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Archive for the ‘book stores’ Category

In the summer between grades five and six, I discovered the works of J. R. R. Tolkien. The encounter inspired a love of fantasy and science fiction that endures to this day.

I was always precocious reader. By the end of Grade 1, I was devouring the Hardy Boy books. by Grade 2, I had discovered Alexander Dumas and historical fiction, and I first read Moby Dick in Grade 3. This precociousness alarmed my mother, who had at least one conference with my teacher, and eventually decided that, if I came across anything remotely racy, I would probably just skip over it. It also meant that I was so busy reading works like Mutiny on the Bounty that I missed a number of children’s classics until in the early years of high school, including Harriet the Spy, The Wind in the Willows, and, of course, Tolkien’s The Hobbit.

I was a first generation book addict, with nothing except the occasional suggestion from the school librarian to indicate that I was missing a wealth of treasures. I wouldn’t even have known The Wizard of Oz except for the movie and the fact that I played the Cowardly Lion in the class play (a most moving performance, I thought, in which I had a mane that made me look like a dandelion, and developed the business of wiping my eyes with the tip of my tail when I pretended to cry),

I do remember hearing my brother talk about his teacher reading The Hobbit to his class. And in grade five, I saw a black and white sketch in a school book club catalog showing Frodo and Sam on Mount Doom, and was intrigued. What were the Hobbits mentioned in the caption? They didn’t seem much different than humans to me. But, at the same time, stripped to a couple of sentences, the plot seemed ludicrous.

That summer, I came across a paperback three volume set of The Lord of the Rings with the abstract cover full of banners and snake-like heads. But the price was high for my allowance, and I put it aside. That was at The Bookstall, where I lived during many long summer afternoons of my childhood.

The owner seemed to appreciate my enthusiasm, and tolerated my horde of unbought treasures. Yet, every once and a while, his patience thinned, and I had to make at least an effort to buy what I had reserved. Cunningly, I said that I would take the first volume, figuring to satisfy the owner’s strange insistence on making sales without too much financial damage to myself.

As I rode home on my bicycle, I stopped every few blocks to read a page or two. By the time I got home, I was thoroughly hooked, and descended to the downstairs basement that I was using that summer to read stretched out on my bed.

That was on Friday afternoon. I must have had dinner and other meals on Saturday, but what I mostly remember is constantly shifting position on the bed, physically restless yet so unable to put the book down that I might been a fool of a Took snared by Sauron’s glance in the Palantir.

The experience remains vivid now, and is the main source of my contempt for those who dismiss Tolkien as an archaic or mediocre writer. Those terms might apply to all but the best of his poetry, but, for me, Tolkien remains the universal standard for atmosphere and building tension. Opening with the forced cheeriness of a children’s tale, Tolkien slowly drops those tones, until suddenly, without realizing quite how you got there, you are in a middle of an altogether more dangerous story, and are afraid to go to the washroom without turning on the lights in the hopes of warding off the Black Riders. And that night, I heard a cat’s yowl a few yards over that left me lying awake, half-expecting to hear the sound of horses’ hooves coming down the street. The Black Riders might be looking for hobbits, I was thinking, but they would probably be just as happy with children.

Twenty-six hours after I bought the first volume, I had finished it, and was ready for more. I spent a sleepless night in anticipation, and cycled down to The Bookstall only to find that it was closed on Sundays. I’m not sure how I lasted the day, let alone the night, with my tormented thoughts that somehow the other volumes might have been sold in my absence, but on Monday morning I was on the doorstep at opening time. This time, I bought both the remaining volumes, having learned my lesson. Two days later, I had finished both, and was seriously debating starting again – something I have almost never done at any age.

For the rest of the summer, I was wild about Tolkien. I read his other works, including The Hobbit, but most of them were like methadone to a serious addict – satisfying, but missing something. I drew my own maps of the areas beyond the edges of Tolkien’s maps, and searched the story and the appendices for hooks to hang a story on. I fantasized about one day backpacking to Oxford and meeting Tolkien in his study. But none of it was enough. In desperation, I started branching out into other fantasy and science fiction writers like Fritz Leiber and Robert Heinlein, and so a lifelong taste was born.

My appreciation of literature has broadened since then to include the classics, foreign literature, graphic novels and selected mysteries. Yet for all the discoveries that have delighted me, none quite compared to those four days in which I read Tolkien for the first time.

When, shortly after, I began to have my first crushes on the girls in my class, the feeling wasn’t strange at all. I’d already experienced that intensity of emotions in the pages of three paperback books.

