Sunday, March 22, 2009

"Beneath This Roof at Midnight" --Stacey's Bookstore 1923 - 2009

It's when the fixtures come out, after the stock has been sold off or returned, after the final sale's been rung up, the final customer gone, the doors locked, when the paper is up on the windows, as if to hide the shame of the thing, that a bookstore is not a bookstore anymore. Walking what had been the aisles but have ceased to be because the bookcases are gathered, for convenience, in the center of the room, so not aisles now, but the periphery, the carpet covered in plastic to catch the sawdust and loose screws, it's then one sees the shape of the space as it must have been new, before any use was made of it, when occupancy was still just anticipated, before any purpose was made clear. The sound is empty. Alone, at night, in such a place, however busy one might be still, however much there might still be to do before the movers come to haul out the cash registers, the desks, the bookcases, the bones, one walks uncomfortably, as on a grave. Playing music seems rude, even irreligious, yet music makes the task less lonely, so long as it's cheerful, so long as it's loud, but when it's turned off, even if just before the lights are, every step echoes, every cough, brought on by the dust, hits a bare wall.

SFGate, online home of The San Francisco Chronicle, on Wednesday, had an article and a short video commemorating the closing of Stacey's Bookstore on Tuesday, after eighty five years in operation in San Francisco, after fifty years on Market Street at the same location. I was glad to see notice taken, even online.

I remember closing another Stacey's, a smaller store of no such history, a branch location of no great size, on Sacramento Street. From the day I took the promotion to manage that store, it was already expected to close. It had been opened with only the thought that it could keep the bookstore's name alive if the lease was lost on the main store. When that didn't happen, the little store became redundant, but had to be kept until its own lease ended or could be got out from under. Two or three times at least, I was warned the Sacramento Street store would be closing, before at last it did. Each time I took the threat seriously, and wasn't wrong to do so, at least that last time. Staff then, thankfully, could be sent back to the other store, no one faced unemployment then. A place was made, even for me again. The books then could be returned to publishers for credit to be used, most of them, the fixtures stored. The loss then was discreet, the end a small thing when it came. It did not feel any less a loss though, any less a failure, at least to me.

The closing had been announced, the date set. One by one the remaining clerks went their way, some before we'd even stopped ordering books, until there were just a couple of us to run the sale, see to the dissolution, turn off the lights. I remember that last month of operation, when everyone knew. Customers, friends I'd made there, came in to sympathize, buy a last book, take me to lunch, then had the good grace to stay well away as the closing came near. Signs went up announcing discounts and the most common question became not "Are you closing?" or "When?" but "When will the discount go to fifty percent? Seventy five?" When that happened, my coworkers sometimes took me from the cash register, apologizing to the customers, telling them they would be assisted in a moment, by someone other than me. I must have been a sight. I was so angry at myself for having failed, so ashamed at what I saw as an opportunity lost. I was angry too to see the cupidity in all those well dressed stock-traders, those newly minted, moneyed customers, feigning fellow-feeling as they inquired after deeper discounts, better bargains, free boxes to haul away what they'd never thought to buy when it might have meant the difference between keeping the business and losing it.

The best time in that little Stacey's had been the last Christmas before the Stock Market fell. One Holiday Season, when the city seemed rich, before the asinine and cruel theology of Reaganomics collapsed into godless panic, the store was a ringing success. Drunken traders, "stock jobbers," corporate raiders, bankers -- suits -- came in late by the dozens (they traveled in packs when the exchange closed for the day, drank their uproarious dinner in yuppie cafes, then remembered the wife's cute interest in literature, a book for the kid, grandma's need of a new gardening manual.) We recommended hardcovers then, without an eye being batted, art books so large and expensive, once bought and wrapped, as to probably be forgotten in cabs, remembered only by the American Express statements that would come come January. There seemed to be no end to what might be spent, even on books. But of course there was an end to it: Black Monday, the following year, in October, 1987, before Christ's Birthday shopping had even had the chance to get started. That Christmas, unlike the one before, the Masters of the Universe didn't seem to drink, or if they did, they drank alone. They all shopped soberly enough, that much I know.

Standing alone, the last night before the keys were handed back to the landlord, I remember thinking, "This is what it means to be alone." Who remembers that little store now but me? Who noticed the change, passing on Sacramento Street, when it became yet another ubiquitous coffee bar? Who else thought of all the good booksellers that passed through that place, of all the good books and bad that were sold there, of the conversations had, the friendships begun... who else missed my Christmas windows from 1986?

In that store we survived an earthquake, defiantly sold The Satanic Verses, never taking it out of the window, had a grand party to launch Brian Bouldrey's first novel, hosted lunch-time readings. In that store I trained a dozen new booksellers, had to fire someone I'd hired out of pity, when it became clear he could not read, made caricatures of authors and hung them on the walls and had the authors themselves stop by to comment, (I remember Amy Tan squinting up at my drawing of her and saying, "Are my eyes really that small?") In that store I learned how order backlist books, how to do simple bookkeeping, smoked at my desk!

Now Stacey's is gone all together. The great, grand place on Market Street for fifty years is no more real than the little shop on Sacramento. I didn't envy this week the managers and booksellers that were left to sell off book-stands and ring up the last book. I remember something of what that feels like. I wish them all well.

No comments:

Post a Comment