Two interactions in the store one recent morning put on display how a bookstore is, like all the world, a stage. When there are no customers the books and I hum to ourselves waiting, for the curtain to rise. The door opens, the show begins.
She was wearing a dress that looked like it was made from the petals of pansies and roses, soft whites and pinks, reds and violets. In one hand she carried a dark blue pear-shaped vase and cloud of tiny red and white salvia flowers, and in the other she held a homemade red heart-shaped fan with “I ❤ POETRY” printed on it in large, white block letters. As she walked through the bookstore door she adjusted it so the letters clearly faced out, then slowly fanned herself, this being a rare hot Seattle day.
He was a child, three or four years old, slung over the shoulder of his early-thirty-something father. As the father and son walked past me at the counter the boy said a name I didn’t catch, then said, “You be quiet.” The father, perhaps concerned I thought the boy was talking to me, said, “He’s talking to his dog. Is your store dog-friendly?” It instantly became clear that the dog was of the imaginary breed. “Yes,” I said, “very dog friendly. Especially the quiet ones.” They moved, the two (or three) of them, to the shelves in the back of the small store.
In each situation I felt more like an actor than a storekeeper, like I was the straight man in a comedy routine. My droll line, “If I can help you find something, please let me know,” was all the opening their characters needed.
The boy was a quiet but incessant talker. At one point I heard him say “Dad, I’m scared.” His father asked him what scared him, but I couldn’t hear his answer. Maybe he’d seen one of the seasonally increasing number of spiders wandering the store, but with his clearly active mind something less corporeal could easily have been the troubling agent. A bookstore is home to a myriad of patient voices waiting, wanting to be heard. It’s an environment haunted by potential contact. Maybe the fraught hush frightened him.
My first thought when the woman with the fan came through the door was that she was leading a summer camp of young poetry enthusiasts on an outing. That they were following the poetry heart. She was in fact bringing in a book of her poems which she hoped we would stock. I looked over the book, reading a couple of poems while she lingered. When I judge a book for the store in front of the poet I imagine I look like I’m quite critical, but really I’m only watching for utterly trite poems, grossly offensive writing, and/or clearly inartistic failures of grammar. If I’m thought to be a tough judge then my accepting the book should be that much more rewarding. I bought a copy for the shelves, paying her in store credit. We played our parts well. I doubt she usually dresses like she was then, but I might be wrong. I’m certain the fan was constructed for her trip to the poetry-only bookstore. She was probably a touch scared of me. She’d made a trip to the store to offer herself, through her art, for the store’s acceptance or rejection, which has to be a scary proposition. She was sweet and well-meaning, as was her poetry, and she had made the effort to put on a show to please the keeper of the store.
At some point the boy had been put onto his feet. He walked up and looked at me in the point-blank way of the very young. I gave him raised eyebrows once or twice, which had no impact, and he went back to his father. A short time later I heard him trying to talk his father into buying three books instead of two. The fear must have passed, if only for the moment. His father brought a couple of books to the till and paid with a credit card. As our somewhat creaky and old fashioned credit-card processing machine loudly rattled out his father’s receipt, the boy stared at it while covering his ears. I tore off his father’s receipt with an exaggerated flourish and the boy laughed. That’s what I wanted to have happen. I had been his audience and he was happy to swap roles. I put on a little show to please him and it did.
Literature is wondrous, a deliciously quiet point of human contact. Writers write, I think, to influence, to delight, and to be recognized as someone who walked the planet, who saw and thought and wrote things down. For readers, the pleasure comes in being directly and solely engaged by another person. It’s a thoroughly sweet and satisfying mode of interaction we humans have devised. But off the page, in the three (or four or five or more) dimensions, our human engagement is a fantastic and unfathomable interchange of information and entertainment. There I was, beginning my day associating quietly with books, when the curtain rose on a woman in a dress with a fan and a boy and his dog.
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.