Wednesday, July 8, 2009

Unnatural Discretion

No doubt, anyone reading this blog with any regularity is already tired of being told, "I have a friend." It is true, I do have friends, more friends in fact than I ever realized. Stumbling into the present century, I seem to have rediscovered something of the youthful ease of friendship; technology has allowed me to stay in better touch, to be a better friend, to enjoy casual connections of a kind I'd all but forgotten how to make. No, I am not exploring I'm just talking again, and listening. Moving house, losing jobs, losing friends, neglecting established friendships, illness, even death have all reduced the range of my acquaintance in the past few years. I haven't so much withdrawn as settled. Having love at home, I've been content to largely live just there. I've also gotten older. It is not so easy to extend oneself as it once was. But I need friends. I simply forgot how many I have and how simple a thing it can be to accept the friendship that comes. Once, I was quite good at this. It seems, I have not entirely lost the knack. This has been a most happy realization. It does, however, complicate writing regularly here because, while I want to write honestly, I have committed myself to a level of discretion unusual for me. I am determined to not write anything here that should either embarrass or compromise not only the people about whom I care the most, but any and all that might be made unhappy by my nattering away about them on the Internet. It is not secrets with which I am not entirely to be trusted -- I've kept some of those for years, thank you very much, -- but rather the recognizable, if seemingly harmless details of other people's lives that I've tried not to burble thoughtlessly. What would give me the right, after all? If I've already committed any such indiscretions, it has not been malicious, something of which I would think it extremely unfair to be accused. I have many sins to my credit, some quite black enough, but malice, while not unknown to me, is not really much in my nature. If I have said anything I ought not to have, it was probably for no better reason than a point needed illustration here and the readiest example to come to my limited imagination came from the private lives and opinions of people who, in becoming my friends, signed no release-form allowing me to exploit them in this way. I am trying not to be just another chatty queen with a blog.

I have adopted a practice much used in in the books of letters I read, substituting an initial for a name. I have tried to be consistent about this with all but the dead and or famous. Even my husband, Allen, whose name I mention in my profile, I have reduced here just to "dear A.," not because he has expressed the slightest reservation to me about anything I might write, or because I intended to conceal his identity from any who might not already know him, but just to be as constant in practice as he has been in life. My friends and coworkers, my bosses and my employer, are very much a part of my life, as much or more now than they have ever been, and I can't write as I choose to do here without, occasionally, including them. But I would not want any of them to be known beyond the bounds of our friendship and this blog to anyone they might not choose to invite, independently, into their lives. Thus my insistence on, hopefully, keeping their names well out of it.

(You know who you are.)

Some of the challenges this has presented have been unique in my experience. My only real experience, writing regularly this way, has been in personal correspondence. In a letter to a friend, one may say things not intended for a wider readership, things that might be cause for regret. It has not been easy, avoiding gossip and the kind of anecdote that could make a third party unhappy. I hope I've been careful to do so. I also hope I haven't made anyone uncomfortable with praise, which is just as easy to do, I've found.

People, myself included, seem to have a hard enough time being praised in person. Being admired publicly, even in so limited forum as this, can be mortifying for the shy. There have been friends about whom I should like some day to write, whose accomplishments and personal character deserve acknowledgement. I worry though that they wouldn't like it, should I write about them here. When I have done, it has not always been appreciated. Chastened, I have tried to be more discrete.

One friend I have mentioned here before, I feel quite safe in bringing up again. He does not read this sort of thing unless it is brought directly to him. So I simply won't. So long as no one else does then, I can flatter him as I choose. Mind now, nobody tell him.

I am thinking of N. He is a bookseller of nearly forty years experience. A kind and accomplished soul, he writes himself and does it well enough to have had dozens of his plays and adaptations performed, as well as mystery novels published. (There now, so much for discretion.) He is much on my mind just now not because of his writing, though that goes on well, but because of his job and how it is changing. For decades now he has sold books in a little store on campus, books he has selected himself from the stock of the larger store, books he recommends, books he has read, books about which he is passionate. That will not change so long as he's a bookseller. What has changed is how and what he sells otherwise. He has been scrupulous to maintain, in a small space, "a representative selection" of not only the best books, but books that might be necessary. He has made in miniature the bookstore as it has traditionally been understood; meant to meet if not every need, then to at least anticipate the likeliest. It is a business model that is passing. It is not an ideal my friend will part with easily.

