Don’t worry– this isn’t a scorching screed or a pitiful whine. It’s not even a calmly reasoned exegesis on the state of contemporary bookselling or contemporary poetry or (Lord help us) both. At least that’s not my intent. Lately I’ve been thinking about all the people over the years who unexpectedly stopped coming into my bookstore. I don’t mean percentages of the populace or categories of shoppers. I mean people (and not those who died or moved), individuals who once browsed the shelves with regularity and then no longer walked through the door.
Before you go thinking there must be something terribly wrong with my shop, I should clarify that it is blessed with many longtime customers as well as with the continued arrival of new faces who become familiar ones. They’re just not my focus here. The “lost” customers aren’t really my focus either, I guess. The relationship between customer and bookseller (or other shopkeeper) is what I’m pondering. Not so much how that relationship begins, but how it ends, and maybe, why.
“Customer” and “shopkeeper” don’t seem nuanced enough terms for the participants. Like bars and coffee shops, bookstores are seen as a “third place” in the community, a welcoming space outside of home or work where folks can gather. When that third place happens to be your workplace, your role among the gathered is a bit complicated. As with any, this relationship can be nourishing for both parties, but makes them vulnerable to disappointment, misunderstanding, loss. The shopkeeper is a kind of passive participant, though– it’s the customer who chooses to come in and the customer who decides not to. When a customer makes that decision, it may be weeks or months before the bookseller understands it’s been made. You keep expecting to see that face at the door.
Which brings me to Customer X. His early visits were quiet but long. He was (is?) a leisurely ardent browser (so satisfying for a bookseller to see), making his way along the shelves, sifting through the jumble of the sale cart. With each return visit, our conversations lengthened and began to encompass not just poetry, which he was reading and writing with vigor, but politics, art, and eventually, family and work. I knew what days to expect him, what readings he might want to attend, where he’d want to sit. When I’d greet him and ask him how he was, he’d say, Christine, this is as good as it gets.
And then for some reason it wasn’t. Which slowly became clear to me as his regular visiting days rolled by but he did not, as I ordered books with him in mind but didn’t have the chance to share them with him, as poets I thought sure he would want to hear shared their work without his attentive presence in the audience. Yet he was still in the neighborhood, waiting at the bus, walking with his family. He’d speak briefly, cordially, if we passed on the sidewalk, but only there. Even his son was surprised by the shift when he stopped by at Christmas for my usual assistance, and I had to say, I don’t know what he’s reading or read.
He came in once more after an acquaintance he’d helped gave him a gift certificate. Feeling both pleased and unsettled, I quietly told him I was glad to see him and hoped I hadn’t offended him in some way. Oh, no, no, he said, selected a book, and was gone. It’s been several years since he closed the door.
Maybe I’m not really thinking about why such endings happen. Maybe I’m giving up on why. Customer X, thank you for those years of bookshopping, of conversation, of hours passed together in a shared endeavor. And Mary the bartender at the great old place downtown, if you’re reading this, I want you to know I stopped coming in because I no longer have a Monday-afternoon beer. But I’m grateful for having had the nourishment of your place and your company. It was as good as it gets.