People of the Open Book
An independent bookstore in the Hamptons relies on the people who visit each summer for its survival. My bookstore in Westhampton Beach had its fans, weekly visitors who came by for a chat and a book. The lawyers who usually sat on opposing sides of the courtroom had surprisingly similar tastes in reading material. The wealthy, southern dowager with her cinnamon bun hairdo always wanted the latest conservative political books. The cheerful looking Mom in the flowered dress just wanted something to help her forget the exhaustion of wrangling sandy children. These customers, the regulars, became part of the bookstore family.
Then there were the customers that we served only once. The grandmother who huffed out the door when an employee suggested War and Peace for her brilliant two year old grandson who was “much too sophisticated” for Dr. Seuss did not come back again. The woman in the floaty dress who needed to borrow the phone to call her psychic to consult on which book had the better energy may still be wandering aimlessly around the village. Some people just passed through.
An independent bookstore in the Hamptons also needs its employees. The people that worked at The Open Book were just a little different. These were not the teens that applied to be lifeguards or mother’s helpers. My employees tended to be creative, intelligent and quirky. Instead of popping the pink bubble wrap protecting the book shipments, they decided to create an impromptu fashion show featuring the latest in packing material couture. Plays were rehearsed, movies were shot, employees sat in the window reading, someone wandered outside in a tall yellow hat and cried “Boooooks…Books for sale”. It was a magical place and also a little strange.
There were never any job applications in the file cabinet at the bookstore. I never actually interviewed a prospective employee. Employees seem to just be there; usually, the right person showed up at the right time. My first employee was a quiet young man who needed a job before he went off to the Iowa Writers Workshop to hone his skills as an author. After he left, we welcomed the girls with names that sound like songs: Janelle, Antonella, Danielle. Full of light and laughter, they helped me find the joy in selling books.
One of them, Little Danielle, was a child of the city. Raised by artistic parents in the heart of Chelsea, she spent her youth smoking cigarettes and buying student tickets to see Rent. She was dubbed “Little Danielle” to differentiate her from the other Danielle. That Danielle, an aspiring gym teacher, only lasted a few weeks. She seemed baffled by the bookstore, its customers and the other employees. She found a job at the water park in Riverhead. Little Danielle, who was spending the summer with her grandparents in Quogue, stepped in as a 14-year-old intern to fill the space.
“It’s my GROIN.” I returned from dinner on a busy July night to hear these words echoing from the area where the health books were shelved. The store was full of customers and Little Danielle rushed up to me with a look of panic on her face and said in a low voice, “Thank God you’re here. You have to help me with this guy.”
“Sweetie, I told you that it is not my back. It’s my groin.” He had a voice that resonated through the whole store. Noting the looks of amusement and perplexity on the faces of the other customers, I hurried to the back of the store. “Sir, how can I help you?”
He stood there holding a book, his face reflecting discomfort. “I told the girl here that I hurt my groin. My crazy doctor told me to get this damn book on healing back pain. My back doesn’t hurt, it’s my…” I broke in with my quietest voice, “Groin. Yes, I understand. I do not think we have any books about that particular problem. If you want to sit down for a minute, I can check the computer to see if we can order you a book that might be able to help.”
“It hurts to sit down. I don’t want to order anything. What kind of bookstore is this? You mean to tell me that you don’t have ONE book about injuries to the groin?” I shook my head. I didn’t trust myself to speak.
“Well, I won’t be back.” He gave a disgusted and pained grunt and slowly walked out of the store like a cowboy who had been riding the trail for much too long. Little Danielle looked at me and said, “It was definitely his groin.”
The era of the bookstore boys followed after the girls went off to jobs and college. The first, Robby, came as a 12 year old kid, helping to unpack boxes, telling stories and singing songs. He wormed his way into my heart and onto the payroll. Rory followed and then Christian and two of his tall brothers. Bret and Vincent were the second generation. Our store manager christened them “the Lost Boys of the Bookstore.” Richard was their God.
Richard was an older guy who looked and dressed like the Marlboro Man. Unmarried, sardonic, not so fond of children, Richard worked on Friday and Saturday nights in the summer for twelve years. He was never around enough to become truly skilled at bookselling, but he was patient and trustworthy and woven deeply into the fabric of the bookstore. At some point each year, on a crazy summer night he would look at me and say, “Beam me up Scotty, the aliens have landed.”
For some inexplicable reason, the Lost Boys were obsessed with Richard. I came into the store one night to find Robby and Christian electrified with excitement. “We found out Richard’s birthday!” said Robby. “Really?” I said, impressed, “How’d you manage that?” Richard was extremely private about his age, birthday, background and anything else that could not be determined by looking at his denim shirt and blue jeans. Christian showed me a print out, “We paid $10 to an online investigation service to run a search. But we won’t tell anyone. Richard wouldn’t like it.”
It has been six years since I said goodbye to my little bookstore, but there is not a day that a memory from that time has not made me smile. I was a part of a town that slept during the winter, waiting for the long summer days and nights to go on forever. I was part of a business that allowed me to share a passion. I was a part of a family that was created from people of all ages and backgrounds that found common ground behind the counter of a tiny bookstore. These days when I walk around Main Street on a hot July night, watching families eating their melting ice cream cones, I sometimes think that I hear a faint voice on the wind calling, “Boooooks… Books for Sale” and I swear a kid in a tall yellow hat just turned the corner