Mrs. Wright's Bookshop Print E-mail

bookshop(New Letters Volume 74, No. 3. Summer 2008. First-place tie with Kim Addonizio in New Letters’ Readers Award for the Essay, 2007-2008.)

It was over, Mrs. Wright’s reign. I heard the bell clang above the front door, just before Mrs. Auburn, the principled clerk, called my name at the top of the stairs. In the basement, I’d been unpacking boxes, Bantam paperbacks, this batch, the four J. D. Salinger books, two covers white, one gold, and one that dark existential red, the title in gold letters, our big seller. I hurried up the steps from paperbacks to hardbacks, and there was Mrs. Wright, earlier than usual, keeping her word. The windowed door was shut, and the sign’s OPEN side now faced in. Her Chrysler idled out front. It must have been late morning, and late in the summer, too, near Labor Day.

I stood by the cash register beside Mrs. Rudolph, the questioning accountant, the one who listened to me when we ate lunch together, as though I were an adult, though I wasn’t, not at eighteen with a year of college. Then Mrs. Wright nodded at no one and began her address.

She was closing the bookshop after twenty years, (only half-a-year had involved me). It wasn’t a surprise; there were hints all summer. Mrs. Auburn and Mrs. Rudolph had clerked a dozen years. Would they retire? Would they be hired somewhere else? What would they do for money? Both had husbands, who worked—which is what they’re for, Mrs. Rudolph told me one day, and laughed. Mrs. Wright continued. Actually, she said, we’d finally decided. And she intoned his name: Winston. A breezy stress on the first syllable and a flick of the second. She pointed to him. Outside, the old man, there, waiting in the car. I’d seen him bide his time before, standing in the sun, over-dressed and frail, older than her, uninterested in us or the shop, but poised, certain, nothing unseemly. I wondered whether she had just told him, stay here, this won’t take but a moment. Maybe they had talked it over. I could see his visage from the side, a face emblazoned on a coin. He seemed stiffened by an ancient ache.

Mrs. Wright spoke again. It won’t do us any good, she said, to rehash the reasons. If I don’t go now, I never will. He and I have only so many years left. It’s time—all of us know it’s time. It’s what I want. It’s what we want. The other old ladies nodded. They had known love’s tonic, wage-earning men, placid homes, no expectancy. Mrs. Wright had not. She had spent more than two decades remembering or forgetting the young Mr. Wright after he had fallen in the Normandy invasion. The bookshop had become her love, her devotion. And you could tell: she would reapply the same to Winston. I thought a reciprocal duty was etched on his stoical face. A husband soon-to-be, revived for her sake, his path (a loss of his own?) merging into hers. There would be benefits—her money, her intelligence, her decisiveness. We all knew twenty years in this shop was long enough. Let’s be happy for the old gal. We were.

To no one in particular, then, Mrs. Wright said, It’s agreed. She was sorry. Her lawyer was making the arrangements. We’d get bonuses. We’d be on her mind every time she took down a new book to read and to recommend us to. Then, a pity-us-all gasp and pause, and her free-hand (the other, I noticed, clasped several thick new novels to her chest) found the door knob, and a phrase came out toned down to a whisper: I have loved you all.

I have loved you all. Finely uttered, idea and sentiment, an Emily-Webb-like goodbye, so Our Town. But I didn’t believe what she said was true. She had loved the books. Indeed, she had treasured them more than us. And it was her venerating the books that I had loved most about her.


