I recently opened an old cardboard box filled with books and papers I had been carrying around with me for a long time. In it were some things I wrote during my college days. We’re talking 1969.
Am I going to share some of these? Not a chance! I’m taking a risk by even keeping them around. I should burn them. I’ll never reveal the pseudonym I took for myself.
Those were the days I was filled with stuff and vinegar, globally angry and entitled. I saw my peers and most of my teachers as small of mind. I put myself alongside the masters. My writing included a start of an epic poem, written in the rhyme scheme of a Spenserian sonnet. The theme of the epic was there is no God, but for survival, one must act if there is, or something like that.
There were two that brought a smile to my face. One was a Shakespearean sonnet for which I won the Lenoir Rhyne College student literary magazine’s poetry contest. The other was an article comparing Huck Finn with Abbie Hoffman. I won twenty-five dollars in a Charlotte Writer’s Club contest for that one.
Reviewing all this leaves me with the feeling that writing something and sailing it out into the world is quite an audacious act. You’re asking someone to not only pay real money for your story or your opinion, but then take something like six hours or more out of their lives to read it.
I guess what we authors have on our side is the enduring faith of the reader that they will find in our work something that at least entertains or informs, and maybe inspires. Quite an assumption, but as a reader, it happens to me all the time.
In college I was an English major, but I lost faith that I could earn a living with this degree, so I went to medical school and practiced psychiatry for forty years. When I retired, I wanted to reclaim my roots. What to do? Open a bookstore!
One learns an entirely new and diverse set of skills by owning a bookstore. Business practices including hiring people, taxes, payroll, insurance, and advertising are just the beginning. The real lessons learned are about the books and the readers and writers.
First, I had no idea that deciding what books I would offer in the store would be like trying to drink from a firehose. So many books! So many very good books by very good writers that most likely would be read by just a few hundred readers. What makes a “best seller?” I’m still trying to figure that out.
The most rewarding part of owning a bookstore is keeping company with writers and readers. When a new customer walked into the store, I tried to make time to ask, “what do you like to read?” Fascinating conversations often followed, often introducing me to authors I knew nothing about.
When a local author asked to have an event in the store I always said yes.
Then there were the quirky characters that spend time in bookstores. One man marched in and asked, “Where is your G.K. Chesterton section?” I answered that I had some titles for that author but no separate section.
“What!” he exclaimed with wide eyes and uplifted palms. “You have no special section for the greatest writer in the English language? Shakespeare and Homer were story thieves! Milton and Joyce were lunatics! And don’t even talk to me about modern writers. Can they even read?” He then proceeded to lecture me about my and the world’s disrespect for Chesterton. He told me he would be back when I figured that out, and he turned and marched out of the store.
All of that is just a glimpse of what owning a bookstore will do for you. One thing it will not do is make you rich.
I read. I write. I learn. I’m in a writing group and I have four published books. I’m still pretty sure I’m not Steinbeck, but my heart and soul have found their way back to where they should be.