Mary Shelley grew up in a bookshop. As we’ve seen, her father, William Godwin, went into the business as a way to forestall bankruptcy—but he was not a very good businessman and was continuously in debt until very near the end of his life.
Godwin was not the first to discover that the book business was not as surpassingly rewarding and/or satisfying as it can sometimes appear from the outside. Nor has he been the last. When I first wrote these words in October 2011, all the Border’s stores in the country had just gone under. Once, within easy driving distance of our house, there had been four of them—one was a Border’s Express. Now, the nearest sizeable bookstore is a Barnes & Noble out in West Akron; GoogleMaps tells me it’s 18.8 miles and 27 minutes away. That’s on a good day. There’s also a Books-a-Million about twenty minutes’ distant—but theirs is not an impressive inventory.
There’s a little bookshop here in Hudson, too, the Learned Owl, which has been in business since 1968 and to which many people in town are very loyal—even though it can’t afford to match the vast inventory and massive discounts offered by Amazon and other online sellers. In Kent—a dozen miles away—there’s a pretty good secondhand shop (Last Exit Books). And there’s an assortment of specialty shops around, too—Christian, New Age …
During the 1981–1982 academic year I worked part-time at the Learned Owl—and at their other store down in the nearby Cuyahoga Valley. They called it Valley Books. I should explain. I had resigned (salary snit) from Western Reserve Academy in the spring of 1981, thinking I would easily find another teaching job. I didn’t.
Part of the problem was that I was expensive (at least in SchoolWorld, whose economics bear little relation to RealWorld). I had about fifteen years of experience—and a Ph.D. Those factors put me very high on the salary schedule, and most districts (as I discovered to my alarm) were more interested in saving a few thousand by hiring someone less experienced, less … schooled. (And, probably, less prone to snittery.) I thought I had secured a job at the nearby Old Trail School (not far from Valley Books!)—the acting headmaster had as much as promised me--but then I heard nothing for weeks, and when I finally called, a secretary told me they’d filled the position. (I think it was with fifth graders.) I didn’t take it well.
So I ended up that year with two part-time jobs: a section of freshman English at Kent State University, a gig at the Learned Owl/Valley Books. At the latter I lost all fond romantic hopes of ever running a little bookshop. Most of the time I was bored (so much was achingly clerical—especially in the pre-computer days when we had to keep inventory by hand); some of the time I was insulted.
One day a Snooty Guy came into Valley Books, sniffed around the shelves (it didn’t take Snooty Guy very long: It was a small store), then approached the counter. Here’s the way I described it in an op-ed piece I wrote about my year-in-retail for the Cleveland Plain Dealer on November 8, 1983:
A man asks if we have the recently published letters of Flaubert. He spells the name for me slowly as one would for a child. He offers the intelligence that Flaubert was French. When I say we have only Madame Bovary, he sneers and says, “That’s probably the Steegmuller translation, isn’t it?” I reply I’m not sure. I’ll be glad to check. “Don’t bother,” he snaps.
Awkward pause. Then his exit line: “I seem to know more about this than you, don’t I?”