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Chapters and Verse
Fiction from Behind the Counter
By Joel Barr
Gibbs Smith PublisherCopyright © 2000 Joel Barr
All rights reserved.
You don't just put up with interruptions around here. You live for them. Interruptions are the business.
Photography, Art, Biography A–L, Biography M–Z, Travel. Then a right and a jog past Fiction, Fiction, Fiction, Fiction to a lone gondola marked Mostly History. It isn't.
Unlike the rest of the store, Mostly History is just a bit off. You can't argue titles into or out of the section. Here the current status of the Chinese Revolution shares equal billing with a history of the medical profession, a two-volume summary of ecological disasters in the Northeast, and a pictorial analysis of Central American geopolitics. Here is the only shelf in the store devoted to the Old West and another which probably contains everything in print about the Japanese tourist. John McPhee lives here. So does Richard Selzer. You can't go to this section for something in particular. You come here to search for surprises and to be discovered by a book.
Like several of our regulars, Thad Collins feels that someone plants books there for him alone. Maybe. Thad rations his visits. He only calls on Mostly History when he has a gift to buy. Today he's looking for a present for his new friend, Ramsey Wills. They struck up a conversation three Saturdays ago and the two of them left together discussing an LBJ biography and a Nancy comic book. Thad was arguing that the two books had equal social significance and that their respective protagonists contributed equally to the lives of the populace. I didn't hear the full rebuttal, but it had something to do with men and power. Thad was pressing the case for women and endurance as the two left the store.
Today, reviewing the titles on the eight shelves of strange bookfellows, Thad seems to be visualizing Ramsey's face as he receives each book. Thad will probably spend half an hour skimming books, hefting them, gazing upward, replacing them and selecting others. When he finally makes a selection, it will be with a look that conveys the "yes, yes" of a wise scientist in a forties movie who, with one sniff of a vial, has discovered both the secret of life and the evil intentions of his lab assistant.
If Thad wants to choose what Ramsey chooses himself, he'll move to the poetry section. Ramsey usually buys modern-poetry anthologies, never illustrated ones. Thad seems to be settling on a photo essay about Northern Ireland. I think he's making a mistake but, then again, there's a lot of misreading at Chapters and Verse.
When I took over Chapters and Verse a year ago, I inherited a small storage cabinet filled with bookstoreabilia. It took me a year to decide to look through the folders and papers on the shelves because they weren't germane to the store itself, and the materials seemed still to belong to my predecessor, E Baker. It was only after I'd read and reread her last letter that it seemed appropriate to take a look at everything.
Consistent with the compulsive behavior nurtured by years in a store full of carefully categorized books, each of the three shelves in the cabinet contained its own class of abilia. The lowest shelf was full of awards. E had apparently saved every award she had earned since grade school. In her sixty or more years, she had created a sizeable plaque, trophy, and certificate library as a private monument to herself. As I emptied this shelf, honor by honor, onto the desk, E Baker took shape out of the calligraphy and brass as a selective, determined achiever.
From her preschool years, a fringed red ribbon proclaimed her membership in the Hartford Numbers Club: A Club for Very Young Ladies Who Have Learned to Count. A scroll which I couldn't flatten proclaimed that our Miss Baker had completed something called Early Elocution. Another scroll expressed the gratitude of a Connecticut senator for E's generous contribution to the Connecticut Children's Settlement for Unfortunate Parentless Children. As far as I could tell, our heroine counted beautifully, spoke well, and had a heart of gold before she turned six.
When she hit grade school, E went to her strengths. For three years running, she won the Wilson School Math Award for her class. She studied piano. The dollar or two her folks paid for each lesson must have included recital and ribbon fees, since she kept red and blue ribbons as mementos of her virtuosity on the keyboard at the Spring Recital for Family and Friends.
E also joined a group called the Voices of Norwich, which awarded her with three certificates for attendance. The symbol of the Voices, a crossed pitchfork and violin, suggested that the club was dedicated to agrarian music. One certificate was signed on the back by fellow Voices with notes like, "Play on EB," or "Remember your handkerchief, young lady," or "Maylynn and Pearl are behind you." I'll bet she laughed when she first read these notes.
Somewhere around twelve years of age, E either stopped being involved in awardable activities, stopped deserving recognition, or stopped saving her awards. The shelf offered nothing about the next few years except a certificate of completion of the ninth grade, to which was clipped a Special Notation of Excellence in Field Hockey. We can only guess what she went through in those difficult years when she was looking down at a new body, looking around at others looking around at her, and trying to figure out why she was so miserable when everyone else was so popular and happy. Since no one in history has ever done anything of note from ages twelve through fifteen, there is no reason to be harsh with E Baker for taking these years off.
