In the year after I finished my MFA in poetry, I was a bookseller. There’s no better job for a poet. All day I got to talk to people who loved reading. At work, I found unexpected gifts in books. And I don’t mean memorable characters, grand themes, or life-changing assertions. Gulliver’s Books, where I worked, sells both used and new books, so I found actual objects in books that people were trading in: old photos featuring washed-out smiles and seventies clothes, drawings of dragons, homemade comics, receipts often revealing the place and date the book was first purchased, love letters, hate letters, letters from grandmas.
These lost bookmarks became a kind of archaeology for me—a way to learn about the life that was going on just outside the covers of a book a person was reading. It was as if the reader’s real life was trying to insert itself into the narrative. Great Aunt Marge’s egg salad recipe could become an appendix to Kafka’s The Trial. Why not? If that’s the book the reader had on the train on the way to a visit, it reveals something, sets roots for another story. I loved pricing books because something might fall out.
One day sorting books with the pricing gun ready to go, a note slid out from between the pages of a career guide. By then I was a connoisseur of lost bookmarks. This note felt sad to me with its spiral notebook fringe and blue-ruled lines. The even folding and the fact that it was in a book written to help people who were unsatisfied with their jobs spoke of an organized brand of desperation. I unfolded it and found a numbered list of complaints about someone’s workplace. Low pay. Long Hours. Nasty co-workers. It was a long list full of mundane unhappiness.
Then I saw the scrawl at the bottom. With a sloppy slant that rejected the page’s prefabricated lines, the depressed career changer had added, “I want the pain. I deserve the pain.” I wanted to know who it was. Why did she trade in the book? For years afterward, in my mind, that anonymous note writer sat at the same desk, drinking the same bad coffee, and hating the same co-workers. I felt sad for her. My job was good, and even though I was living in a sixteen by twenty cabin with no running water, I was writing and reading. I was lucky; words made up most of my day.
Then life got more complicated. I got full-time jobs, day jobs, the kind that make it difficult to take advantage of the skills you learn while getting an MFA in poetry. I had two babies, who grew bigger, and talked, and walked, and started to choose their own used books, bought, of course, at the same bookstore where I worked long before they were born. I found that I had folded up my poetry, stuffed it in a book, and set it on the shelf of the business of grown-up life.
Fortunately, unlike the sad career changer, I hadn’t traded it in. Ten years later, I found myself in the archives at the University of Alaska unfolding letters again. This time they were the letters of Sarah Ellen Gibson, the sixth woman to arrive in Fairbanks in the Gold Rush of 1903. Like the bookstore I had left so long before, the archives gave me the feeling that words were being passed on to new readers for a reason—maybe not the reason the person who had left them behind intended, but still, a reason. Among the time-flattened letters, there were receipts, old photographs, news clippings, and even a series of dirty jokes sent in installments from a far-away friend. The letters revealed so much about what life in turn-of-the-century Fairbanks was like. They offered the juicy details of Gibson’s life: affairs, an ugly divorce, financial ruin, a lawsuit, and medical problems. I could see the turning points: the moment she decided to leave her failing marriage, the moment she felt confident on her own, the moment she felt her sons could take care of themselves. Sitting there in my white gloves and squinting at a strangers’ slanted scrawl, I found the subject for Steam Laundry, my novel-in-poems.
Although I still feel for the sad career changer, I am grateful for that lined paper, the certainty of that lost self-hating scribble I stumbled upon. I’m glad it was me who found it. Working in a bookstore taught me that my love of reading extends even beyond books and into the lives that run parallel to them, the gutter narratives that get swept to the curb in the rush of traffic. Those narratives are with us, as bookmarks, as lost letters, as the beginnings of novels and poems. That’s why I keep writing.
Nicole Stellon O’Donnell’s novel-in-poems, Steam Laundry, was published in January. Her poetry has appeared in Prairie Schooner, The Women’s Review of Books, Beloit Poetry Journal, Dogwood, and other literary magazines. Her nonfiction has appeared in the Anchorage Daily News Sunday Magazine and on the Alaska Public Radio Network. Literary Mama, an online literary journal, will begin running her column about mothering in Alaska later this year. The Rasmuson Foundation granted her an Individual Artist Award to support the writing of the poems in Steam Laundry. She lives in Fairbanks, Alaska and still takes her daughters to Gulliver’s Books. Steam Laundry made the store’s April bestseller list.