving volumes. When she recommends one of her books to a potential buyer with a modest “I’ve heard it’s quite good,” the woman responds, “Doesn’t look it.”
There is another fascinating character at the center of Shelf Life–the bookstore itself, a destination drawing people of different backgrounds together to learn, exchange information, and interact with each other. It’s a case study of the bookstore in the ecology of a community. The story of Edwards Books encompasses the story of Springfield, an industrial city in western Massachusetts trying to revitalize itself after industry has abandoned it. Stores like Edwards’ are institutions that form the DNA of a good community, and like the strands of life, they are entwined in its survival.
There are thousands of retail bookstores in the United States, yet comparatively few are so special that they create a sense of ownership in the community. Shea links the demise of so many independents to the enormous inventories and influential buying power of chain stores. “All the more reason,” she suggests, “for traditional stores to stress ‘Let me find that for you.'” Small, personal courtesies pay off when customers tell her, “I could have gotten this online for thirty percent off…but I wanted to do business here.” That single statement may point to the major problem confronting many independent bookstores today–and to a possible solution.
Shelf Life is a personal missive from the frontline of the independent bookstore struggle. Shea warmly observes this world and captures her colleagues’ and her own enthusiasm, but doesn’t romanticize it. Bookselling, for all the magic bibliophiles find in it, is also mundane, and Shea’s readers might see how difficult and tiresome running a bookstore can be. Seasons and years pass, children grow up and leave town, catastrophe strikes, wars come, old friends pass on–but as of this review, Shea still works at Edwards Books.