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After I finished my bachelor’s degree, I spent several years as a part time clerk in a mall bookstore. I had been reduced to a state where I was fit for little else: Not only had I gone straight through from high school with the exception of one or two summers off, but I had taken a double major and married in the same period. I needed time to coast while I considered the next step, and to earn enough money to pay my share of the expenses in the mean time.

In my naivety, I thought an enthusiasm for books was a natural qualification for such a job. Add a good memory for books and titles glimpsed, and I seemed a natural. Probably the fact that the job was minimum wage should have tipped me off to reality, but I was as green with inexperience as a new branch in spring.

Looking back, I have to say that disillusion took a surprisingly long time to set in. Yet, gradually, and with growing horror, I realized that other employees were far more interested in their shreds of status than books, and that my affinity for books was dismissed at the same time that I fielded all sorts of questions from them. I was unworldly, they decided, and they were right, although not in the way they thought.

All the other employees and managers, I realized, considered books commodities, not as exciting diversions and intellectual stimulation. Their lack of university degrees might have tipped me off, I suppose, but show me the twentysomething man who doesn’t believe he knows how the world works.

But I endured as I recuperated, experiencing the change in my life as Sunday store openings became the norm, and the embarrassment of having the older sister of a school acquaintance arrive as manager. She never said anything, but I grew increasingly afraid that she would mention my lowly status, and whispers would start to circulate that I was a failure.

However, despite this background of discontent, what I mainly recall were the surreal moments of comedy that went with the job. Some of these were corporate, such as the constantly shipping of reduced items back and forth for sales until long after any profit could be recouped from them.

One book I remembered was entitled Les Femmes aux Cigarettes, a reprint of a French photo study from the 1920s by a photographer who found the then-novelty of women smoking irresistible; it started at forty-eight dollars soon after I took the job, and had been reduced to twenty-five cent by the time I left.

I remember, too, the buzz of cleaning and drill that surrounded the visit of the owner – an event that lasted perhaps two minutes as he strode to the back of the store, shook the district manager’s hand, and went out to lunch with him.

Then there was the time I considered applying for a full-time position. The manager took me aside and talked to me solemnly of the duties and responsibilities of working full-time – as though I hadn’t been doing everything the full-timers were doing anyway. Asked point blank if she was implying that I wasn’t responsible, she back-pedaled furiously, but, with such events in my past, no wonder my view of the corporate world is ironic and bemused at best.

But what I remember most vividly are the customers. Many would enter the store in early afternoon, wanting the book they had seen on Oprah that morning, and could not understand that I had been at the store since 9AM, let alone that I’m not an Oprah sort of person. My favorite in this category is the woman who came up to me and said, “I can’t remember the name or the title of the book, and it’s hard to explain what it’s about, but it was on some television show this morning, and had a green cover.” What I wanted to do was direct her to the green book section, but, wisely, I refrained.

Another time, one of the many mothers who used the children’s section as a cheaper version of mall daycare berated us because her son had wandered. We should have kept an eye on him, she kept saying.

Then there was the time I chased a young shoplifter out the door, through the mall, and halfway across the parking lot. I didn’t catch him – which was probably good, since I might have got into trouble with the law – and, to tell the truth, I didn’t much care if I did. For me, the incident was an unexpected moment of excitement in an otherwise monotonous day. But from the terrorized look on the shoplifter’s face as he looked over his shoulder, I doubt he felt the same way – although perhaps he went on to tell his own boasting version of the story.

And who can forget the hordes who arrived in the last few hours of Christmas Eve, overheated in their winter coats, furious about everything that had sold out, and about as full of Christmas cheer as a tax collector? One Christmas, I had just slumped against the door lock when a young male executive came bounding at the door.

“I have to get a gift for my wife,” he kept saying. “I have to!” His tie was askew, and he was more than a little drunk, and all I wanted was to go home and start my own Christmas. Safe on the other side of the glass, I muttered, “Keep this up, and you won’t have to worry about buying for your wife much longer,” and let a staffer take pity on him.

I think that these random encounters helped shaped the basis of my worldview: Things don’t make sense, I decided, and I would only get a headache if I insisted in looking for the logic.

But I had outgrown the job by the end of my first shift. I enjoy people, but not constantly, and I’m not a naturally servile or patient person. After two and a half years, I was looking for a way out. I started applying for any job remotely suitable, then hit on grad school. That fall, I applied for both the Communications and English Department at Simon Fraser University. The Communications Department would only take grad students in September, and I wasn’t waiting another eight months, so I became an English master’s candidate, sinking gratefully into the familiar world where ideas mattered and books were viewed as precious.

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