A Boston Bookseller, The Day After

[Submitted Tuesday, April 16, 2013]

At 3:00 yesterday I had Twitter up and refreshing on the cash register screen, because Pulitzer.org just was not updating fast enough for this impatient bookseller. I was scanning through the updates, alt-tabbing between the browser and the inventory while reading out the winners’ names — until suddenly there were two stories. Adam Johnson won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction, and there were explosions near the marathon finish line.

Patriots’ Day is a state holiday here in Massachusetts, and area schools are on vacation all week. The bookstore where I work, just across the river from Boston, was packed yesterday afternoon with parents and children who wanted to get out of the house on a gorgeous day. By 3:10 I wanted to chase them all away. Why did they all want to ask questions or check out when I was trying to grab every crumb of breaking news, not to mention find out about the Pulitzers I actually cared about? (The fiction winner sells, but the nonfiction/history/biography winners are usually more to my taste.)

I am so grateful to those customers. I didn’t need to track every permutation of the early casualty counts, the was-it-or-wasn’t-it JFK Library questions, the photos everyone seemed to be retweeting. My job is to point people to the stacks of Lean In, to confirm that the man in search of “Gonzo Girl” actually wanted Gillian Flynn’s book, to help the woman who called to order a birthday present for her six-year-old grandson who loved elephants. So that’s what I did.

The news was still there, in spare moments. Customers who had heard something in passing stopped by the desk to ask for news, and we did our best to fill them in. Some wanted to talk. One regular customer, who isn’t usually given to chatting, stopped by the desks for a few minutes. She said she was staying at the bookstore for now, where it felt safe.

By early evening the store started to clear out, as the families who had spent the afternoon there headed home for dinner. What followed was one of the quietest nights I can remember. I expect that once people made it home last night, they didn’t want to go out again. I don’t blame them.

We did have some customers, though, and one stands out, because she bought Oliver Jeffers’ The Heart and the Bottle. It’s a gorgeous picture book we cross-shelve in our collection of children’s books on grief and loss. It’s about fear, too, and how you can’t feel love without also being open to emotional pain — one of those great books that connects with both child and adult readers.

The book is a few years old now, but I only discovered it this winter, when a coworker handed it to me off the top of a pile of books we were putting away. By the time the book made it to the shelf, all the booksellers had read it. Someone pointed out that it was just the kind of thing parents had been looking for after the school shooting in Newtown.

I don’t think anyone expected that only a few months later parents would have another reason to come looking for it.

I wasn’t there on Boylston Street yesterday; I was only watching from a few miles away. But thousands of people were there, and thousands more are connected to the event. Boston is a small place, in the very best way — places that look miles apart on a map are only a short walk away. That’s one of the things I love about it. But it’s also the reason that the customer who bought The Heart and the Bottle yesterday won’t be the only one looking for a book to help a child work through what happened, or to understand it herself.

Whatever book those customers are looking for, I’ll be there to help them find it. That’s why I’m a bookseller.

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