Friday, May 29, 2009

Youth & Joy

I have a friend, also a bookseller, and a good one, who has worked in the same company now for almost forty years. Imagine that. While mine has been the more diverse, his experience has been, I'm sure, the more remarkable for the changes he has seen: in the bookstore, in bookselling, in publishing, in the fashions, fads, politics, geography and atmosphere. I've worked in half a dozen different stores, new and used, and I've seen all but one of the best of these go out of business, some shot from under me while I was still, if not confident, at least seated. Change, often as not abrupt and even shocking, has been a part almost of my daily working life in the business, and if I've resented and resisting much of it, I've understood almost from the beginning that its inevitability was as predictable as my future employment isn't. My friend, except in the darker moments of his advancing venerability, has not really experienced this variability of employer and job. He's seen managements and coworkers come and go. Like me, like all of us, he's had to adapt to a more digital environment, for good and ill. But what he does, and does so well, has not changed in either method or, substantially, materials for almost four decades. As he has himself repeatedly put it so well, his job has been and is, "to put the right books in the right people's hands."

My friend is a boy of sixty plus. A boy still, for never having lost his joy in what he does or in the books with which he does it.

My friend was present at the meeting today to which I was both looking forward and dreading. I worried more about his reaction than I did even of my own participation. "Backlist," for any who might not know the bookseller's jargon, is the term describing any book that is neither newly published or reprinted in a new edition. This is what has traditionally been the bread and butter of better bookstores. Anyone can sell the "bestsellers" -- as predetermined by the established popularity of a select, if by no means elect, group of writers anointed with large advances by large publishers in anticipation of wide readership. Drugstores and warehouse retailers and ruthlessly commercial websites have proven that with deep discounts, minimal promotion and no expertise in anything other than accounting, they can actually sell these books better than actual booksellers. All it takes, it seems, to sell trash, is an MBA, patient investors, and unlimited resources. But to sell the books likely to last has traditionally required some experience, considerable taste, and a fervent and friendly sense of mission, as perhaps best personified in the gabby enthusiasm of my friend, who has been successfully forcing the classics of world literature into the hands of students, faculty and staff at a northwestern University for ages. If my friend has made a fetish of discovery, running book clubs, writing recommendations and reviews promoting what he's felt were the very best of the new books he reads incessantly, he has earned his living from backlist. His home is a shrine to Signet Classics. On shelf after shelf, across nearly every wall, runs the whole history of western literature, from myth to the moderns, all read and preserved in pristine pocket paperbacks, a monument to his discrimination, memory and love. My friend is an author and playwright himself, but he has earned his living by enthusiasm.

Confronted, at last, with the undoing of the inventory of the little shop he's stocked for so many years, he amazed and moved me at the meeting today by embracing the changes proposed. His willingness to use used books, clearanced books, remainders and the like, as the new tools of his trade was unexpected and heartening to me, both professionally and personally. Here is a man whose habits are as long established almost as the store in which he works. There is nothing to say he need adapt himself to the times. He could as easily spend the remaining years of his secure employment with the bookstore comfortably and with company in the rearguard; covertly undermining the attempts being made to adjust the inventory to new economic and cultural realities by refusing to return his unsold favorites, or secretly reordering or retagging what hasn't sold, resisting necessity at every step, refusing any modification of his established responsibilities and selfishly, and self-defeatingly insisting that any change the times might necessitate be undertaken without his participation. Others in the bookstore have and will continue to do just this. "Not In My Back List" being a popular war-cry among the booksellers and buyers not just of his generation. But my friend is not just a man with a job, he is a man with a vocation, a mission, as he says, "to sell the best books." He proved to me, again today, that old eyes sometimes see things more clearly. My friend can see beyond the new proscriptions and shifting inventory to the new possibilities that change can bring. I ought to have anticipated this, knowing and admiring, standing as I do somewhat in awe of his capacity for optimism in the face of far worse than anything possibly considered at a conference table. My friend is not just a survivor, he is Peter Pan. He can never, really grow old. He believes with all the same excitement of his childhood in the wonder of books, in the necessity of stories in order to be human, and he will do what is necessary to see that books are read. I should no more have doubted him than I would the possibility of flight, the power of good faeries, or the loyalty of old friends.

"'Pan, who and what art thou?'"

"'I'm youth, I'm joy,' Peter answered..."

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