In our bookstore, micro would be the appropriate way to refer to the size of the staff. Staff, such a wonderful word, both a stick to aid walking and those who work at keeping an operation functioning. Since at Open Books there are only two of us, each capable of doing every task required, each in management and each an employee, you could also say our staff is a two-legged stool that we continue to make work, cheek to cheek. In order to keep going we have, jokingly, more or less, fired each other and each has quit several times, like two dogs playing gruff with one another.
The years haven’t been without their challenges. There was my hip replacement, with complications, twelve years ago. In that case the store closed for some days, then Christine worked it alone while I learned to navigate to the kitchen for a prepared lunch that could be carried in a walker’s basket. But this year we found ourselves with an unpleasant first—we were both sick, significantly, at the same time and for a surprisingly long period of time.
One of the benefits of being a larger company is having staff that can cover for staff. We, the two of us, pretty much gutted it up and worked the holiday season, trying to keep our racking coughs covered, and letting each other collapse when truly required. We even set up a cot that took up most of the unused floor space in the office for true daytime sleep.
Understand, we believed and still do that we weren’t contagious more than, oh, one week of the multi-week occupation of this pernicious bug. Never a high fever, no unexpected evacuations if you know what I mean. Just a feeling like a Monster Cold that included, serially, a tragic sore throat, sinus meanness, and earache and congestion that introduced hearing loss to the experience. A strange stew of problems that would not go away, not for weeks . . . and this, our busiest time of the year, the time of the year we extend store hours! Ouch. We lived through being open six days a week all December.
So where does this column, so far just kind of whiney, go from here? The shared illness was an eye-opening experience for each of us, like a visitation by Scrooge’s Ghost of Christmas Yet To Come. And not unlike that experience for Scrooge, this visitation helped bring a new perspective to our Open Books. It’s one thing to abstractly know the bookstore (and the self) can easily fall apart, another thing entirely to feel like that collapse is one very short step away. We talked about closing the store for a day or two, thinking perhaps we could get well quickly, but that felt to each of us like it would signal a surrender from which we could not turn back.
So we hung in there. And what happened? We sold books! The store was lively. The store was bright and active even though most days the sun stayed covered by blankets of clouds, then slunk off and set by 4:30. There were vibrant discussions of books, of poets, of poems. The place was alive. The place was healthy! People bought books for gifts, they bought gift certificates, they bought books for themselves, they bought books for school.
What sold? Well, books from all over the map, figuratively speaking. We sold books from commercially popular poets like Mary Oliver and Dylan Thomas, and from poets published by small presses, Tao Lin, for instance, and Lisa Jarnot. We sold used books published decades ago by Cape Goliard Press, Four Seasons Foundation and other marvelous, historically significant literary presses. We sold books!
The perspective the illness brought was that the desire for books, the willingness to exchange money for books, did not require us to be one hundred percent involved. In fact, it doesn’t require us at all. We’re a couple of humans at the service of books. Small cogs on an unfathomably large wheel. The written word is a touch of magic. The book is a fantastic kingdom. And some of us lucky, vulnerable, germy humans get to be involved in the exchange of books, that exchange of thought and musical speech and utterly wacky imagination. This carried us along, got us through our days, sick as we were.
So, Christine and I are mortal. Open Books is mortal. Hey, so is Amazon! Even the education and entertainment that books offer are temporary . . . You have heard about the impending supernova, no? Our lesson is that there is a marvelous world humming within and around books that will, for a start, outlast Christine’s and my illness. And that’s not all it will outlast. The rest will come in time. I’m happy to report that already we’re better.
John W. Marshall, along with Christine Deavel, co-owns and operates Open Books: A Poem Emporium, the seventeen-year-old poetry-only bookstore in Seattle. He publishes poetry under the name J.W. Marshall because the late, lamented Seattle Post Intelligencer had, as its book editor, a John Marshall whom this John Marshall was not. He won the 2007 Field Poetry Prize, and his first book, Meaning a Cloud, was published in 2008 by Oberlin College Press.