Today we welcome the literary blogger Douglas Dalrymple to The Dabbler. In this first post Douglas recalls working in a low-life Seattle bookshop, with its collection of eccentric regulars including the actor Ethan Hawke, who never bought anything…
In a town like London there are always plenty of not quite certifiable lunatics walking the streets, and they tend to gravitate towards bookshops, because a bookshop is one of the few places where you can hang about for a long time without spending any money.
George Orwell, “Bookshop Memories” (1936)
In any American city of middling size there are plenty of more-than-certifiable lunatics walking the streets and making themselves at home in the neighborhood bookshop. That’s assuming the neighborhood still has a bookshop. In Seattle, at least, it used to. Seattle in the 1990s was near to bursting with local independent booksellers: places like Elliot Bay, Beatty’s, Twice Sold, Magus, Horizon, Pistil, and Couth Buzzard, to name a few. It also had its fair share of certifiables.
Being unambitious and in no particular hurry to grapple with the duties of adult life, I took a job with a local Seattle bookseller as soon as I finished college in ’95, and stayed on for three years. It’s astonishing to recall how little money I made. I’m not at all clear how I managed to both eat and pay my rent. But the coworkers were a friendly cast and I was happy enough to spend my days surrounded by books.
The store was located just north of downtown and was open late. It was set in a dense neighborhood, thick with bars and restaurants and nightclubs. The Opera House was down the street. There was a convention center and a sports arena too. We were a struggling but busy shop and our clientele was a mixed lot. While working there I sold books and magazines to several famous rock stars (yawn). I chatted occasionally with Ron Reagan Jr., who lived nearby. And while he was in town for an extended performance at the repertory theater down the street, actor Ethan Hawke used to sit on the floor of our poetry section and finger through the stacks for thirty minutes each day. I never saw him buy anything.
Our location and late hours made us a favorite with the local crazies. These are the folks I can’t help thinking of when I read the Orwell quote above. There was the tattered transient we referred to as “Redbeard” who made a habit of leering at blondes and threatening the lives of strangers, myself included. There was the troubled young woman who was always showing off a ghastly wound on her arm, which she wouldn’t let heal, and who kept a pet rat in her pocket. There was a tall spindly fellow who never uttered more than a mousy squeak but liked to wear a pink tutu, and who once defecated on the floor of the children’s section.
Then there was our favorite, a schizophrenic junkie we nicknamed “The Count,” who was forever changing his clothes and decorating his face (his whole face) with lipstick. He was harmless, really, but had a habit of cackling in a wicked sort of way that disturbed our elderly customers and parents with small children. The Count liked to give gifts and I still have a desk sign made of some exotic wood with the name “Fauzi Daud” carved into it, which he gave me. He claimed to know Roger Waters and Jerry Garcia and the President of the United States, and to have lived as a vampire among the Hebrew slaves of ancient Egypt. One day he told me matter-of-factly that he had fallen asleep at the park, woke up under a bush, and “shattered into a million pieces.”
Less insane but still charming was the fat-faced man with the tiny eyes who would hold the newspaper to his nose in order to read it and who never went anywhere without his ill-tempered dwarf friend; or the walrus-like retiree with a bristly white beard who twirled a cane and faked a British accent while attempting to seduce one of my coworkers, famously offering him, in a lascivious tone we parodied for months, a bite of his “spiced apple tart;” or the uneducated proprietress of a local coffee shop who’d once taken a bullet in a domestic dispute and imagined it gave her a superior perspective and a homey kind of mystical insight.
It was easy to get into trouble working at the bookshop. There was no shortage of illicit substances in the back room and the employees were often high or drunk. Certain kinds of business transactions were known to take place in the parking lot. One of my coworkers, a short guy with an Irish temper, lived across the street and would invite us over for drinks after closing. One Christmas Eve, several of us drank a great quantity of beer and marched around the neighborhood to find an open convenience store and buy cigarettes. On a street corner we passed through a gauntlet of righteously intoxicated panhandlers demanding holiday contributions. Our Irish friend got into a shouting match with one of them and we only barely escaped an all-out brawl by dragging him, hollering and fuming, back to his apartment.
One of my most memorable evenings at the bookshop involved the death of a goose. It was a couple hours after dark when a woman walked in with a big Canada goose in her arms. She was distraught. The bird had just been hit by a car, she said, and we needed to do something about it. She handed the goose, still alive, to my friend W. Then the woman fled in tears. Almost immediately, the goose’s head dropped and it went into convulsions. W set it down and there before a crowd of astonished customers it agonizingly expired on the floor. We boxed it up and pranked a new employee (who’d been in the back room) by telling him the box was full of books that needed shelving in the nature and field guides section. Then we called a non-emergency police number to inquire after the proper disposal of the body. Two hours later a man named Bob came to collect the goose. He was so touched by the way we’d laid a flower on its breast and scribbled farewells on the cardboard coffin that he wept a little.
My bookshop days were a bit of a low-life period. There was plenty of good reading and some good conversation, but in the end this particular bookshop was just a low-life sort of place, especially after dark. I stayed longer than I should have. I told myself that I was playing Prince Hal, that I would “awhile uphold the unyoked humor of idleness” which I was presently enjoying, but that when the time was ripe I would “imitate the Sun” and find better employment. It wasn’t the need to impress any monarchical parent that finally spurred my departure, however. It was marriage. The bookshop itself locked doors for the last time two or three years later.
Douglas Dalrymple lives near San Francisco and blogs about books and life at The New Psalmanazar.