I am trying to help him see the opportunity in this change. All the things he does best: anticipating trends, responding to the news, promoting the classics, introducing new authors, he will still do, and do better than anyone I've ever known in the business. What he must face doing now is doing all this without the full ballast of his dusty backlist. The unsold weight he's kept beneath him must be put off if he is to sail on. Sorry for the nautical nonsense of those last sentences, but it is difficult not to see my friend as an old salt in a skiff that is drifting, despite all his superior seamanship. (I'll stop that now.)

I hope to help him navigate the changes that are coming. He has resources -- myself included -- of which he has never taken full advantage. There is help to be had, from used and bargain books, from promotions and management and coworkers. If he has managed his inventory all but alone before, and he has, the adjustment will not be easy. His experience is his greatest asset, but it is not his only point of reference in this change. I wish he understood this. I wish he knew it was not a judgement on either his character or skill that these changes have come upon him. I wish I could convince him that he is not alone.

Years ago, when I worked in a video rental store, when such a thing was still new, before the chains now facing their own obsolescence, I learned a very valuable lesson from watching the management struggle to accommodate a more active interest from the owners of the business. Little effort had been required, once the business became profitable, from the men who'd started it. As competition and other changes began to effect the money the business made, it was no longer thought proper to leave the daily operations so much in the hands of clerks and assistants. I think the owners, once they came back into things, were quite rightly shocked by some of what they found. What was frustrating and unpleasant for those of us who simply worked there, was the extent and effect of their outrage. Money had gone missing while a crew of programmers was working in the shop, with access to too much and too little oversight, admittedly. The decision was taken that everyone needed to be questioned, that everyone was suspect, that a new discipline was required. None of this was wrong, but the way in which the crisis was handled led to much bad feeling. One long-term and dog-loyal assistant manager, while never really suspected in the theft, was treated very badly indeed. He was not the best manager, he was far from being a model employee, but he was the employee he'd been trained to be. He did his job exactly as he'd been left for years to do it, and then he was taken to task for having done it just that way. I watched all of this with an unhappy sympathy. I was just a kid really, watching adults, friends, using one another unjustly, but I learned. I also left.

It is not the kindness of strangers which is unreliable, it is the loyalty of customers and employers and employees, it is the friendship of those who pay one's salary, that must never be trusted so entirely as to blind us to the effect of changing economics, shifts in business, the flawed humanity of even the most trusted and admired boss or underling. Affection does not always translate to respect.

I also learned that businesses change with the times or they cease to be.

I would like to be able to say that I learned these lessons so well then, in my early twenties, that I never had to learn them again, and again, and again, but of course I did. I ended up, soon thereafter, in an independent bookstore and I've been in bookstores ever since. How could I not have to relearn what I ought already to have known?

Now my friend N. is confronted, after thirty some years of doing what he does so well, with learning new ways, changing established practice, re-imagining even the space in which he does what he does, and it is making him unhappy. He has done his best to embrace the changes as they've come; reducing his inventory, taking advice from newly interested and involved superiors, admitting the possibility of undoing what he's been most proud of, but now the change in the book business is accelerating at such a pace that even booksellers considerably younger than my friend are feeling swept up and disoriented by the whirlwind. Imagine the state of my friend.

I hope to be able to help him do whatever needs doing. Like me, he is lucky to work for so good a company as he does, a company committed to a sound and even altruistic mission, and to selling books, and to their booksellers, but my friend must change with the business. So must we all. My hope is that he will see the opportunity in this. I am trying to change, just as he is. My hope is that we might do so together.

I sure, as my grandmother would have said, his ears must be burning by now. I hope he won't mind me writing about him again here. I don't know that he'll ever know that I have done, but even should he read this, I hope he also understand with what admiration and respect I've written it. Such a good bookseller deserves respect, not just for his years, but his accomplishments. He has put more good books into the hands of students than most professors of literature. He has promoted more authors than will ever thank him personally. He has done his job better than I am ever likely to do mine. He does it still, every day. I hope he will do it for years yet. We need such people. I need such friends. I hope he knows I am his.

No comments:

Post a Comment