Every day that summer (Sundays excepted), about 11:30 a.m., Mrs. Wright would enter the store in a flurry, as if pursued. She was seldom tired or tizzied. About 6:00 p.m., she’d leave, having chosen her night’s companion, a book she would read late into the evening, often finishing, or—sign of a lesser story, its narrative clogged or predictable—fall asleep to; come light, she’d lift it from its stomach perch, continue in bed until done. Into the store she walked each morning—it was part of my job to come upstairs when she arrived, so I listened for bell and voice—and began her review. The judgment would fall as praise, her glasses glinting light, reading aloud with animate approval a ribald or tender passage, or as disappointment, her belted Virginia-Woolf frock cinched and thrown on unwashed from the day before, shelving the book without comment. During the day, we three clerks stole a look at what not to read: Adela Rogers Saint Johns, Leon Uris, or some potboiler. Occasional noons, in pale-glossed lips and herringbone jacket, a luncheon with a book rep on tap, Mrs. Wright might not have finished with her tale and was unsettled. Other times, she was voluble. She’d head for the “Just Out” table (she had me make a featured readers’ rack), and we’d hear, the book pulled out of her leather satchel, Don’t waste your time with Mary Stewart. Or she’d stop before slotting in Gore Vidal and say, You’ve got to recommend this, then shout why: The man knows women. Or she’d say, half-crushed, It’s nothing like his last. This was a clue: his last, yea or nay, we employees better remember. And yet, despite their color, these daily notices wouldn’t stick, especially a blurt or a shrug. If we blanked, we’d sneak around a standing rack and ask one another (never her), What about that Barbara Pym? Thumb up, thumb down? And if the book were a winner, she’d be on the phone to Mrs. MoMeyer or Mrs. Harrington or Mrs. Tope, declaring, Madge, I’m putting aside Herman Wouk’s newest because it’s the kind of smart story you’ll enjoy (we knew whom the praise was for). That’s when we heard the Madam-edge to Mrs. Wright’s procurement: the customer should hurry in and buy it for herself, savor the fellowship long into the evening since sleep, after satisfying reading, was better than any cigarette, Manhattan, or Johnny Carson—Mrs. Wright, the author’s matchmaker and advocate, if he or she could pass muster.


With sales reps and catalog calls, she stocked the store, keeping up with the output of publishing as much as Mrs. Rudolph who ordered the rest. Mrs. Wright was a current reader. Her passion was not to trod classic ground, groove footpaths around temples deeper still. She embraced living writers; they were compatriots, candidates canvassing for our vote. How unlike my high school English courses in which all writers (the good ones) had died—athletes dying young, a Dylan Thomas who drank himself into the gutter, which, if we endured the sauce, would, never mind the poetry, make our reputation. Of Mrs. Wright’s backstory, I once concluded that she’d already read everything prior to 1950. (We stocked the classic fare, mostly for high school kids.) She had run through literary history, a race it would take me her many read-yourself-to-sleep years to accomplish. Each week she began with the dozen or so books covered in Sunday’s The New York Times Book Review. On Mondays, she’d find those books in question (often I was still unpacking them). So stirred by the book’s critical cast, she’d argue with herself about which one to take home, even though the one she didn’t take would receive its ravishing later in the week. It was then I felt the coquettishness with which she played the books, walls lined with suitors, many calling her at once, their tame, ironic titles (Sermons and Soda Water; The Shoes of the Fisherman) craving her glance. On rare days, she’d announce the chosen one, perhaps in league with The Times or our local rag, The St. Louis Post-Dispatch. This, she’d say, Hepburn-esque, is a Tender Is the Night for our time. Watch out Scott Fitzgerald. She linked our day’s novelists to their brethren in historical continuity. The light of her good opinion was special: I sensed author and book, wandering the cultural hinterland, receive it, his breath expand, his core prevail.


And for all that, which I admired in her and cherished in her presence, I didn’t trust her parting toss, I have loved you all. I still don’t. It seemed nothing if not occasioned. Did she think that following her speech a feigned sorrow would free her? Did she realize in the moment that her love for us was secondary, a thing too embarrassing to acknowledge? Did she script her remarks so that in her stead an irony would remain, as it did for Blanche DuBois, a legacy, aspiring to the literary, which we’d debate? (If true, her wish was granted.) I knew—we all knew—her ecstacy, the honesty reading bestowed on her, on her loyal customers, on us. Her enthrallment buoyed our lives. How could something so clear, so obvious, be so quickly subverted? The honesty that I thought was her, wasn’t her. What tripped her tongue neither of us saw coming.