She came back strong in high school as a thespian. Stenciled playbills highlighted an illustrious and progressive career on the stage, during which she progressed from doing set work and being a sailor in Major Tapps Meets Ensign Simon to a supporting role as a horse-race caller in Can Carinda Canter? That play was written by an Edwin Baker, perhaps a pseudonym. Finally, E got the lead role of Milady in a musical comedy called Chaos and Love Come to Bay Meadow, a three-act play with, according to the program, only one intermission.
Along with the playbills, E amassed seven certificates for Honors List grades, one trophy for Girls Broad Jump, Open Competition, a brass lamp inscribed "Lamplighters, E Baker and Tarn Shands," and the only graduation certificate I've ever seen with the principal's picture printed above his signature. She also won a plaque recognizing her tutoring efforts with the girls of St. Margaret's Day School. Pasted to the back of the plaque was a brown photograph of a smiling girl of seven or eight who had signed her name, Patty, below the words "Don't graduate, please."
E attended a private college called Weston which showed a Waterbury address on her diploma. Her degree was a Bachelor of Arts in Arts, a bumbling sort of title which is as purposefully nonspecific as any other degree. No other record of her college years was on the shelf, so I learned little more about this period in the life of the mysterious woman who was never referred to by any name fuller than E Baker.
Her life as an adult was shelved in two phases. The first I call her narrating period. Out of college she took a series of jobs which required her to tell people about things. These were documented in papers assembled in a cardboard box of the type used to collect a year's worth of magazines. A reference letter from an early supervisor praised her work as an orientation specialist in the naval-recruiting office. I could see her explaining to new recruits the travel they could expect, the type of ships they'd be manning, or the order of rank and the saluting responsibilities they'd face. I doubted that she would say much about the food, barracks, and "real" life the recruits were most interested in, but I'll bet she was serious about presenting the facts of their enlistment. Copies of resignation letters showed that she had also worked for five years as a tour guide at a number of state historic sites, and for eight as a reporter and copy editor for a weekly paper in Danbury. She had also won a commendation letter for her work as a community relations officer for the Connecticut State Police.
Somewhere near the end of her narrating period, E moved from Connecticut to Florida. This in itself isn't unusual since people in Connecticut are liable to move to Florida most anytime. E worked as a reference librarian in Orlando and saved To Whom It May Concern letters from her library superiors when she left four years later. They cited her tenacity in searching out facts.
She must have been about forty when she moved to Tangelo to open her bookstore. I would have been in the second or third grade at Tangelo Elementary, probably making pilgrims' heads out of construction paper and preposterous excuses for not finishing homework.
With the establishment of Chapters and Verse, E entered her second phase of adulthood, which I call her character phase because she called it that. The entrance to this new period, one in which she was working for herself for the first time, was momentous for her. It was so important, in fact, that she decided to honor herself for making a courageous and drastic change. She hand-lettered a Certificate of Lifelong Importance for herself, in which she offered a lofty "Whereas: E Baker has, after years of study, patience, watching, serving, and wishing, taken a step in the downhill of her life which she realizes to be unusual and entirely special ..."
The certificate then proclaimed her a "True and Legitimate Character of the Town" and recognized the uniqueness of her ways. E Baker, like many of the authors she promoted, apparently felt the need to document her individuality. She signed her own certificate in a defiant, confident hand and, according to oral histories I've collected, immediately set about earning the title she had bestowed upon herself.
Acquaintances attested to her unique character with statements like the following:
"She dressed funny and didn't know it."
"E Baker was fearless. She didn't know she wasn't supposed to speak her mind no matter what."
"Silent? Never. She had opinions on every book in the place, every author, every article in every magazine. She must have read like a demon."
"She was almost crazy. The store was sort of a pen in which she bounced around, scowling and laughing and always telling people to read, read. 'You don't know everything,' she'd say, 'so read this little novel and come back and tell me what you think.' When people came back to tell her, she'd listen, argue a bit, and thank them for talking with her about the book. Then, from under the counter, she'd pull out a book she'd been saving just for this person and offer it as a gift along with a smile which deserved an award."
"Money didn't matter to E. She seemed to have principles and pride which carried her along. But she never preached. I never knew anyone so sure that what she was doing was proper."
"She made more people read more books than any teacher. Her excitement about books was sort of infectious. How could you leave E's bookstore without a book you had to start reading immediately?"
"She lived alone, I think. No one ever asked her about herself and got an answer he or she could write down. She learned more about them from their questions than they learned about her from her answers. I liked her. I remember her very clearly. There was nothing halfway about E Baker."
