My office, if it may be so called, has no walls. The desk I work at, at which I buy and price books, is on the sales floor of the bookstore, right by the main entrance. For those of my coworkers who do what I do, there is no task that is not public, no transaction that is not transparent, no chance of not being asked, many times a day, where the restrooms are, what time it is, if our phone might be used to make a quick call, if we might have time to find a book. The informality of my working environment is such that customers do not think twice of resting an elbow on my desk to look at our recent arrivals shelves, displacing a box of books to set down a wet umbrella, abandoning a coffee cup without a lid next to a set of Shakespeare as old as the store, or strolling behind the counter to look at unpriced books.
This is a good thing. I have worked in bookstores most of my adult life and I have had jobs that took me "off the floor," to process returns, order books and attend meetings. I have managed bookstores and had offices, some with doors, one with a large window, some in entirely other parts of the building. There are days when my present circumstances seem onerous, when I daydream about having a door, a wall, a minute to myself. But with a door, in a bookstore, comes responsibilities, spreadsheets, scheduling. To get behind a door, one must leave books and conversation and sales, if temporarily, then more regularly than I like. To gain a door, in my experience, is to lose much of what makes being a bookseller unlike simply having a job.
The insane, as a class, feature in any bookseller's life more than they would in the life of the average office worker, or even the average retailer. Something in the nature of books seems to bring on mania, release pent-up theories, suggest topics for disquisition. The lonely likewise seem to seek us out, to explain their purchases, share confidences regarding their cats, announce weather, have upcoming events they do not plan to attend described to them on the phone. And again, none of this is other than good. There is an awkwardness in these exchanges that simple courtesy can sometimes relieve. A response, almost any response, can sometimes connect at least in small part the disconnected moments in a tragically disconnected and misunderstood day. There is nothing in my day that costs me so little and earns me so much pleasure as the luxury of a chat with this stranger or that regular, and so long as the sadness of some of my interlocutors does not linger too long to be lifted by this simple means, I do not mind. There are those encountered across my desk every day I can not help. There are those for whom no help seems likely to come in time, and for these one feels pity, and from them, I confess, I simply flee.
The rude, the unreasonable, the irascible old, the indignant and determined to fight, if they can not be placated by just the likes of me, must be handed over quickly, as I still struggle to learn, to other, more placid personalities than mine. There are those among my coworkers, clerks and managers alike, who have the gift of diffusing anger and making way, who can extricate even me from the most unexpected tangle or wrangle, placate the uncooperative and complete an impossible transaction without loss of temper or dignity or sales. Would that I were so made. When I was a manager, I had to do this. I managed. But now I am not and may, gratefully, leave this business to booksellers better qualified, of better balanced tempers and seemingly imperturbable calm. There is much to be said for having so good natured a Buddhist for a floor manager, so patient a person as D., so good a soul as J. just at the next counter. I am lucky to work in so big a place as to have the option of entrusting such cases to gentler natures, and failing that, to a remarkably accommodating, even stoical upper management, and occasionally, gratefully and regretfully, to security personnel.
But such encounters, I insist, are the exception not the rule, even in a working life seemingly spent all but ever in public and in the company of readers. One resents the intrusion of ugliness, often as not, all unmeaning, as a result of one's own failures to act quickly or with sufficient circumspection, into what is otherwise an amenable atmosphere of books, buyers, readers and sellers, and, when one is lucky, friends.
I've made the majority of my friends, as an adult, in bookstores. Stands to reason. Beyond those of my customers to whom I've felt a kinship, with whom I might have had a pleasant exchange about books and then never seen again, or come to have a nodding acquaintance, I have found many kindred spirits. There are coworkers, of course, I have come to respect, admire and even love. There are former coworkers of such long friendship as to require reminding that our friendship began behind just such counters as I still stand. But there are also friends, among my dearest friends, I would never have known had I not first sold them a book, recommended or had recommended to me a new author, with whom I might otherwise never have had an excuse for intellectual intimacy. Working in bookstores, I've come to know poets and novelists, lawyers and academics, radicals and bohemians and artists, good and interesting people of almost every station in life, and a few exceptional souls utterly undefined by either profession or income, and all the more admirable for their sometimes shocking individuality, at least to so complacent and commonplace a fellow as me.
One such man, of accomplishments and experience so unlike my own, met in the bookstore, came back to it and me today, after a long absence. He seemed as pleased to see us as we were to see him. He is a handsome bastard; dark and trim and romantically charming, if sadly and safely straight. I am not alone at the used books buying desk in thinking him so. Beyond his more obvious attractions, he is an intellectual of a type I too seldom get the chance, or have the wits to talk to. He reads, often as not, well above my own brow, yet somehow never condescends, even to me. He is traveled. He earns various livings. His smile won me almost the moment I first earned it, and his conversation has been nearly as much missed.
When he appeared today at the desk, I could not keep from embracing him. It had not been for me the easiest day. Only just recovering from a long and tiresome illness, reminded just yesterday of opportunities all too recently lost, I was in need of just so happy a reunion.
That I might have the chance of seeing him again tomorrow is reason enough to go work again without walls, give directions to the men's room, move the occasional wet umbrella. Just now, my life seems hardly hard at all: another friend has found me, my first follower returned to me in the flesh! How lucky I had no door to be behind when he came back.