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A former army brat/current nomad and workaholic, I consider becoming a regular a rare luxury. Once, I sashayed that status at Schuler Books & Music. My favorite bookstore because I spent the most time, of any bookish place, there, and I choose my faves in that elementary way. Open for a decade, it sat behind the chain restaurant I worked at for seven years. Yes, I was the hostess reading Sylvia Plath and Anaïs Nin during lulls. Behind the podium, I underlined in Henry and June with black pen, “I want always to see you laughing. It belongs to you.”
Between doubles, I crossed the parking lot for coffee, food, and perusing. After closing the bar and a quick dream, I met girlfriends there for caffeine and conversation over magazines. My Chapbook-Café order: always the same sandwich, soup, and salad combo (the wild mushroom pesto panini, vegetarian chili, and Mediterranean salad) plus a house blend. At the condiment station, I stirred in one-and-a-half vanilla creamers and a sugar pinch. Then, I still sweetened my coffee. My friends laughed when I paid with money I had rolled up, stuffed in a kid’s cup, and topped with a red plastic lid. How the quarters and nickels weighed down my bag. My ego inflated every time booksellers complimented my purchases. While squishy earphones hugged my brain, I fell in love with songs. In spring, summer, and fall, I studied on the patio. In winter and during rain, I studied by the fireplace. One busy holiday season, the manager approached me and asked if I wanted to work there. “Actually, yes,” I said.
A bucket-list job, I justified minimum wage with the money I’d save using my discount. I drank free coffee refills until they emptied the pots, and I could depend on a certain number entering my checking account. Bartending was more of a hope-for-the-best gig, and I couldn’t work overtime. The extra 15 to 25 hours a week kept me from singing karaoke and eating noodles, my favorite social activities.
At Schuler, I flipped through literary magazines while edging them and thought, I can do this (write). There, I stocked the poetry section with Joy Harjo, Joy Harjo, Joy Harjo and feverishly smashed all of my adoration on a staff-recommendation card for The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Díaz. There, I listened to my intelligent and talented co-workers endlessly and was/am better for it. There, I crushed on girls with cool clothes and better books. There, my mother, armed with my family discount, asked for a list every Christmas, and hunted down titles. I still can’t write in the margins of the One Hundred Years of Solitude hardcover she bought me. There, I played my phone messages during a bathroom break and learned an MFA program had accepted me with full funding.
I didn’t cry when my Schuler closed, but I think about the store every day. One of my treasured purchases, a special order, is Pablo Neruda’s Odes to Common Things. Dust jacket-less, the muted cover boasts a simple black-and-white illustration. Including original poems and translations, a drawing accompanies each piece. During a recent poetry class, I read from it to students. They begged to hear “Ode to French fries,” “Ode to a pair of socks,” and “Ode to the dictionary.”
I still find remnants of the Alpine-Schuler era. Mostly receipts. Recently, I discovered a bookmark between page 110 and 111 of The Bell Jar and pondered why it held that space. Was it the image of the purse flying into “enveloping darkness,” the lone snowflake, the sound of “the dark heart of New York”? In The Spiral of Memory, I found my schedule for a workday, organized by hours: 2 p.m. to 3 p.m. at the desk, 3 p.m. to 4 p.m. “free” aka stocking. My sections included fiction and food; I knew how lucky I was.
On our latest trip to GR, we stayed for approximately 42 hours. After lunch, we drove 21 minutes (each way) to the original Schuler because mine closed in early 2014. A HomeGoods looms where my personal landmark once existed. I didn’t buy the wild mushroom pesto panini I crave often and inconveniently. In the café, I couldn’t sit. I set my latte on a table and adjusted my purse, pulled up my hair. Maybe because we had a half hour. Maybe because I was full of egg drop soup, shrimp and vegetables, and steamed rice. Maybe because I, an island girl, have always felt uncomfortable in Michigan layers. Maybe because, even though the store looks and smells similar, I’ll never be able to return to the actual place I yearn for.