Wednesday, December 10, 2008

When Nature Calls

Yep, you guessed it.  This entry is about what to do "when nature calls" and you are the only one working.  Frankly, before I worked at the bookstore, I never really considered this dilemma for employees of small shops.  When working alone, what do you do when you have to use the facilities?  Do you say, "Pardon me Madam, but I have to excuse myself for a moment." Or do you deny nature, ending up uncomfortable and with a possible bladder infection?  Or do you do what I did?  Make a break for it when no one's around and hope for the best.

I was working alone one evening.  It was quiet.  No customers.  I checked outside the window. No one was approaching on the sidewalk.  So I ran.  Quick as I could, I took care of nature's call. Then, after quickly washing up, I jumped back into the store to see if anyone had appeared while I was indisposed.  It was quiet.  I had not heard the bell on the door jingle.  I was alone.

I breathed a sigh of relief.  I had accomplished my goal without any problem.  I felt a bit leisurely for a moment.  I brushed my hair.  I put on chap stick.  As I was rubbing on hand lotion, I heard a small "ahem."  My heart clenched.  I was NOT alone!   Someone had come in while I was in the bathroom and was waiting for me as I primped and preened.

I ran back into the store.  "Oh.  I'm so sorry!  I didn't realize anyone was here.  How can I help you?"  I felt embarrassed.  This woman so obviously knew what I was up to and was probably embarrassed herself to interrupt me.  But, fortunately her universal sound for "excuse me" had gotten my attention.

I helped her find the book she was looking for and she left happy with her purchase.  I laughed to myself (and at myself) when she was gone.  What a goofy thing.  But such is life in a small store.  You do what you have to do.  And I did.  

I just hope next time, I realize someone is there right away.  Or better yet, I make it back out before anyone even knows.  Or I could always make a little sign that says "Back in 3 minutes" and lock the door.  

Whatever I decide to do, I'll remind myself to not feel embarrassed.  Life happens.  Nature calls and you have to respond.

Monday, November 24, 2008


Last week, we hosted a reading by poet Todd Boss.  His new book, Yellowrocket, just came out from W.W. Norton & Company.  And it is wonderful!  The collection is divided into six sections dealing with themes such as family & farming, marriage, children and loneliness.

The title comes from the Yellow Rocket plant that grew on Todd's childhood farm.  The story of how his family acquired the farm is remarkable.  And Todd's poem, Yellowrocket, captures the essence of that experience.

Boss writes, "Never buy a farm in winter."   In winter, their brand new 80 acres were covered in beautiful, white snow.  But in spring, snow melted to reveal 80 acres of trash.  

Unwitting heirs, we'd
come into a garden
overgrown with plastic
diapers and broken
furniture tangled in

burdock and brambles
and thistle.

And Yellow Rocket.  Todd's reading brought me there.  I could feel the cold and despair of looking out over 80 acres of garbage.  My hands felt chapped and bleeding just listening to him speak of picking up all that trash and hauling it to the dump.  He writes:

Had holes been coins,
our gloves and boots
would've jangled.

That evening at Micawber's, Todd also read a poem about the house he used to live in only two blocks from the bookstore.  Todd lived in the neighborhood and, in fact, managed Micawber's for a short time.  Most of the local houses are nearly 100 years old.  I understood this poem completely, thinking about my own old house.

My house is Small and Almost

a hundred years old.  Inside,
 the oaken posts and beams
make the living room seem
 like a glade.  When friends
pronounce it comfortable,
 it's 1910 that comforts them,
and nothing I have done.

There must be a room
 in the human heart
that's older than the body.
 And it's good to be there
in that foursquare cathedral
 where nothing has changed
since before we were made.

I highly recommend Todd Boss' new collection of poems.  Yellowrocket is thoughtful, honest, and very poignant.  And if you have a chance to hear him read his work, do it.  You'll be glad you did.

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Let it Snow!

Yes, there is snow on the ground here in Minnesota.  When I woke up this morning, the world had turned white with an inch of heavy, wet snow covering the grass, branches and my neighbor's garage roof.  I wasn't sure how to feel about it actually.  In one way, I hate snow because it means Winter is truly here (for the next 6 months).  It means shoveling, wetness, and mucky roads.  But newly fallen snow also means pure, clean beauty.  It means watching my daughter and my dog frolicking in the fluffy stuff.  It means ice skating and sledding soon to come.  I am all for snow - eventually.  Just not too early.

