Sunday, February 20, 2011


A few years ago a friend of mine had cancer. Friend? I see her maybe once every five years. I went about a dozen years not seeing her at all - college, distance, life, all that etcetera. But when we were ten, eleven, twelve, thirteen - we were close. Sleepovers every weekend, secrets revealed on a daily basis, picnics in graveyards, bike trips to the beach, imaginary adventures in once-decadent gardens overgrown in the woods. Now we might send email greetings on birthdays. But yes, friend. Against difficult odds she beat the cancer in her throat and will likely bear witness to most of the lives of her two young children. But there are lingering concerns; treatment is so often a sequel of disaster. When I think of her now, undergoing surgery twice a year to clear enough scar tissue to continue the privilege of breathing, I remember her once singing with a voice unaffected by the future. Elementary-school-aged, she was too shy to face the crowd in her mother's parlor, so she sang turned to the wall while her younger sister stood beside her and her mother accompanied on the piano. Had cells already mutated by that point and formed the foundation for illness? Maybe. However much broccoli I force my children to eat, however firmly I deny them processed food (some days not too firmly), however often I wager with various forces of the universe, I really have no control over their health, or dreaded lack thereof. Disease is often - always? - random. Recent photos of my friend show her smiling, always smiling, usually with an arm around a child or two. She isn't looking over her shoulder for the next avalanche of doctor's appointments, hospital visits, and co-payment invoices. She's obviously appreciating this new definition of health. But there's a fierceness to her expression. She is far, far from that small girl who fears a crowd of faces listening to her sing. Now she'd simply relish the notes rising from her own throat.

“... for richer, for poorer. In sickness and in health....”

M and I met at a bookstore in Pittsburgh. It was my first day of training. He happened to be there before his shift since the store was air conditioned and his apartment was not. The first words he ever spoke to me were, “ I think you're going to like working here.” And I did. I was a Children's bookseller at that store and I loved it. Eventually my boss opened up a new store. I received a promotion and went with her as the Store Trainer. In that position I began to travel around the country opening up new stores. For the three weeks that it took to open all the boxes, shelve all the books, and train the staff I felt a sense of belonging. It was such a short time, but those bonds were intense. After a few years I was promoted to work at the World Trade Center store, and from there I applied to be the first Children's Web Editor for the company. I flew to Michigan for a series of interviews and while I was there I visited the original store in Ann Arbor. I felt like I was making a pilgrimage. To commemorate the occasion I bought myself a copy of “Little Women.” I read it on the plane ride home and thought of the life that might lay in front of me. I got that job and then one eventually in a store in New Hampshire. M and I had decided we wanted to settle in Vermont. By then it seemed that the company as a whole was moving in a different direction. In 2000, M and I each made a choice to work for a local independent bookstore. Leaving and starting over was difficult. I had made so many friends and I would miss the breakroom conversations as well as feeling that connection to stores all over the country. But the parting was amicable and I think it was the right decision.

As with an ex spouse or lover I've had mixed feelings about the corporation that launched my profession/ passion for Children's books. Others may view it as a big evil chain out to destroy the independent stores, but I still have fond memories and have always wished the people working there well. It's easy to slip into the idea that the split was the best thing for all concerned. Surely, you tell yourself, your “ex” has doing well. It seemed the most logical outcome at the time, each of you have since gone on to bigger and better things. Such is the way of life. Occasionally a snippet of news or gossip reaches your ears and you sometimes wonder what it would have been like if you had stayed together.

This week M and I learned the devastating news that the store where we met is closing, as is every store where M once worked in the several states we once called home. The idea that those stores won't be there thriving--filled with books, people and conversation--is almost unfathomable. As with a dying friend, part of me wants to drop everything, rush to the bedside and offer a hand or handkerchief for support. They may put on a brave face, but the rattling death cough gives away the truth of the situation. Such dire circumstances make you reevaluate your choices. I'm not the type of person who leaves, I believe in sticking around through good times and bad. But I did leave...

Yet I know there is nothing that I can do to change the situation, what's done is done. The threat of absolute finality fills me with a desire to revisit the past. I tell myself that I must move on and keep my memories close. Sadly, there won't be the chance to make more. If ever there was a time that I could relive, it would be the first few months of working in that store in Pittsburgh. I'd bet there are many former booksellers, now scattered all over the country, who'd probably say the very same thing.

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