Traditional rhymes about book ownership, from I Saw Esau, illustrated by Maurice Sendak.
I got the best job I’ve ever had because I had a pack of cigarettes on the front seat of my car.
When I moved to Nantucket in the fall of 1998, I knew no one and had a part-time job working in the office of the Episcopal church. I worked with a wonderful woman named Joan who shared a house with a former teacher. They ran a heavy-duty book group that met once every couple of weeks, spending several weeks on a single book. This was long before I started making jewelry, and I was shy and had a hard time meeting people. I spent that first winter going to work, hiding in my room reading, and cursing the buffeting wind that howled off the harbor round the clock. A book group seemed like a really good idea – particularly in a cozy house in town, on a sheltered street, a mile inland. When I joined, they were just starting Robert Pinsky’s translation of Inferno. I hadn’t read Inferno since my first year of college, and really loved the new edition. Several weeks into the group, they invited the owner of the local bookstore to come to the group and read to us. Mimi was fluent in Italian, and she read several passages from the original in that beautiful language, sounding rich and liquid and as if flames were licking around the words.
After the group, I offered her a ride back to the store on Main Street. She plucked a pack of cigarettes off my passenger seat, sat down, and fished one of her own out of her massive linen pockets. She said, “Well, you read and you smoke. Would you like to come and work for me?”
Oh yes, I would. Very much. Mitchell’s Book Corner was a legend in Nantucket. For its size, it’s the best-curated bookstore I’ve ever seen, touching on every subject with an eye to both classics and new books. Mimi had a sterling reputation for selling exactly the right book to the right reader, whether she’d known them all her life or they’d just walked into the store five minutes earlier. A local business heavyweight nicknamed her the Maven of Main Street. She’d read everything, averaging more than a book a day for most of her life. She had excellent business sense, a steel trap memory, a fierce temper and her own way of doing things. Mitchell’s didn’t use a computerized inventory system (in fact, they didn’t own a computer when I started there, and did all their buying by phone from publishers and with the aid of monthly microfiche updates from distributors). Mimi knew the stock of the store inside out from memory, and she expected her booksellers to do the same.
I’d worked in several bookstores before, but this was a whole new level of fun and challenge. Knowing the full inventory of a bookstore by memory means you absorb the life of books into your body. Stocking and straightening shelves, climbing through the dusty basement shelves doing inventory, I pulled the knowledge of books into myself through my fingertips. There is nothing more satisfying than taking a list of books from a customer and, without looking anything up, pulling Don’t Stop the Carnival, Nightbirds on Nantucket, Snow Crash, Motherless Brooklyn, How to Cook Everything, Vile Bodies, A Coney Island of the Mind, The Tipping Point and A People’s History of the United States off the shelves. (That’s an actual list someone gave me once.) I adored it, and I was good at it. For three and a half years, I lived in that bookstore like it was a second skin. One of the most contented moments of my life was leaning in the door on a late evening before locking up, watching the rain, smelling that paper-in-humidity smell and being aware that I was in my exact right place.
Nantucket, as it turned out, was not my exact right place and I went back to Chicago in the autumn of 2002. Mimi had retired half a year earlier, and although I still loved Mitchell’s, it didn’t feel the same without her. I’ve had good jobs and bad jobs and jobs that were just a job, but there was never another one like that. I was talking to my brother last weekend about my current job hunt, and said that I’d like to go back to bookselling. He said, “Really? You still want to do that?”
Oh yes, I would. Very much.
A good book is a wonderful present. I stopped by Shana’s a couple of days ago, and as I took my coat off she casually said, as if it were no big deal, gesturing toward the couch: there’s a present for you there. And there was this magical book, sitting on the sofa cushion like any other little thing. Only it isn’t any other little thing. It’s the most enchanting book ever. Fifteen thousand useful phrases. You may have noticed that I have a thing for words. I also have a thing for odd reference books. And people who can turn a phrase. So this book? SHAZAM. I spent the next several hours reading word pairings and phrases aloud. I changed my regular Twitter bio to include the phrase “a well-bred mixture of boldness and courtesy.” Then I spent some time this morning setting up a Twitter account so I can tweet the whole entire book, because the world needs to know all about the fifteen thousand useful phrases, subtitled “A practical handbook of pertinent expressions, striking similes, literary, commercial, conversational and oratorical terms, for the embellishment of speech and literature, and the improvement of the vocabulary of those persons who read, write and speak English.” By Grenville Kleiser, Funk & Wagnalls, 1917. It’s hilarious and touching and altogether brilliant. SHAZAM.
“The choice word, the correct phrase, are instruments that may reach the heart, and awake the soul if they fall upon the ear in melodious cadence…Language is a temple in which the human soul is enshrined, and…it grows out of life…”
There is nothing at all absurd about the human condition. We matter…We are the newest, the youngest, and the brightest thing around.”