What does snow and winter mean for me at Micawber's?  Our little neighborhood does winter well.  The area around the bookstore is beautiful in all seasons, but in winter the lights come on and it twinkles at night.  With dark coming so early, a little twinkle is nice.  And inside the store, it is getting cozy.  The colder and wetter it is outside, the warmer and more welcoming it feels inside.  I have already heard customers sigh when they enter the store.  They shake off the chill, or the rain drops, and breathe deep.  For a time, they are in a warm, safe place filled with books and light and soft music.  There are comfy chairs next to floor lamps to sit in.  The store invites you to get comfortable and stay for awhile.

This is my first winter working at Micawber's, but I think I'm going to like it.  Being inside with all those books while it snows and blows outside, will be comforting indeed.  And luckily for me, there's a coffee shop right across the street that makes great hot chocolate.  Let it snow!

Monday, November 3, 2008

What Time Change?

I consider myself to be a fairly with-it person.  I'm generally very organized, can multi-task and stay "on top of the ball."  Then something happens - like tonight - that reminds me that I am not infallible.  In fact, sometimes I do something that's just plain dumb.

We all know that as of Sunday, Daylight Savings Time ended and we all turned our clocks back 1 hour.  Like the "with-it" person I am, I reset all the clocks in our house, including the microwave and answering machine.  But, apparently there was one clock I forgot to change - my wristwatch.

Tonight, I closed the bookstore an hour early by mistake.  I shut the door and locked it at exactly 8 pm (according to my wristwatch.)  I shut off the lights, ran the reports and took out the trash.  I was very efficient and orderly.  On my way home, I called my husband.  He said, "Why are you coming home?  It's only 7:30."  I was astounded.  I hate messing up.  But, I do.  And I did.

Being an honest (and embarrassed) person, I called Tom, one of the owners, and confessed.  He laughed and told me to forget about going back.  There wasn't much I could do at that point.  I felt like a fool.  I was a fool.  But, luckily I work for and with great people.  Even the most "with-it" person messes up from time to time.

Well, you can probably guess that my wristwatch now displays the accurate time.  I am, once again, a totally organized, multi-tasking wiz!  (That is, until I make another silly mistake.)

Sunday, November 2, 2008

Friends - Old and New

Yesterday at the bookstore, I reconnected with an old friend that I haven't seen since I was 9 years old.  Working at Micawber's has provided me with surprising chances to reconnect with old friends.  And it certainly has brought in many new friends as well.

Our local paper, The Bugle, started a new series called "The People in Your Neighborhood." Each month, they will highlight a local business and someone who works there.  So, that person who routinely serves me a Mocho IceCrema at Dunn Brothers might actually be an up and coming singer and I just didn't know it.  (This, in fact, is true.  And I will die young if I keep ordering IceCremas.) Or, it will be fun to learn how Jeff at The Little Wine Shop got so knowledgeable about wine and beer.

The new series began in November and featured our bookstore, Micawber's.  I was the one working when Dave showed up to do the article.  Thus, I am featured, along with Micawber's. It's been fun having people I've known for years comment on the article.  "Fun story."  "When's your book coming out?"  "I didn't know you grew up here." But it's also been interesting to have people I don't know come into the shop and say, "You're Dara.  I saw you in The Bugle."  New friends to be sure.  One person even said I was a "local celebrity." That's a bit much.  But if it brings new people into the store to say, "Hi," and check out our books, then great.

But the best part is that the article brought in a very unexpected friend.  My childhood pal, Tanya, was in town visiting her father when she saw the Bugle article.  Tanya and I haven't seen each other since we were in 4th grade, but when she walked into Micawber's yesterday afternoon I completely recognized her face.  It's funny how we change and we don't.  We hugged each other.  I met her husband and little boy.  We reminisced about singing together in choir and playing at each other's houses.  It was great to reconnect with a friend from so long ago. And it was because of the store and the story.

Having worked at the bookstore for almost three months now, I have met many new friends. People who come in regularly and those who stop in just now and again.  I've enjoyed learning their names and a little bit about them.  One man spent a good half hour telling me about his trip to Alaska on a cruise ship.  It was a quiet afternoon and he talked and talked.  Finally, when another customer arrived, he said goodbye and left.  I am sad to say that I never learned his name.  So, the next time he comes in to look at the big Titanic book in the front window, I'll start things out right and say, "Hi.  I'm Dara.  Welcome back to Micawber's."