The ladies and I, served and scorned, watched her go, out to the Chrysler. We turned the sign around, and when a customer next opened the door, the bell dinged in mock solemnity, the sound of coming and going for the books’ sale and liquidation and for us, sooner than we thought. Driving off, did she echo her phrase, Oh, Winston, I have loved them all? Did she review her performance: I told them I loved them, but it was the books I have been devoted to, and they were keeping me from you? No wonder he seemed so pensive. What he may have felt she was giving up for him. Enough to preclude asking.


A month after I’d started, once I’d proven myself organizer-builder-clerk, shown competence in books and literature (more than most my age), I was allowed to staff the counter alone, Friday evenings. The store had a hearty clientele; they’d line up to buy stacks of cheap paperbacks, and the register rang approvingly. At times, a loner, the Civil War buff or sci-fi fanatic, would engage me, me, as if taking money signaled aptitude. Mid-gab, the phone would jangle, the door-bell clang, and I’d rush down the stairs to fetch a copy of The Jungle or Monarch Notes to the same. Work took precedent; I was mercantile-boy, service-provider; usually anyone, especially friends, who hung out to converse, wouldn’t leave. Rarely was I alone. How I wanted the sheer weight of all those tomes to bar my solitude like a cell. When such precious minutes came, I’d reach down among the shelf of hidden books under the counter, a stash restricted to twenty-one and older: The Story of O, Lawrence Durrell’s Alexandria Quartet, Terry Southern’s Candy, Henry Miller, Fanny Hill, the Grove Press editions of Olympia and the like. (Later, I would read all those books, in part, because they were sequestered on that shelf.) There was time only to peer in, scan the smut, wonder at their cloister, officiated by some schoolmarm or judge, and Mrs. Wright. It was the sex, of course, its lure and skank in full-throated description. It was also what happened when these books were read that the cyclops feared. Henry Miller had said that the point of reading erotic fiction was to be aroused. Was this the worry, a nation potentially more lecherous and deviant than it already was? Judging from the reverence books enjoyed, I thought the reason simple: after the Bible and Shakespeare, a book was too august an endeavor to be crabbed by sexual intrigue. Sex and mind did not fit. Books generally had not yet made room for such explicitness, and those few that did became celebrated, first as filth, then free speech: Lady Chatterly’s Lover, Tropic of Cancer, and Ulysses were sunshined in court and de-criminalized. Still, Mrs. Wright wanted these books hidden. To tempt her customers? They’d have to ask. She could never say, Oh, and Mrs. Turner, how about a little pornography, a little bondage in the boudoir? These prurient tracts remained outcasts; I remember selling very few.

This is how I learned that the lure of books and their devious ideas is as primal as it is purchasable. It’s a strange and many-footed thing to shoe. Each book’s covers hid its contents, and each book stood, democratically erect, within its cadre. Sex was the chief suit that hung in the closet of authorial daring; but it wasn’t the only suit: there was the sublime, the tender, the poetic, the confessional, the authenticity of a Martin Luther King Jr. or a Kahlil Gibran. Such revelations got us to buy and hallow these texts whose interiors might arouse and change us: that was the hope. If the book spoke to us, we’d be better off altered. To erect a shop and pack it with arrays of choice, to cull them by reading and discussion, by favor and critique, meant that we were culling ourselves. New books in a bookshop carried undiscovered selves: they waited for us to mine their genius and their shame, so much like our own. This clandestine venture—that any book was conspiratorially about its reader—is what Mrs. Wright loved, a menagerie of choice she set for herself to follow, for others to follow, for me to follow. Until she simply stopped choosing, and left.


