In honor of National Independent Bookstore Day

This is an excerpt from my memoir in honor of National Independent Bookstore day. Bits of it have been revised but for these purposes I like it. Thanks goes out to John, my previous boss, who has taken the time recently to speak with me about my days working at his bookstore. Lemuria bookstore continues to be a top independent bookstore in the United States in large part because of John’s dedication and hard work.

The Mousehole Cat

My daughter was five when her stepdad and I meet. After eight magical years in Missoula, MT, I had returned to my Southern hometown of Jackson, MS. Paul and I worked alongside each other at a local bustling bookstore. As a previous frequent customer, he had waited on me for years. Eleven years my elder with his salt and pepper hair, beard and blue eyes staring through wire rimmed glasses he looked the part of a wise, caring bookseller. Here we were sitting and working together at the open circular customer service desk, right in the middle of this beautiful bookstore. 

Lemuria bookstore had just moved to this new location a year before. It had grown out of the small space it previously housed. Now it was nationally known for its first editions collection as well as author events. The first editions had its own room, the children’s section, OZ, was like a little store of its own. Visiting authors would read to a packed crowd from their newest book then situate themselves in a booth tucked away up a couple steps. This allowed readers a moment to say a few words to the author while having their book signed, then walk through and down steps on the other side making for the perfect flow. 
It was an honor to meet writers such as Lorrie Moore, Kaye Gibbons, Jim Harrison, John Grisham, Tim O’Brien, Mark Childress and Tom Robbins. I would assist in the signing, sitting next to the authors in the booth, greeting their fans and getting the books opened to the correct page to sign. As the endearing Willie Morris signed and visited with readers of My Dog Skip, I dutifully kept his coffee cup filled with his favorite whiskey.

Behind our little world at the customer service desk, Paul proved to be nothing but helpful. Each morning for my first week of work, Paul would greet me, look at me as if looking into my soul saying, “Frances, let me know if you need any help finding a book, anything, I’m here to help.”

Since I was a single parent, my parents were helping quite a bit with my daughter. Part of the routine was for them to drop her off at the bookstore just before I would be leaving work. She would come behind the counter, proudly sit in my chair while I balanced the register at closing.  She and Paul struck up a friendship. It was so heart-warming to look over and see the two of them drawing or looking through a book. He was giving her undivided attention while encouraging art and reading. Paul would get downright silly with her at times. Over time, his kindness won me over. I asked him if he would like to spend time with us outside of the bookstore, so my daughter would have a male role model in her life. Her dad lived a thousand miles away. He jumped at the chance. He was married, but his wife traveled often for work. On days off, the three of us would find a local hike, visit the Mississippi petrified forest, hunt down the best shaved ice shop or the best local BBQ for dinner.

It was all innocent enough. I cannot remember the reason, maybe he had a book in his extensive book collection at home to show me. I went by his house. My daughter wasn’t with me. We were alone. As I was leaving through the kitchen door, he kissed me. I was baffled but before I knew it, we were sneaking off for private moments together whenever we could. He wrote me beautiful love notes, bought me tasteful romantic gifts. Including a fused glass heart brooch, which I still have. Other gifts were well thought out and much appreciated. When my coffee maker went on the blink, he showed up with a high-end coffee maker that could be set to make coffee as I was waking up. What more could a girl ask for?

Paul eventually divorced his wife and we moved in together. Our bookshelves were full, our decorating taste matched perfectly, and I had a family to cook for. 

The three of us, Paul, me and my daughter found much comfort in each other. Paul loved finding the perfect book to bring home and read aloud to my daughter. There was one children’s book we loved for the story and the illustrations, The Mousehole Cat. A beautiful black and white cat was the main character. The cover of the book was a sea captain with a full gray beard holding the cat. Paul resembled this sea captain with his kind eyes and full graying beard. We felt it was fate, when on the day before Christmas eve, a woman came in the bookstore and shared that she had a litter of kittens that were looking for homes. One was a black and white tuxedo kitty that looked just like our favorite character. Paul phoned me from the bookstore. We quickly made arrangements to have this kitty as a Christmas surprise on Christmas morning. It was magical. Nick the cat, who loved only us, was with us until the end of our marriage.

*Kaye Gibbons wrote one of my favorite books, Ellen Foster.
*Lorrie Moore came to the bookstore to promote, Like Life. She is a delight.
*Willie Morris’s My Dog Skip is also a movie, a tear jerker, highly recommend.

On writing, it’s magic and sharing writing

I love Eudora Welty’s One Writer’s Beginnings. It’s the perfect size book to keep by my bed or carry in my purse for a possible wait. Eudora was born and lived in Jackson, MS, my home town. Once we were buying underwear at the same time in McRae’s department store. That’s the closest I ever got to her. I was in awe. The old Sears building in downtown Jackson eventually converted to a library, The Eudora Welty Library.

The first chapter of One Writer’s Beginnings evokes a sense of peace, looking back at simpler times, her growing up in a home where reading was like breathing. Eudora reflects, “I learned from the age of two or three that any room in our house, at any time of the day, was there to read in, or to be read to.” I am green with envy, wondering what would my life have been like if reading was encouraged, even a part of our everyday lives growing up. I don’t have any memories of books, of being read to. My introduction to books came in high school, from my older sisters who read Kathleen Woodiwiss, The Flame and the Flower, The Wolf and the Dove. We referred to her books as crotch burners. But I was reading and that got me going.

I was in heaven working at Lemuria bookstore in my late twenties, surrounded by books, overwhelmed with what to read next, meeting and talking with writers who came for readings and signings. Tom McGuane, Tom Robbins, Willie Morris, John Grisham, Jimmy Buffett, Lorri Moore, Tim O’Brien, Rick Bass, Mark Childress, Kaye Gibbons, and Jim Harrison are just some of the writer’s I was blessed to meet. My daughter was lucky to reap the benefits of my time working at Lemuria. Books were what she sleep with, not stuffed animals. I toted the boxes of children’s’ books I had acquired every where I moved to, so she would always have them and could pass them down to her own children. It was somewhat of a relief to hand off those heavy boxes once my twin grandchildren were born.

“It has been startling and disappointing to me to find out that story books had been written by people, that books were not natural wonders, coming up of themselves like grass.” Eudora Welty

This morning I read Chris LaTray’s newsletter, reflecting on the past four years of Presidential office and the new office we are entering. I find him gifted, able to put into words what I am feeling sometimes, a natural wonder. Read and find out for yourself.