If I had to say what I do for a living, I’d say I buy and sell books–though it’s calendars mostly at the moment. Anyway, I’m proud to have the word “bookseller” after my name on various forms and documents. Mine’s an honorable occupation, and I’m part of a long and largely respectable tradition. It’s not all I am certainly, but the first thing I volunteer when asked. (Americans are like that about our jobs, aren’t we?)
The thing I’ve come to realize about booksellers is we’re nearly always something else, aren’t we? Think about that. Yes, some of us are parents and/or devoted mates, and so on. Stands to reason. We’re human, most of us. (I have known more than a few bookstore cats.) But I’ve been working in bookstores now for 27 years and in that time I’ve worked with novelists, poets, film critics, musicians, actors, painters, sculptors, cartoonists, singers, storytellers, dancers, at least one ventriloquist and more than one comedian. Art and performance to one side, I’ve worked side by side with booksellers who were also activists, film preservationists, political organizers, charity workers, marathon runners and volunteers of all sorts, to say nothing here of the many accomplished knitters, milliners, lace-makers and craftspeople. Interesting people, most of us, I should say.
Now, the great twentieth century photographer Man Ray liked a joke. Man Ray was also quite keen on his lovely model, Kiki de Montparnasse. Made all sorts of lovely pictures of her. The most famous of these was Le Violon d’Ingres. In that one, beautiful Kiki, taken from the back, as it were, is naked but for a turban and a bit o’ drapery ’round her lap. The joke being that the lady also sports two musical clefs on the small of her back, making her a surreal sort of violin. It was a play on her shapely shape, and on the beautiful odalisques painted by the great French Neoclassical master Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres. Man Ray’s title for his photograph is yet another of his jokes. Seems if someone came to Ingres’ studio, instead of showing his pictures, he’d play the violin, whether the visitor wanted him to or not. In French then, “Le Violon d’Ingres,” or Ingres’ Violin, is short-hand for “don’t quit your day job.” Really though, he was quite a good violinist, in addition to being a brilliant painter. (Je fais une plaisanterie.) More like, “you ain’t seen nothing yet!” or “let me show you what else I can do.” (That Kiki was a gifted girl, it seems.)
Broke the little toe on my right foot a couple of weeks ago. No Irish clogging for me then, so far in the New Year. More realistically, I was pretty useless during this last retail Holiday Season, alas. Not very good on the sales floor, and useless at the stairs. Rather than send me away in disgrace, my very kind immediate supervisor let me work the cash registers a bit, and even let me perch, rather clumsily on a tall stool.
Sitting on my duff, I find I can’t really read so much as a page of my present book of choice, Sir Thomas Browne’s wonderful Religio Medici. (Shut up, he is a charming writer.) What to do then, between customers but doodle . . . well, customers? Some people read magazines. Some people stand and wait. I draw.
It’s this doodling that’s put me in mind of how many genuinely talented people there are behind the cash registers and information desks in any given bookstore. Think of it: the fellow answering the phone might be writing a poem, the woman pushing that restock cart might be a ballerina. As lovely, or at least as amusing as might be the idea of everyone in a bookstore dancing down the aisles, there is a more serious point here about finding ways to use all this talent to make the bookstores more interesting places, not just for ourselves but for our patrons and friends, no? The only thing that seems to keep us all from bringing more of what we do elsewhere into the bookstore is not having been asked, or not thinking our gift or hobby quite right for an event.
Do something! Offer a knitting class! Offer an afternoon of mandolin music! Read mystery stories aloud some dark and gloomy evening. Encourage them that draws or paints or takes pictures to share what they make around the bookstore. Bake! What interests us is what makes us interesting, and what makes us unique can only make Independent bookstores better. Ask. Play your violin! In my case, as this picture illustrates, better say bass fiddle.