A Sign of the Times

I was saddened to hear that a used-book shop in downtown St. John’s, Newfoundland, was closing its doors after being in business since the early 1970’s.

It happened quite suddenly, although I’m sure people could see it coming.

One day the door was locked, and the handwritten sign in the window said, “We have tried to keep Afterwords going, to serve our community and to support our family. In the end we can do neither. Good-Bye.”

A short while later, the store re-opened for a few more days to liquidate stock at greatly reduced prices.   My neighbour told me about it, she and I being great book-lovers.

So I went down there, feeling a little depressed, but incapable of resisting the siren call: ”Books at reduced prices.” I had to obey the summons.

I parked on the road, and walked into the shop, greeted immediately by that lovely, musty, old-book smell. Unfortunately, another woman of around my own age had gotten there ahead of me. Not that there wasn’t room for both of us, but she was apparently oblivious to the sanctity of the occasion. She was pushy and loud–demanding of the owner that he direct her to where a certain genre of book was shelved.

He responded in much the same way I would have responded, were I in his shoes, although I cringed when he did it since he could easily have been speaking to me. He said to her, in a grumpy/exasperated way, “You obviously haven’t been in the store previously, or you would know the layout, and where everything is.”

david-benson-owner-of-afterwords

It was an honest, heartfelt remark made with some justification. Three reasons:

First, the shop WAS organized very well, with all the travel books in one section, fiction in another, self-help in another, religion in another, and so on. A quick walk around the little shop would quickly and easily tell one that.

Second, her ignorance pegged her for not being a regular customer; she had obviously only troubled herself to visit the shop on that day for bargain-hunting purposes. SHE was one of the reasons he had been forced out of business. I suspected that he loved his bookshop (who wouldn’t?) and, like people everywhere who love their jobs, it defined him, gave him focus and purpose, maybe nurtured his spirit.

Third was the way I felt about us, she and me—neither of us having done anything to support the business. I felt like a vulture picking over the bones of something that had died, while the former caregiver stood by watching as we did it.

In essence, even though he was the bookshop owner, he had been fired from the job he loved. By her. And, unfortunately, since I had forgotten all about his little shop and hadn’t been there in at least ten years…me.

She was not phased by his remark in the least (I would have walked out if he’d said that to me, licking my well-earned wounds), and persisted in wanting to know where the books were that interested her. She wanted some Newfoundland books. I thought that that might just mark her for a mainlander–that plus the total absence of a Newfoundland accent, and her general manner and demeanor. That’s not to say that Newfoundlanders can’t be pushy; but they’d be pushy, IF they were pushy, in a different way entirely. It would have been very much less offensive to the person being pushed if a Newfoundlander were doing the pushing.

I’m mainland-raised by Newfoundland parents, so I have an awareness of this cultural difference that I can’t really account for, other than instinct.

In any case, he directed her to the shelves where the Newfoundland books were kept. They happened to be right beside where I was standing–near the door, since I had just walked in.

She responded to him in the same brash tone of voice, “No, I’ve seen those.” And he told her that that’s all there was.

I went around the corner to look at the books there, and he came into that section to re-shelve some books. I wanted to speak to him, but wasn’t quite brave enough for it.

So I did the only thing I could, in sympathy, and that was to move quietly and reverently amongst the bookshelves, treating every book I touched as if it were leather bound, and trimmed with 22kt gold leaf. Didn’t matter that it was an old paperback with cracked plastic coating on its cardboard cover, I treated it like a museum piece.

She didn’t leave right away, because I saw her later at the check-out counter. She had made her purchases, and left her books on the counter while she put on her jacket. The cashier signalled for me to put my books down on the counter—and thank goodness, my arms were aching. I told her how sorry I was that the shop was closing, and she mentioned that it had been in business for over 40 years, but times were changing.

Perhaps overhearing my conversation with the cashier brought some understanding of the occasion to this woman. She grabbed her bag of books off the counter, shot a “Too bad” at the cashier, and walked out.

That ‘too bad’ might have sounded callous to some, but to me it just sounded clumsy. I began to suspect that this woman was just not empathetic, and didn’t know any better way to express sympathy, once she was aware that sympathy was called for.

I rather liked the bookshop name, “Afterwords” although, given present circumstances, it had a poignancy not intended at the time the shop first opened its doors.

“Afterwords,” the shop, might have been named with the thought in mind that its customers, in the most basic sense, would be shopping for collections of words in book form. Customers would visit the shop because they were there ‘after words.’

Whatever the original intention was in naming the shop, it seems that the name now takes on a new shade of meaning. Below is the dictionary definition:

“Afterwords: a concluding section in a book, typically by a person other than the author.”

The book shop,“Afterwords,” as it shuts its doors, itself concludes; its conclusion written by people other than authors—or bookshop owners. It was written by us–we the book-buyers and readers. It’s partly because we’re reading on Kindles, and iPads, or ordering inexpensive new books from Amazon through the internet. They deliver right to our doors, rain or snow notwithstanding, without our having to drive into a busy downtown area and find parking on the street in a spot that has a functioning parking meter so we won’t run the risk of being ticketed.

Then there are the used-book-store competitors: the Salvation Army Thrift Shop, and maybe also Value Village. These places are often more conveniently located than a downtown book shop. In the case of the Salvation Army, the books can be very inexpensive. If I just want a book, that’s usually where I go.

The larger bookshops, like Chapters, often have inexpensive books that they’re selling off.  A second-hand bookstore would have difficulty competing with them.

If I want a particular book, I go to Amazon. The chances of my combing through the offerings of a small used-book store and finding exactly the book I want are slim-to-nil. Not worth the trip to town.

And if I want a book RIGHT NOW, I find the electronic book online and download it to my Kindle or PC. It takes seconds.  Don’t even have to get out of my chair.

And then there are libraries. Books on loan for free. And now e-Libraries.  Some of them are audiobooks, which can be read to me while I do other things.

I have to say, however, that electronic books will never be better than a real, physical book. Where do you put your sticky notes in an electronic book?  (Of course, nobody desecrates a book with handwriting on the pages, do they?)  Electronic book-marking is a pitiful and useless imitation.  Also, how do you quickly flip back through the pages to re-read something, and easily return to where you left off? That’s why God made thumbs, in case you were wondering. No, I’m in control with a real book. An electronic book just leads me by the nose. Not the same.

But the Afterwords cashier was right, the times they are a-changin.’ And as sad as it is in many ways, it has to be.

The writing is not in Afterwords any longer; it’s on the wall.

 

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4 thoughts on “A Sign of the Times

  1. This brings to mind the times I would go to the book sales at the elementary schools my kids attended. I was always drawn to the ones stamped “cancelled” or “discard”. This made me sad. Here is one in my very small collection: “The Cat Who Went To Heaven” by Elizabeth Coatsworth. Originally printed in 1930. My copy is a 1964.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I know what you mean, Helen…have experienced the same at the public library when they’re selling off their ‘discards’. You did well to save this one by Elizabeth Coatsworth from the rubbish bin. I wasn’t familiar with it, and had to look it up. Have ordered it from Amazon for myself. There are a few children’s books in my collection, and this one looks like a classic.

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