SPOON RIVER AT ACORN
by George Cowmeadow Bauman
“Spoon River Anthology” (1915) by Edgar Lee Masters is a favorite of mine. A satisfying sense of community permeates the connected epitaphic poems – however gray in tone. Saints and sinners lie side by side, regal granite tombstones next to crumbling, illegible limestone markers, all brought together by life and death, whether born in Spoon River or summoned by fate to die there.
How they interacted – or didn’t interact – provides the substance of life in the town, and of the poems of death in the book.
My bookstore-ies are a similar effort to capture the sense of community that has developed around our secondhand bookshop. These are not gravestone farewells, but rather glimpses into the lives of Acornistas.
We are blessed with dozens of regulars who come in to buy books for themselves and for the lucky people in their lives who enjoy reading. Each day a certain percentage of our sales are to these familiar faces.
Some semi- and regular customers stay at the perimeter of personalization, not letting themselves get any closer than obvious recognition and the conversation of commerciality. Others we get to know a little better.
In the food-as-appreciative-gift category alone, we’ve received enough goodies to keep us well-fed, happy, and on a constant sugar buzz.
Matt, who collects Ambrose Bierce and Richard Matheson, has a law office with his father on the next block. From his farm one county away he brings us so many tomatoes and hot peppers that I’m able to turn his several bags of harvest into spicy salsa so hot that it would peel the paint off a Mail-Pouch barn.
Cookbook collector Martha and husband Art bring us apples from their orchard each fall, and “Astronomy Man” Gary buys apples and other fruit for us all winter long. We’ve received still-warm bread from Anne (see my bookstore-y “Bread and Bibles”) and Martha, and we buy homemade apple butter from Martha to spread on her bread. Holiday cookies are brought in by lunch-time walker Betty, who buys them at her church’s annual Christmas Bazaar, followed in March by chess-book collector Dave bringing in several boxes of Girl Scout cookies, “as my way of bribing you to stay in business!” The gardening-book collector who’s the manager of a Dairy Queen on the next block brings us cool treats on hot summer days. And several customers have brought in goodies from the French Loaf bakery two doors away in our retail center. With good reason we call our area of the center “The B&B Corner”, for the popularity of the bookshop and bakery.
We’ve received dozens of gifts related to my passions of cows, baseball, cowboys, and acorns, all of which have become store décor. The largest gift was a palomino rocking horse resembling Roy Roger’’s horse Trigger, around which we have plants growing in the front window on Fifth Avenue.
Others bring us stories instead of food or gifts – or in addition to them. We know about illnesses and vacations, births and family feuds.
Edgar Allen Poe collector J.J. came in to excitedly tell us of her engagement to Mark, who’s an accomplished chef. “I’m marrying a chef! I’ll never have to cook a day in my life!” she exclaimed, a bit disbelieving of her good fortune, for as she’s told us on prior visits, “A four-course meal for me consists of Swanson’s frozen dinner with four compartments for peas, mashed potatoes, turkey with gravy, and some unidentifiable dessert made from apples!”
Tripp brings in stunning photographs of his latest shootings and talks of the trials of managing the affairs of his declining and difficult mother. Jennifer comes in to buy a paperback toward the end of each week and speaks – frequently with shakes of her head – of what it’s like to be the stepmother of two very active teenage boys.
We buy books each day from customers, so we become aware of who is selling books to pay the mortgage, or to buy Easter dinner for her kids, chain-smoking the spiral ham away from the table. We see bickering couples with different opinions on everything, including whether to sell Granny’s books or not.
Poets tell us of their acceptance to perform at the Columbus Arts Festival and we hear from parents of kids flunking out of college.
Rough-looking and rough-talking men come in with books salvaged from a demolition job, and they obviously have never been in a bookstore before as they try to sell books they’ve exhumed.
Wealthy women sit in their gleaming cars while their drivers lug in big-check books, and doctors in scrubs spend more on a book than I make in a month.
And then there’s Karen from Michigan, a very serious collector of signed illustrated children’s books.
She had been coming to Columbus regularly to visit her sister and ailing parents. One day she came into the shop just after we opened to share the news of the death of her father – just earlier that morning. “This is my sanctuary in Columbus, George. I needed to get away from all that sadness and be around books, as well as you and Christine for a while.”
As with Edgar Lee Masters’ cemetery, a wide range of citizens haunt our bookshop, and we try to honor each of them for their uniqueness and willingness to visit Acorn, even though we do have our “Crazy 22” list.
Seldom does a day pass without me taking notes about those folks and their stories, which become the basis of my bookstore-ies.
We are constantly appreciative of the people who feel we are an essential part of their lives, as book providers and as willing listeners to their tales, and as sanctuary.
Jim Manning is a longtime – though not frequent – customer who collects books of photoplays – books which feature photographs from stage adaptations of the book along with the original text. He will not, however, purchase books which contain movie stills rather than stage photos.
“I’m a purist!” he insists. A good bookseller quickly learns the quirks of a customer’s interests, or risks losing that customer.