To have loved the books more than anything (had her mark been Winston, instead, we’d have seen it in her eyes, been told where—Chicago? New Orleans?—they were off to in the Chrysler) is what no one wants to admit. It’s unkind to our intimates to say that we, too, love the characters books revel in, characters who, though the finish of their passion appear to discharge them of passion, end not learning how to love but how poorly, unevenly, deceptively they have loved, if they’ve learned anything of love at all. (Learn is too strong: rather, it’s the capacity for self-delusion I think that authors expose characters to.) The book you take up takes you down to their failure. Frederic Henry and Catherine Barkley. Jay Gatsby and Daisy Buchanan. Eugene Gant and his brother Ben, his mother, Eliza. At the time, those strains stretched my evening and Sunday reading—stories promising triumph and landing defeat. Nothing else is as true as what has been beautifully lost through story.

What links honesty and reading? Doesn’t reading catalyze honesty? Don’t we see into others’ errors so we are wiser for their mistakes? If I’m right about the book’s deception and the self-deception of the bookish, then the stories that beguiled Mrs. Wright trained her to mistake us (you all) as the object of her feeling. When Winston showed up, he beguiled her, too, and she mistook him for what she had had before: an agent of change not her own. So much reading made her glow—and may have confused her as well. She was certain she had loved us more than her angelic Sylvia Townsend Warner, her devilish John O’Hara, and she was certain she loved Winston, a man her novels were instructing her to be wary of (a geezer with one suit and a lapsed driver’s license). Had she, as she read, been paying attention?

For their part, the books, floor-to-ceiling judge-and-jury, engendered her exit. As though the book’s un-reality must be played out in the life of the reader. As though such a revelation is a secret that can be known only in stages. As though the final stage is revealing itself to me only now.


Mrs. Wright insisted that as booksellers we read as many new titles as possible, to recommend the James Michener, the Taylor Caldwell, on rare occasion, the Bernard Malamud, or not. Customers came in for this service. That part of the job suited my temperament best. I relished the authority a read book gave me to complete the sale, which, of course, Mrs. Wright had deftly modeled.

It would happen that she and Mrs. Dornan, a regular, would be standing by the hardcover fiction. “Tom,” Mrs. Wright would call, “Mrs. Dornan needs something suspenseful. I understand you’ve been reading one or two.” Indeed. I had just finished Rosemary’s Baby, loved its Gothic weirdness, the unbelievably believable plot, imagined the demon baby in the crib in the moment just before it was revealed.

“This one,” and I finger-pulled the notch at the top of the binding so it cascaded out on a diagonal and fell into my hand. “Here, this is terrifically suspenseful. I won’t give away the ending. But you wouldn’t think such horror is possible until—”

“Don’t you think we’re better off letting Mrs. Dornan discover that all by her lonesome,” Mrs. Wright said.

“Of course,” I agreed.

At which point I’d give the book to Mrs. Wright, who, when she was in the shop, was the go-between, the chief hander of the book to the customer. She held it out for display, loud cover and big-lettered title, to Mrs. Dornan, then urged it to her tenderly, a diamond brooch on a red pillow draped with golden tassels. She took it with gratitude. It was a deed of land, a lesson in how to fish, a sign of Mrs. Dornan’s willingness to be diverted, tempted, altered, perhaps deceived. She would giggle and shiver. She would take it into her arms, clasp it to her chest. So honored, the woman hastened to the counter and paid immediately; the big white-leather handbag yawed open, the wallet unsnapped, the bills folded like love notes in the coin slot, removed and tendered. I would look to see whether Mrs. Wright wore any pride or satisfaction. The ritual begun, she had moved on.