These statements weren't on the cabinet shelf, of course. They were out in the town. The shelf did hold several plaques from the various local schools for her work with them on book fairs, library building programs, and reading contests. A letter from the owner of WTAN thanked her for nine years of book reviews, done faithfully each Saturday morning, including the time "you looked so ill with the flu that your notes seemed too heavy for you to manage." There were another twenty or more plaques and certificates thanking E or her store for this or that contribution.
The woman attracted recognition, and if she didn't leave behind a row of books — like some authors — she did leave her autobiography on these shelves.
Corb Sams is in and holding court between Travel and Crafts. He has his usual entourage of two: Irv Tyson, the only man in town to have retired wealthy at thirty with a fabled fortune from phosphate mining, and a woman I don't know who's often with the other two and usually shaking her head in amazement at Corb. Corb is fairly loud when he's on and, as far as I've seen, he's always on. Customers who aren't used to hearing him often frown in his direction, trying to locate the bellowing and pontificating. The frowns usually go away when they realize they have a world-class pontificator in their midst.
Corb isn't tall, handsome, deep voiced, or muscular. Still, like any leading man, he comes complete with followers, absolute self-confidence, and an unfailing ploy for grabbing the spotlight even when there's no stage. Corb reduces every problem, task, book, or author to a maxim. He produces a brief statement of truth so clever and memorable that it takes over from the subject itself and becomes part of the permanent lexicon of everyone in the room:
"One war, one treaty."
"Never set a secret plan loose in the forest when the leaves are dry."
"Books about Spain are always full of errors."
"Everything works on lawyers except bluff."
"Some people fight just to fight. Help them find each other."
"Nobody ever wrote the truth about Korea because nobody wanted to know."
"There are only two kinds of novels: novels which tell a story and bad novels."
He seems to arrive instantly at these nuggets in lightning jags through his synapses which defy the plodding, rational road the rest of us take. His one-liners come out involuntarily, it seems, at the very moment of their conception. Corb himself seems to stand back and marvel at his work.
If Corb is unmatched in his prowess with the original maxim, it isn't because he hones his skills with lessons from the masters. I've never seen him even browse through Twain, Mencken, Hotchner, or Alexander Pope. He even seems to work his magic without Dr. Johnson. In fact, when Corb comes up to the front to check out, his selections are completely disconnected from his eternal road show. He reads everything written by William Goldman and often buys more than one copy of a title. He says he reads the same work from different starting points using different copies so he can check for consistency. Why Goldman gets so much of Corb's attention, I don't know. When he doesn't buy Goldman, he reads Jerome Weidman or books about sports psychology. Except for one week when he bought everything we had by Charles Webb, he hasn't varied his choices. To listen to him, though, you'd think he'd be reading from every section in the place. Maybe he sneak reads or maybe, though I hate to think it, he's in a mail-order book club.
Irv Tyson usually buys three or four paperbacks and thereby qualifies as a "stocker" — someone who buys books like bread, a week's supply at a time. He usually buys doctor novels. These are novels which, I maintain, have long deserved to be called genre novels, like romances or westerns, since they all have the same setting and plot. Young Doctor Warren begins practice in a hospital with overbearing senior staff, an incredible overload of cases and exotic diseases, a nurse, patient, or administrator who obviously will be the romantic interest, and a set of ideals that just won't quit. Despite adversity the senior staff is tamed, the rare diseases are conquered, the romantic interest becomes interested, and the ideals just don't quit. Full of surprises, those medical types. Dr. Warren would never sing in a sun shower.
The woman reads most anything that comes in a series. She's plowed through Piers Anthony, the Oz books, all four of the Hitchhiker Trilogy, and shelves full of mystery series. John Jakes kept her going a good while in our tall-ships years. The subject doesn't matter; she seems interested only in matching her reading persistence with authors who have earned her respect by plugging on and on.
What fascinates me about this group is their balance. When three people do anything together on a regular basis for any length of time, it is noteworthy. Most sports require two people. Others need five, nine, or eleven, but none that I can think of uses three people on a side. Classes are usually larger than three people, car pools seem to favor four riders, and couples always come in twos. Somehow this group works, at least for book-buying forays. My theory is that Corb's continuous and clever chatter is matched by Irv Tyson's leisure to listen and complimented by the mystery woman's wonder at prolonged wordsmithing. Take away any one of them, and either there's no speaker, no listener, or no corroborating witness. Add one and somebody's out of a job.
Excerpted from Chapters and Verse by Joel Barr. Copyright © 2000 Joel Barr. Excerpted by permission of Gibbs Smith Publisher.
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