I opened the store around noon. About twenty minutes later, a young couple came in. They were a quiet pair. They started browsing.
I was busy categorizing the fiction under a system I came up with when I first started working at Dyslexia Books in February, 2011. I thought I ought to get acquainted with what was on the shelves so I could help people find the books they were looking for. I had quickly discovered that many people actually asked for help in finding a book — a particular book that, at the moment, is totally unknown to them. To facilitate the guiding process, I got this crazy idea (you may have to be a little OCD to even conceive this) that I could go through every book in the store, reading a few pages or the cover blurb if I didn’t already know it, and then placing it in a category.
I let the books guide me in discovering the categories. Some were easy: Classics, Thriller, Adventure, Historical Fiction. Some came to me because they didn’t fit easily into a larger category or they represented something unique that I thought would be of interest to a buyer. Bukowski got cross-categorized as both Poetry and Grit. Saramago and Bulgakov ended up in Psychological and Absurd. Another useful category is Cheap but Good, for buyers on a limited budget. In the end, I didn’t categorize every single book, but I did manage to get most of them into between twelve and fifteen categories.
When I reviewed a book, I would write down the category at the top of a page, and then put the author’s last name on the left in alphabetical order and the title of the book on the right side of the page. Maybe a note of description here and there, and sometimes an asterisk if I thought it merited a special mention. This way I could remember books that I otherwise didn’t know, find them easily, and pull them according to the buyer’s tastes and interests.
It was a remarkable success. I would ask the buyer, “What type of books do you like?” If they didn’t know, I would give them some categories. “How about Family / Neighborhood? ” If they were interested, I could pull out five selections in less than a minute and let them look them over. If they didn’t like them, I would try another category. People are often astonished how fast I can hand them selections. Generally, I find that they love it. I think they do because the process is human. They love that each book has been held, assessed and individually entered in a handwritten list. None of it is done by machine.
I thought the young couple was American. I had the New Lost City Ramblers – The Early Years playing in the background. The NLC Ramblers (Mike Seeger, Tracy Schwarz and John Cohen) virtually rescued what is called Old Time or Appalachian music in the early 1960s. It’s primarily fiddle and banjo. It’s the music that mountain people played on their front porches and at dances long before Bill Monroe and Ralph Stanley converted it to the stage and called it Bluegrass. After a while I said to the guy. “You know, there’s probably no other store in Guatemala where you can hear the New Lost City Ramblers.”
He hesitated and then said, “Please repeat that, I am French and speak Spanish, but my English is not good.”
So I went into a Spanish and English explanation of the band, the music, who listens or plays it. He got it. He asked me to translate rambler. Working together, the best we could come up with was “hobo trekker.”
I liked the idea. So did he.
He said, “In France we don’t speak much English.”
“In protest?” I joked?
He laughed, “Oh yes, in France we are always protesting.”
I told him about an incident I had in New York City recently. “I met this Serbian guy. He was a friend of a friend. We’d gone for a walk. When he heard I had never been to France, he said I had to go before I died, adding, ‘The French have the best life in the world, and they’re the only ones who don’t know it.’”
The customer laughed, “Yes,” he said, “this is very true.”
I pointed out the French language section. I pulled out a translated copy of Henry Miller’s The Colossus of Maroussi. He had never heard of Miller. Tropic of Cancer? No. Capricorn? No. I put it all in a historical context: How Miller was an American expat in France in the 1920-30s, how Tropic of Cancer was censored in the United States until Grove Press fought it to the Supreme Court and won. “It was a landmark decision in the history of free speech,” I told him.
I was enjoying the conversation.
“My favorite French writer lately is Jean Giono,” I said. “Do you know him?”
“Of course! Do you have anything by him?”
“No,” I said. “I brought one with me from the States, but sold it already. For me, Giono is unlike any other author.”
“How so?” he asked.
“I’ll try to explain,” I said. “His early books are not narratives in the normal way. The story or plot is secondary to the natural aspects of the world which act as characters themselves, interacting with the human characters and the world itself. The rivers speak. The forests sing.”
“Oh,” he said, “you mean the reader ‘feels the story?’”
“Yeah,” I replied, “that’s it.”
We talked about Giono’s Song of the World first. Then maybe his magnum opus, Joy of Man’s Desiring.
“That book reminds me of a story,” I said. “When my son was about twenty, a few years back, he took off on a ‘ramble.’ He hitchhiked, and hopped trains.”
“A ‘hobo trekker,’” he interjected.
“Yes, exactly,” I laughed. “Lots of young people are doing that again. And many of them carry fiddles and banjos with them, playing Old Time music along the way. Sometime after he was gone I couldn’t find my copy of Joy of Man’s Desiring. My son had started reading Giono, and loved him as much as I did. I wondered if he had taken it with him.
“He made it to Tucson, Arizona, which has become a destination for these new hobo trekkers. I knew he was living in a house with a bunch of friends out there for a month or two.
“Months later he returned home. I found the book in his room, beat up, missing the cover, dirty as only a boxcar can make something black.
“‘Man, you took my book and ruined it.’” I said. But I was joking a little because as long as he was reading I didn’t care too much.
“‘Yeah,’ my son said, ‘I know. Sorry about that. But you wouldn’t believe how many of my friends read it, too.’
“I wasn’t expecting that answer at all. In my mind I was imagining sitting at a railroad crossing watching the box cars go by, hearing fiddle music, and wondering if there was some kid in one of the cars reading Giono.
“‘Hey, it’s okay.’ I said. ‘Take whatever books you want next time.’”
“I’ll look for that book when I return to France,” the customer said. “But can you find me something to read in English? I will be going back to university next year, and I’ll have to know English better. The book has to be easy.”
I thought about that, and then asked him if he liked Detective / Crime Mysteries?
“Yea, a little.”
I suggested Tony Hillerman. It’s an easy read. He wrote a lot about Native Americans, Navaho in the Four Corners region of the United States, mostly. He knew Four Corners. His books have two great fictional police detectives, Jim Chee and Joe Leaphorn, who feature in a number of the novels, including the one I’d suggested to my new friend. He bought it, and his girlfriend, who never said a word, bought two more.
It was a slow day. No one had come in for at least an hour. I was bored. She came in, smiled, and walked immediately to the fiction. We exchanged a minimum “Hi.” She seemed like she knew what she was looking for, so I didn’t offer her any direction.
She was good-looking, about 25, British accent. She was wearing a nice skirt made of some kind of clingy material. She presented well.
She looked over the fiction for a few minutes and then, in a direct line of sight to where I was sitting behind the desk, she bent over to look at the books on the lowest shelf.
As she bent down, down, down, her skirt went up, up, up. She stayed down for a long, long, long time. She must have really liked that part of the alphabet. She had my full attention.
Finally, she straightened up and turned toward me. I gave her the usual opening, “The books on the table are all new to the store in the last week.” She turned her attention to the table. I added, “The books on that side are contemporary and relatively new. The books on the other side are old classics, some in paperback.”
She had come around the table and stopped at my desk, listening to me. I added, “It’s a great selection. Old, but good.”
It was at this point that Ali Akbar, an old friend of mine who passed a while back, but who always had the gift of the gab while living, woke within me. “Like me,” I said surprising myself.
She looked at me for a few seconds and then gave me a big, big smile.