Do I exaggerate the nobility, the largesse, the dramatic gracefulness of books proffered to patrons as Mrs. Wright closed the deal? Could she have been flightier than I remember, more unctuous, more conflicted, had her grumpy and uncommunicative days in which she lay in bed till noon, reading and crying and missing her war-dead love, then entering the store in a funk? How I still wonder. If she never told us why she left, how can I claim to know what she felt? Why am I so sure that she alone, or above all other influences, unlocked my possessiveness and currency for books, especially new ones, the must-reads, the titles that still seduce me? That my high walls today are the product of her passion as much as mine. That her body and my presence in that shop is one of a few centrifugal memories I hold may be less her doing and more the rituals and falls of book-loving itself, a quality I may have coated her with to the exclusion of joys arriving unbidden from others—the way a teacher held a textbook cradled open in one hand and chalked the board with the other; the way my older brother would read in bed by flashlight after Dad had said, “Lights off, boys”; the way Robert Frost recited “The Gift Outright,” his calloused matter-of-fact, at Kennedy’s inauguration; the way I would razor-open a brimmed-topped box of Bantam softcovers (a stack of The Last Hurrah), smell the wood and pulp, spin the pages’ odor by my nose; smell the more gluey and flatter scent of the Signet paperbacks (a stack of Babbit); smell the elite emission of the Scribner books, (a stack of The Great Gatsby), their gray-covered sanctity, their literary weight, their trade-size shoulders and uncrackable spines.

I remember my initiation. One day, age 13, I went into a bookstore, wandered into history, opened a book on the Holocaust, and stared in fascinated dread (unaware the clerk was observing me) at photographs of human skeletons, living and dead—at that moment in 1945, the difference was negligible—photos shot on the day Auschwitz was liberated. What I saw in those pictures was each and every life drained away, its sapping shown in the contortions of the flesh. The flesh had bled out: the shapeliness of breast or thigh gone, the vulnerable fat gone, the skin that portioned a face or hands with anger or artistry gone, leaving cruelly, democratically, the same hollowing in all. There was no person; only a one, a ubiquity. The living and dead had hurt but that hurt was, for the moment, arrested (the spiritual hurt would lie down in me and fester). I fixated on those images, and they implanted what years later I would understand as the power of point of view—that the singing and the humor and the curiosity bled out of a people was set up by ideology but the act was done by actual bleeders—townspeople, train engineers, administrative and medical personnel, guards, whose authority over the near-dead was, in the photos themselves, at first unseen, but there. The crime had been documented, in some cases, by the criminals. The story was hid and revealed by the narration. Auschwitz photos, tributes to the camp’s horror, singularly repetitious in a book, lit my devotion to the container: just one book shelves multiplicities of self-discovery, mine and the world’s. The book’s branding of the crime on my skin never leaves.

Six years later, Mrs. Wright hired me, and a new story portioned my flesh: the doughy chew of the bologna sandwich that I ate sitting in the corner next to Mrs. Rudolph, who leveled at me her worry about my generation: “If you and your friends refuse to fight in Vietnam, what will become of you?” She meant, will we go to jail or to Canada and, morally, how will we live with ourselves once we betray our country? The dinging register, the pealing phone, the mad sirens on Kirkwood’s Main Street the front door suddenly opened to and shut against. The bustle of the store, nervously more alive than a library where the noise of culture was forbidden. The rough pound of the footsteps on the stairs as I ran them one-two-three, four-five-six, seven-eight-nine up. The cramped aisles among the shelf islands, free-standing on the floor, each one so over-packed that I built additional shelves for overstock, above the toilet, reached only by ladder. The floorboard nails, holding down a sagging and trampled deck, their heads, waxed clean and bright gray. The wall shelves: their layers of pale green paint, their lag-bolted solidity, the hardbacks squeezed in, the undusted darkness behind them. The black wire racks of paperbacks, turning or still. The sale table, on nice days, lugged outside. The crenelated line, random yet ordered, along the top of any row. The patron, browsing, her head cocked to one side, then righted to scan the flap, to flip or flutter the pages, to fingertip the sandy surface of a paperback’s leave. The border-bulging sections: Fiction, History, Science, Belles Lettres, still unpronounceable. The store-wide sale, the hoarding crush, the foggy memories of buyers, “It has a blue cover, I think.” The donated leftovers that reappeared at the St. Louis public library annual book fair from which I carried home more than a few at deep discounts, and then moved them with my horde during my wandering years to come.


