I’m about to publish my first novel, Small Blessings. Its central character is Tom Putnam, an English professor at a small Virginia women’s college, who has resigned himself to a quiet and half-fulfilled life. There are elements of me in three of the women with whom Tom interacts. I can be bossy like Agnes, his mother-in-law; I’m an alcoholic like Iris, his colleague; and I was a professional gypsy for a couple of decades like Rose, the college bookstore’s new assistant general manager. But none of these women are me.
The only wholly autobiographical element in Small Blessings is a place, not a person—the college bookstore at which Rose works. In my novel it is called, simply, the Book Store, and it is a fond rendering of a real college bookshop where I worked for a few years a couple of decades ago. It was the first real job I landed after getting sober.
This college bookshop was originally owned by the faculty, who, being generally wise and erudite, wanted the store to expand while still remaining a bookshop—as opposed to a corporately leased “gift shoppe” that hawked college merchandise and textbooks with a few bestsellers scattered around. In order to accomplish this goal, they hired Skipper Fitts away from the Harvard Coop.
Tom Putnam says of the fictional college’s operation in Small Blessings, “The Book Store is the soul of the college and the community, in a lot of ways. It’s where everyone comes together comfortably.” To my way of thinking, that description applies equally well to the real college bookstore in which I worked all those years ago. By the time I arrived, Mr. Fitts had turned the faculty’s somewhat limited vision into a free-standing operation housed in its own spacious, light-filled brick building. In hindsight, it seems to me that Skipper Fitts was very forward-thinking about what bookstores would come to mean in the digital age. He got that a bookstore creates a community—not a sense of community or a virtual community, but a real community. As in, oh good, there’s that guy who had such interesting things to say about Elmore Leonard’s latest. I’m going to go over and say hello.
At about the same time Barnes & Noble first made room for Starbucks in one of its stores on campus, Mr. Fitts opened the Boxwood Café inside his own bookstore and hired me to dispense cappuccino and muffins and conversation to the customers. What a charmed and magical space that was! Every day a jumble of faculty, staff, students, townies, writers and painters from the artist colony across the street, and, indeed, the college president and her husband would take their common ease in its welcoming, timeless, book-lined space, reading, talking, and drinking coffee by the bay window and working fireplace.
It was while working for Skipper Fitts that I came to understand that bookstores are a confluence of stories, those within covers and those whose hands open covers and stick their noses inside. One person’s story is no more or less acceptable than any other person’s story in these magical confines. Bookstores are places where it’s okay to relax and be yourself completely.
My old boss talked very little about his days at The Harvard Coop. He did, however, once mention a period of time in the 1970s when the staff had played the same Youngbloods’ song over the store’s speakers every night after closing. They’d all join hands, he said, and sing about people getting together, trying to love one another right now. Come on people, smile on your brother...
Well, why not? When Skipper Fitts hired me to operate the Boxwood Café, there were whole parts of me still lost in the weirdness of early sobriety. But no one—including myself—held it against me. I was part of a bookstore, for Pete’s sake! A place where eccentricity is acceptable and common ground is assumed. Despite all my internal struggles, in that bookstore I was welcomed and loved as just another story waiting to be shared.
It seems to me, as the digital age advances and works its wonders and performs its erosions, we still enter bookstores to relax our souls and expand our vision of life’s possibilities. What’s truly wondrous to me is how, during that process, we also (to my way of thinking, anyway) grow more comfortable with ourselves.
You can do many wonderful things online, but you cannot, in my opinion, do this. You have to do it in the story-loving company of those who hang out in bookstores.
So, anyway, here’s to Skipper Fitts, who understood this bookstore-community business way, way back when. How could I not pay tribute to his wonderful bookstore in my first novel?