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Micawber's in the Morning

I love opening at Micawber's.  Arriving early in the morning, I unlock the old wooden door and push my way into the quiet of the store.  I turn on a single light, the ancient chandelier above the cash register.  All else is still dark.  The wooden floor is very old.  The wood slats don't match up the way they once did.  The patina is a weathered grey.  An oriental rug covers one section.  It looks weathered too, but comfortable.  I breathe in the smells of the store - old wood and books.  It's a good smell.  I am quiet as I walk around getting ready for the day. Once the store opens, we will have music on in the background.  Irish music, most likely, if I'm in charge.  A local vocalist perhaps if Hans makes the selection.  Tom might choose the Blind Boys of Alabama.  And if Karen opens the store, you can bet you'll hear classical music from the radio.  

But, not now.  When I am here alone in the morning, I don't turn on music.  I don't hum or sing. I am simply quiet, along with the store itself.  We are both still waking up.  Upstairs, I hear faint sounds of someone getting ready for work - walking across the floor, turning on the faucet.  There is an apartment above us.  I'll forget this fact for the rest of the day, but in the morning I am reminded that there is life overhead.

Now that it's October, the ancient radiators have hissed back to life.  It is warm again in the store.  I walk around straightening books, checking the displays.  In the kid's section, I rearrange the big bear where kids love to snuggle.  I walk past the two old armchairs that are falling apart, but are still so comfy.  Every day people plop down in those chairs and stay awhile. In fiction, there is a fireplace mantel.  It took me a month to realize there is no actual fireplace in the store, just a very beautiful, wooden mantel with a mirror.  It's a great place to display books.  People have offered us money for it.  But, it belongs in the store.

There are boxes of books by the back door.  Returns mostly.  One of these days - soon - we'll get to them.  But, there are always other things to do.  More important things.  I walk around the huge, heavy wooden tables laden with new titles.  They are great for books.  Terrible to move.  I vacuum the tiny leaves off the wooden floor and oriental rug.  The vacuum seems to just blow the leaves around, not wanting to actually take them away.

It's almost time to open the store.  I look up at the old clock hanging above the register.  I laugh, forgetting, and check my wristwatch.  It's always noon on the store clock.  It stopped long ago.  I walk around now turning on all the lights.  It's time to fully wake up and invite people in. The one plant - a bonsai of some kind - has water.  But, that is not my job.  Someone else makes sure the bonsai lives.

It's ten o-clock in the morning now.  All the lights are on, the books straightened, the little leaves vacuumed and the register ready.  I turn on the music.  And I unlock the door.  We - the store and I - are ready for a new day.

Thursday, October 23, 2008

Trade Shows & Free Books

Every September the Midwest Booksellers Association (MBA) holds its annual convention in St. Paul. There are workshops and sessions for booksellers, meals with authors, and a Trade Show open all day Saturday.  I have attended the trade show once as an author when my first book, Remembering Mama, came out in 2002.  I sat at the Augsburg table and signed copies of my books to give away to booksellers.  It was fun, but a bit overwhelming.

This year I attended MBA as a bookseller.  It was an entirely different experience. The whole purpose of the trade show is to get booksellers interested in buying new titles from various publishers. Every big publisher is there and many, many small ones.  I had the opportunity to walk around the trade show with Tom (one of my bosses) who has been in the book business for over 30 years. Tom knew just about everyone and they knew him.  It was a huge learning experience for me.  I met the reps from many publishing houses.  They are the men and women who actually sell the books to the bookstores.  They travel all around meeting with book buyers at their stores.  Or they call and make phone appointments several times a year to sell books for the upcoming season.

Books are generally published in three seasons - Fall, Spring and Summer.  Fall runs September through December and is usually when the biggest books are released.  Holiday book buying should never be underestimated for a small, independent bookstore.  December book sales alone can equal sales in several other months combined.  The Spring season runs January through April.  And Summer covers May through August.  Right now, we are in the middle of the Fall season, but we are buying books for Spring.  You always have to work a season ahead.  All the new titles in the store this Fall were ordered last summer.

So, at the MBA trade show, the publishers were primarily highlighting their Spring books.  And they don't just talk about them; they give free copies away!  Tom, the seasoned book buyer, took just a couple books.  I, on the other hand, took so many free books that by noon I was dragging my bag on the floor because I could no longer carry it.  MBA made a rule a few years ago that no wheeled bags (aka luggage) were allowed on the trade show floor.  Neither were baby strollers, unless they contained actual babies.  People were going crazy grabbing free books.  Now, you can only take what you can carry (or drag).