After Mrs. Wright left, the shop closed (the books were bought by a competing store), and I went back to college. Mrs. Auburn and Mrs. Rudolph signed on with a bookshop in Webster Groves, a nearby suburb. I heard nothing about Mrs. Wright. I assume she and Winston traveled and read and faced each other’s demise with stolidity and grace. I hope they were together, and not alone as most of us fear: my father, who went first, at least had my mother, who lingered a long time before dying alone. That’s why, I contend, Mrs. Wright had to leave the bookshop. Just as Winston arrived she realized she wouldn’t die there, knowing her companions would be several thousand mute spines she and I had squeezed onto shelves until they could barely breathe.

Her shop is a locket, private and secure. And yet memorializing her, the store, and her leaving opens Pandora’s box. I want to close the book on Mrs. Wright, but the way she went that day, and what she left behind, says I can’t. There’s always another version, another way to read it. Blame our veneration of the books: they make heroes into legends; they make legends into myths; they give us myths which we might live by. Readers pledge allegiance to or die for bibles, treaties, constitutions, for the truths poetry discloses every day, as William Carlos Williams wrote. From books arise thought, narrative, culture, their mass, their heft, their sediment, stacked and compressed like the strata of the earth, a planetary weight, timeless, unmovable, commercially successful, then suddenly evacuated by Mrs. Wright. As though she must go. So apt the metaphor: to close the book. On what? A time and place where readers dwell and lovers meet, whose era cannot last.


Indeed, the replacement has arrived. You may feel it dawning, diffusing into the digitized plane: every book’s print and page are swallowed by the Internet storehouse, where shelves collapse, only wires along which nanogenic robot texts in binary code reside, collateral shops Mrs. Wright never knew. I am immersed in both—my access to the Web’s ocean and my floor-to-ceiling, wall-nailed shelves, a bookshop of my own, by which I write today. Encompassing me are my fondling treasures. The tales my generation loved, the ritual end from publisher and patron to reader and hoarder. These books are the summed intimacy of my years and our time alone. I hold them, hold onto them—order and stack and slot and arrange and mark and covet and seldom loan and insist are mine; unlike Mrs. Wright (is this where we part company?) I can’t let their physical presence go. A book without a place to wait for its nearby reader seems to me a book without purpose, with no place in the world, though something tells me to think that all pages are safe and cared for in their digital cribs, resting in one long, flat, single dimension. What can knowledge be without proximity to books? Should I imagine it? Should I let it be? Mrs. Wright left the physical shrine of the shop, believed its stature and presence would live beyond her. But such surety my lifetime loses to the electronic sea, a no-place, which, as they say, it’s easier to accept than fight.


I have so few congruities left. One I cherish is the touch of books and the wonder of their pages waiting in a bookshop, what enraptured Mrs. Wright and me. Soon electronic storage will overtake us, and the book, multiplying on shelves, will be no more. The seamlessness of old, my body and the book’s, will be lost. Yet I think of Gutenberg, who reconfigured the oral with print, and look what it prescribed: the sensuousness Mrs. Wright and I would treasure. We adapt to whatever technology dictates. Maybe Mrs. Wright knew this. Maybe the love she had for all of us recognized our capacity to adapt to a new world, one she would not live to see. She and I lived for the companionship of the book. And it is this companionship that is reborn, not the terms of my physical self. I’m less ambivalent now about what I’m reaching for, her end applied to mine. I’ve been so busy reading and hoarding and stocking and stacking, keeping the past present, the present past, grieving it full, celebrating its passage, that I have missed a simple truth: I cannot leave the books; the books are leaving me. Lest I be the antique, I move on, like Mrs. Wright, take love in hand and assign the matter to its own devices.