Today I started the process of sending books back to my distributor. Because I'll be open for almost six more weeks, I still hold out hope for many of the books finding a home here in the community. So these were mostly titles I had multiple copies of, or books that I felt there was insufficient interest in to justify keeping around. It's not like I haven't gone through these exact motions before--culling the herd is a necessary and vital part of keeping a bookstore relevant. This was, however, the first time I'd boxed up a couple of cartons of books with no intention of replacing them on the shelves. And it may be that there are many things more forlorn than a stack of paperbacks whose covers have been stripped waiting to go to book heaven, but I'm hard pressed to think of them right now. There they sit, starkly naked reminders of my inability to pair them with a suitable reader. Failure written all over them, in so many words.
In some sense, I don't feel as if I've failed the community or even myself because this endeavor won't last, but that we have collectively failed the books and the ideas they represent. I know that sounds melodramatically moonbeam-ish, but I've spent most of the day today walking through the shelves as I culled books to send back, making mental notes of my favorites. And every time I come across a book that made me think a little longer and harder about what it means to be human, or helped me understand someone different from me, or transported me to another place or time, I feel the little pang of goodbye. These books, the good ones at least, have souls. As one of my older customers tells me every time he comes in, they're old friends. The Watsons Go To Birmingham is a little sassy, "Seriously? Couldn't you have done a little better by us?" To Kill a Mockingbird cajoles sweetly, "Come on, I've got something important to say and I'm relying on you to get me to the person I need to say it to." The Road, in typical minimalist fashion, grumps, "I trusted you" and lapses back into terse silence.
A very sweet regular customer came in yesterday and thanked me for giving her Garth Stein's The Art Of Racing In the Rain. She and her family had been here a few months ago and had been distraught because they had just put the family dog to sleep. She needed the book, I had the book, so I gave it to her and told her to read it when she felt able and bring it back when she was done. The book's narrator is a whip-smart, witty, wise-souled mutt named Enzo who believes that, once he's learned all there is to learn as a dog, he will be reincarnated as a man. It's a very sweet, well-written story that deals very sensitively with what it means to be human and to have a soul. Anyway, the lady came back yesterday to tell me the rest of HER story. She, herself, had been going into the hospital the next day for treatment of a very serious condition--this on the heels of the poor dead dog. It was almost too much for the family to take. She told me she had been overwhelmed by the simple act of me giving her the book. And I thought, maybe that was why I opened the bookstore in the first place. Maybe it wasn't to build a creative community gathering place or champion literacy or fulfill a childhood dream. Maybe it was because this woman would need this book on this particular spring day, and I needed to be here to pair her up with it. Several months of hard work, a fair amount of stress, a few tears and a couple of buckets of sweat in return for being able to be in the right place at the right time. I think that's a pretty good trade.