In a town like London there are always plenty of not quite certifiable lunatics walking the streets, and they tend to gravitate towards bookshops, because a bookshop is one of the few places where you can hang about for a long time without spending any money.
~ George Orwell, “Bookshop Memories” (1936)
In any American city of middling size there are plenty of more-than-certifiable lunatics walking the streets and making themselves at home in the neighborhood bookshop. That’s assuming, of course, the neighborhood still has a bookshop. In Seattle, at least, it used to. Seattle in the 1990s was near to bursting with local independent booksellers: colorful places like Elliot Bay, Beatty’s, Twice Sold, Magus, Horizon, Pistil, and Couth Buzzard, just to name a few. It also had more than its fair share of certifiables.
Being decidedly unambitious and in no particular hurry to grapple with the duties of adult life, I took a job with a local Seattle bookseller as soon as I finished college, and stayed on for three years. It’s astonishing to recall how little money I made. I’m not at all clear how I managed to both eat and pay my rent. But my coworkers were an entertaining cast and I was happy enough to spend my days surrounded by books.
The store was located at the north end of downtown and was open late. It was set in a densely populous neighborhood, thick with bars and restaurants, plus a couple nightclubs. The Opera House was just down the street, a convention center and sports arena too. We were a struggling but busy shop, and our clientele a mixed lot. I sold books and magazines to several famous rock musicians (yawn). I chatted on more than one occasion with Ron Reagan Jr., who lived nearby. And while he was in town for an extended performance at the Repertory down the street, the actor Ethan Hawke used to sit on the floor of our poetry section and finger through the stacks for thirty minutes each day. I never saw him buy anything.
Our location and late hours also made us a favorite with the local crazies. These were the folks I couldn’t help thinking of when I read the Orwell quote above. There was the tattered transient we referred to as ‘Redbeard’ who made a habit of leering and snorting at blondes and threatening the lives of random strangers, myself included. There was the troubled young woman who was always showing off a ghastly open wound on her arm, which she wouldn’t let heal, and who kept a pet rat in her pocket. There was a tall spindly fellow with sores around his mouth who never uttered more than a mousey squeak but would come into the store wearing a pink tutu, and who once defecated on the floor of the children’s section. Then there was our favorite, the schizophrenic junkie we nicknamed ‘The Count,’ who was forever changing his clothes and decorating his face (his whole face) with lipstick. He was harmless enough, really, but had a bad habit of cackling in a murderous sort of way that disturbed our elderly customers and those with small children. The Count liked to give gifts (I still have a placard of some exotic wood with the name ‘Fauzi Daud’ carved into it, which he gave me) and he claimed to know Roger Waters and Jerry Garcia and the President of the United States, and to have once lived as a vampire among the Hebrew slaves of ancient Egypt.
Less insane but just as charmingly odd was the fat-faced man with the tiny eyes who would hold the newspaper up to his nose in order to read it and who never went anywhere without his ill-tempered dwarf friend; or the walrus-like pensioner with a bristly white beard who twirled a cane and affected a British accent while attempting to seduce one of my coworkers, famously offering him, in a lascivious manner we parodied for months, a bite of his “spiced apple tart;” or the uneducated proprietress of a local coffee shop who’d once taken a bullet in a domestic dispute and imagined it bought her a superior perspective on life and a homey kind of mystical insight.
It was easy to get onself into trouble working at the bookshop. There was no shortage of illicit substances on hand in the back room. Certain kinds of business exchanges were known to take place in the parking lot after dark. One of my coworkers, a short blond fellow with an Irish temper, lived across the street and would invite us for drinks afterhours. One Christmas Eve, as I recall, he led us in consuming a great quantity of beer before marching us around the neighborhood to find a convenience store where he could buy cigarettes. On a particular street corner we passed through a gauntlet of equally drunken panhandlers demanding holiday contributions. Our fellow with the temper got into a shouting match with one of them and we only barely escaped all-out fisticuffs by dragging him, hollering and fuming, back to his apartment.
One of my most memorable evenings at the bookshop involved the death of a goose. It was a couple hours after dark when a woman walked through the door holding a big Canada goose in her arms. She was distraught. The goose had just been hit by a car, she said, and we needed to do something about it. She handed the goose, still alive but in shock, to my friend W. Then the woman fled in tears. Almost immediately, the goose’s neck drooped and it went into convulsions. W set it down carefully and there before a crowd of astonished customers it agonizingly expired on the floor. We boxed it up and pranked a new employee (who’d been in the back room) by telling him the box was full of books that needed shelving in the nature and field guides section. Then we called a non-emergency police number to inquire after the proper disposal of the body. Two hours later a soft-spoken man named Bob came to collect the goose. He was so touched by the way we’d boxed it up, laid a flower on its breast, and scribbled farewells on the cardboard coffin, that he wept a little as he left.
My bookshop days were a bit of a low-life period, I admit. There was plenty of good conversation with customers and all that. But in the end it was just a low-life sort of place, especially after dark. I couldn’t keep on like that forever. I made excuses by telling myself I was playing Prince Hal, that I would “awhile uphold / the unyoked humor of idleness” which I was presently enjoying, but that when the time was right I would likewise “imitate the Sun” and rise into some brighter glory, or at least a better job. It wasn’t the need to impress any monarchical parent that finally spurred my departure, however. It was the prospect of marriage. That was in ’98. The bookshop itself locked doors for the last time two or three years later.