Also a note on etiquette.  It amazes me how people can get when free things are being offered. Granted, I accepted a lot of free books.  But all of them were offered to me.  I never grabbed a book from a publisher's table.  Bad etiquette.  And, these books are meant for us to read and enjoy (and hopefully buy tons of copies).  Apparently some book sellers actually bring their free copies back to their shops and sell them.  Bad form people!  Accept your free books and be happy.

So, have I read all my free books yet?  No.  And, I have so many that I'll be giving many of them away to members of my book club and writer's group. I can only have so many stacks of books on my kitchen table.  We need to eat somewhere.

The MBA convention was a great way to kick off my book selling career.  I felt like a real professional!  And was treated like one, too.  But next year I've got to find a stroller (with a real baby in it) to hold all my books.  This year, my shoulder was just killing me.

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Poetry and Tattoos

Last night, at Micawber's, we had a poetry reading by Raymond McDaniel.  He read from his new collection, Saltwater Empire, published by Coffee House Press.  McDaniel teaches at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor which is my alma mater.  It was fun to talk "U of M" with him.  But I could tell from his wee-bit of an accent (and the fact that he said "Ya'all") that he was not a Michigan native.  Turns out he is originally from the Florida Panhandle and has lived several places in the south, including New Orleans.  My favorite of his poems where his first person poems from the voice of displaced persons after Hurricane Katrina.  Very moving.

But he also had lots of anecdotes about his own life.  One in particular caught my attention. Where he grew up there was a tattoo parlor that brilliantly advertised "Tattoos while you wait."  Now, I don't know about you, but I'd like to see a permanent tattoo done while you didn't wait.  So, I started thinking about tattoos.  Full disclosure for all my readers - Bookshop Gal has a tattoo.  I never intended to have a tattoo.  But, when I turned 40 I decided a tattoo was what I needed for my new decade.  (The real deal is that I couldn't afford a sports car.)  So, now I have a sun tattoo on my right foot.  And let me tell you, it hurt like a son-of-a-gun.  I was waiting alright.  And waiting.  And waiting for it be over.   I might sound like a wimp, but I was truly concentrating on not passing out.  So, when I turn 50 I might just have to get the sports car instead.

You all know we sell books at Micawber's, but what you might not know is that we also sell tattoos.  Yes, we do.  We sell lots of these little Dover books for $1.50 each.  Some have little stories, some stickers, and apparently others have temporary tattoos.  The way I found out is through a customer.  She recently turned 50 and wanted a permanent tattoo.   After further consideration, she decided against it.  But, she still wanted a tattoo.  She found the answer at our shop.  The Dover tattoo books have flowers and designs - things an adult might want to paste on her body.  No SpongeBob SquarePants or Thomas the Train tattoos at our store!  So, every month she comes in to buy a new book of tattoos and puts a new one on her ankle each week.  It's an ever-changing, non-permanent tattoo.  Not like a sun on the foot.

So, if you've been considering a tattoo but aren't sure about the permanency or pain factors, I recommend checking out the little Dover tattoo books.  They could be just the thing you're looking for.  And you can try one on yourself "while you wait."

Monday, October 20, 2008

Bookshop Gal Begins

Welcome to my blog.  I began my career as a bookseller in August 2008, just a couple months ago.  I'm a children's picture book author and a former English and drama teacher.  I'm thrilled to be working at Micawber's Books, the bookshop in my neighborhood.  What a great way to see several sides of the book world - writing, buying and selling.  And in my few short months of bookselling, I've noticed many curious things about working at a small, independent bookstore.  I've met loads of wonderful (and interesting) people and I've unpacked even more boxes filled with great books.  So, I wanted to share my thoughts and observations with you.

We are a small bookshop with a long history.  Micawber's has been around for over 30 years. The current owners have owned Micawber's for 5 + years.  There are only four regular booksellers.  Tom and Hans, the owners.  Karen and myself.  And, occasionally Tommy and Maura help out.  Since it's so small, we do it all.  Unpack, shelve, help customers find books, sell books using the finicky register, order books, call customers, set up displays, visit with everyone who walks through our door, vacuum, dust and take out the trash.  I even had to remove the poor dead bird (my first casualty) after he flew in and crashed into the front window.

For those of you who think working at a bookstore includes loads of time to lounge around and read, think again.  This is one of the most physical jobs I've ever had.  (And I've been an Elementary Teacher.)  It's also one of the most rewarding jobs I've ever had.

I'll reveal all (well almost all) in my blog so you can be a part of the bookshop too.  Like Cheers, it's a place where everyone (well at least Tom, Hans and Karen) knows your name.  I'm still learning customer's names and the job of being a bookseller.  Come along for the ride as I begin this new adventure.