He used to come in more often than he does these days, for he’s been transferred to New Albany, a suburb diagonally across Columbus from where we are in Grandview. We’ve had other customers come in and bemoan such a similar move away from Acorn, even as they are pleased professionally. Good bookshops are hard to find, and people don’t like to give up easy access to them. “Why don’t you open another Acorn in my neighborhood?” is a familiar refrain.
On one of his visits early last year, Jim came in and asked if he could place some flyers with us, advertising that he was opening a secondhand goods shop just one block away. We congratulated him and told him we’d be glad to do so. It was to be open Thursday-Saturday only.
I visited his shop twice, and found little of interest; he apologized for having few books. On the first trip I did buy a Greek military history book for $10, and sold it for $75 within the year, but that was the exception. His location wasn’t a good one, and he displayed inadequate signage to King Avenue traffic. So I wasn’t surprised to see a truck backed up to the door last fall, clearly cleaning out the place. I guess I should have stopped and verified that it was Jim doing the haulaway, not some opportunistic thieves, but crime is not significant in our Grandview neighborhood.
Jim came in last week, and after welcoming him on such a sunny March Saturday, I asked him about his shop.
“I had to close it down,” he said. I immediately assumed it was for lack of business, due to inexperience at running and marketing his shop, as well as his off-the-beaten-path location.
“I’ve got prostate cancer,” he continued, in a voice that was less upset than if his beloved Ohio State Buckeyes had lost to Michigan.
“It was just too much for me, what with all the medical time I’ve had to spend taking care of this cancer.
“But I’m doing pretty good,” Jim added, while Christine and I felt thunderstruck at his news. We aren’t as close to Jim as we are to some of our customers, but it’s difficult to hear such life-altering nightmare-ish news and not react with heartfelt compassion.
“I’ve been going through radiation, and I think I’m going to be OK.”
We made appropriate responses about wishing him good health, while noting how well he was handling the illness, at least publicly.
Sensing that he didn’t want to dwell on his disease, I headed for the counter, saying, “Let’s see if I have something held for you,” knowing that I did have several photoplays for him to consider.
I showed him three, and knew that he wouldn’t buy more than one, for he’s always evidenced a sense of unusual budgetary restraint about his collecting, even though he might not have had the books we were offering him. He seldom wanted to spend over $10 for a book.
Jim decided to take one by Harold Bell Wright — which pleased me, for Wright was one of those turn-of-the-century bestselling writers who is frequently offered to us by elderly folks, but a writer no one buys any more. Whenever we are offered these bestsellers of yesteryear, it’s impossible not to conjecture about which bestseller-list writers of today will suffer the same fate as Wright, James Lee Cabell, John Fox, Jr., Mary Johnston.
When Jim went to pay for his book, he quipped, “Do you give a cancer discount?”
Though we get asked for discounts nearly every day, that’s the first time we’ve had that unusual request. With only a slight pause of surprised reaction time, I complimented him on his attitude.
“Yeah, I work on that whenever I can. At home, my wife will tell me to wash the dishes, and I tell her, ‘I can’t, I’ve got cancer. Do you want me to spend the last hours of my life at the sink?’ But it doesn’t work with her.”
“And it doesn’t work with me, either!” I responded with a smile. “That book is $7.”
He chuckled appreciatively. “I figure the best I can do is keep a good attitude about this cancer. If it works out that’s great, and if it doesn’t, well there’s not much I can do about it.”
Jim’s approach is a wonderful antidote to the nightmare that has invaded his world.
After Jim left — telling us sincerely to “Have a good day!”, the very next customer was Ray Barrett, another longtime customer.
Usually he has a box or two of collectible Science Fiction or children’s series books for boys – Hardy Boys, Rick Brandt, Tom Swift, Jr. – to trade with us, but this time he was empty handed. “I’m just here to browse today, George.”
Ray has a daughter who’s on her school’s championship field hockey team, and he always seems pleased when I ask how she’s doing. “They’re practicing today, which is why I have a little time to myself. And where else would I go except to your bookshop?”
After he’d been browsing a bit, I passed him while carrying a stack of paperbacks to reshelve, and asked him how things were going. I like communicating with our customers, even when it’s not about books. I think that’s one of the characteristics of our store that make us successful, showing sincere interest in their lives away from the bookshop.
Ray looked up from our CD collection and smiled. “I’m no longer working for Honda,” he replied. “I quit and got a job as a children’s assistant librarian, at a branch of the Columbus Metropolitan Library on Livingston Avenue. I’ve wanted to do work like this for years, and now I’m doing what I love.”
“Welcome to the fold!” I exclaimed, giving him a high-five. “Another professional bookman in the making!”
“Thanks, George; I knew you would appreciate how much this means to me. I’ve been looking forward to sharing the news with you.”
Ray added with obvious intense feeling, “I’ve always been interested in children’s books more than anything else, so this is a dream come true for me.”
No matter what happens to our community of bookstore customers, we’ll eventually hear about it. And they may even bring in a tasty treat to follow the main course of news.