Friday, July 16, 2004

Old Paperback Books

The other day, a woman came into the bookstore.

Having never worked retail, I've only just now discovered the pastime of making assumptions about people who come into the store. Not necessarily full-on prejudices, but not so much that I make up elaborate stories about them in my head. A grandma buys two books for her grandson, and I get a different idea about her than if she'd bought two different books. It's a time-waster, basically; something to think about while I'm making the latte or ringing up a purchase.

This woman was older, about 75. She wore khaki shorts, and the color of her socks matched her shirt. She most likely described her purse as a "handbag"; she wore canvas lace-ups; her hair was done. I recognized a little of my own small-town grandmothers in her.

She had been to the store months ago and had heard she could drop off used paperback books for resale. I said yes, that was fine; she could just bring in the boxes and I would take care of them. I thought that was the end of the discussion, but she had more to say.

I work in a small town. Most of the people who come by during the day are retirees or at-home moms. I'm used to talking to the older people -- some want to be jollied along, some are no-nonsense, and some ramble verbally and physically. I pegged her has a verbal rambler. Which is usually fine; it's pretty slow in the store, and I often have time to chat. But when she came in, I was in the middle of preparing three lunches and three fancy drinks. So I was eager to get back to it.

"The books were my husband's," she said in her flat, almost cold voice. "We were both great readers. Both of us loved books. But he's gone now, and I've been doing some cleaning up, getting stuff out of the house. Some of the grandkids wanted some of the books, and some didn't, so I let them pick through, and here's what's left."

"Yup!" I said brightly, which is often interpreted as, "Interesting! But I have more stuff to do!" I made movements to get back to preparing, but the woman would have none of it -- she wanted a description of the lunches we serve, and the drinks. I gave her a brief rundown, then excused myself while she pondered the menu.

After I had served the other customers, she ordered lunch. I prepared it and brought it out to her. I imagined her widow's life -- comfortable, not necessarily loaded; cleaning out her husband's things slowly, deciding carefully what to save and what to keep. Books would be hard. I thought of discussions prompted by political books or literature. A sentence read aloud in bed. The two of them hunched over their books at breakfast. The New York Times Book Review on Sundays.

The day progressed in the store. She finished her lunch and asked me for a receipt for her books, for tax purposes. There were more than 80 paperbacks in the box. Annoyance began to steal up on me. A receipt for paperbacks? As I was writing it out, she told me they were in tough shape, that since her grandchildren didn't want them, she figured she'd bring them here. "Look, lady," I thought. "We aren't a junk shop. If they're in bad shape, just recycle them." We resell paperbacks for 50 cents each, so I suppose she will claim $40 on her return.

She browsed through the store for awhile, and then came to me with another request. I am not cut out for customer service. I don't like talking to people. I don't like helping people with every little thing. It's amazing I've made it a year. It's almost as if I have a "three strikes" rule in my head, unconsciously. If you get in my face three times, I start to get tense.

She asked me for a piece of paper, so she could write down the names of all the books she was bringing in. No problem, I said, thinking that maybe that could have been done at home. But whatever. I gave her a pad of paper and a pen. She sat on a chair next to the two boxes of books and began to go through them.

It took her about an hour. I didn't watch her; the afternoon traffic picked up nicely and I was kept busy. When she was done, she brought the pad and pen back over to me. I smiled and said briskly, "All set?"

"Yes," she replied in her strangely emotionless voice. "I'm kind of glad I did that. I never knew what he liked to read. He was in the military, and so he wasn't around much. And then he went off to Milwaukee, you know, and by the time he came back, well then, he was sick with prostate cancer and dementia. It was interesting to see what kind of books he was interested in. I got a little insight into who he was, and I'm glad I did."

Her voice was flat, but her face was tender.

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