Peter Sellers is a noted short-story writer and the 2001 winner of EQMM’s Readers Award for “Avenging Miriam” (December 2001). A few years ago, he expanded his range in the literary field by opening a second-hand bookshop in Toronto (something he talks about in this post). He is also the editor of a number of crime-fiction anthologies. It has been ten years since EQMM readers have had the pleasure of seeing a story by the Canadian author in our pages, but we expect to present a new Sellers story later this year.—Janet Hutchings
Around quarter to twelve a man came in, looked around, and asked me, “How long have you been open?”
“About forty-five minutes,” I said, not even trying to be smart.
“No. I mean how long has this store been open here?”
“About forty-five minutes,” I repeated. “Today’s our first day.”
“Ah,” he said, “I like bookstores.” Then he left.
The store is five years old now, and it almost earns me a living. I used to work in advertising, which made me a lot more money, but between the time I started, in 1980, and now, the business has degenerated. I had come to dislike everything about the ad business: the procedures, the meetings, and most of the people I worked with and for. Everything is run by money guys who know nothing about advertising, and all the creative people are kids who don’t want to work with old guys.
One of the things I learned early was that the people who come into bookstores are generally more interesting than the people who work at ad agencies.
The doorbell chimed, and a young woman approached the counter slowly. She looked nervous and excited at the same time. She leaned in close, her eyes bright and glittery. “I’m looking for a book,” she said.
“I have some of those, “ I told her.
“Do you have How to Kill a Mockingbird?”
Before I opened the store, I had three storage lockers full of books. They were costing me five hundred bucks a month, and I had to do something better with them. Opening a bookstore seemed like a good idea. I put a couple of hours into writing a business plan but got bored and stopped. After looking at four or five possible locations, I picked one in Toronto’s Little Italy. There are plenty of good restaurants in the area, a couple of appealing pubs, lots of private homes and rental units, and an abundance of people on the street almost all of the time. Some of them even come through my door. Oh, and the point of this is that, five years later and after thousands of books sold and thousands more bought, I still have three full storage lockers.
“What’s the most expensive book you have?”
I had been asked that question before, but never by a man holding a large teddy bear. Before I could answer, the man said, “I’m waiting for the clinic to open. It opens at noon. What time is it now?” Both man and bear were scruffy and looked as if they had been living rough. He was skittery and edgy and never stopped looking around.
He nodded as if I had passed a test. “Do you buy books from people? If I brought some to you would you buy them?”
“That depends,” I said.
“What time is it?”
He nodded again. “The clinic opens at noon. I have to go to the clinic to control my drug problem. If I don’t go to the clinic I’m in trouble.”
He did not explain the nature of the trouble, but I expected that it would not be something new to him.
“What’s the oldest book you have? Can I see it?’
“Well . . .”
He looked at the teddy bear and asked, “What time is it?”
The bear stayed mute so I supplied the answer. “Eleven forty-two.”
“I have to go to the clinic,” he said. “Maybe they’ll open up early. Nice talking to you.”
Sometimes talking to the customers provides me with important tools for getting through life.
“Do you know how stop a guy from shooting you with a revolver?”
I was hard pressed to imagine someone wanting to shoot me let alone knowing how to stop him.
“Do this,” he said, making a gun with his thumb and forefinger and pointing it at me. His eyes were maniacal, and I did as he asked.
“Try to pull the trigger,” he said. I must have looked puzzled because he said, “Drop your thumb.” He demonstrated.
As I tried to do so he drove his right hand forward with shocking quickness and my thumb came down on the side of his hand, on the fleshy part between his widespread thumb and fingers. “That’s what you do,” he said. “You slide your hand up against the hammer and hold it back. It hurts like a bitch, but he can’t shoot you.”
His name was Jason. He was short and wiry, with erratic teeth and glasses taped together. He cycled in all weather. He came to the store, he said, because it helped him stay calm. He had been in the Canadian navy, and he had been in prison.
“It was in the States,” he said. “I used to work for some people, collecting money. I was really good at it.”
He came into the store at least twice a week for more than a year. I hired him to do small chores such as shoveling the snow and cleaning up rubble from behind the store. He was punctual, and he worked hard. Then he vanished. He left town or went back to prison or died. I wonder about that, and I miss him.
There’s a man who explains to me repeatedly, and at great length, an idea for an elaborate, and totally incomprehensible virtual-reality game that is sure to make him a fortune. I was going to write about that, but even after having it explained in intense detail half a dozen times, I still can’t fathom what he imagines. My son was visiting me one day when this guy came in and went through his half-hour spiel. My son made polite noises and asked a few questions. When the guy had gone, though, my son turned to me and said, “Dad, what the hell was he talking about?”
The young man had been sitting in the leather club chair for some time before I spoke to him. He had come into the shop, glanced around briefly, and then taken a seat. The chair is comfortable and low and tucked behind some bookshelves, obscuring anyone sitting in it from immediate view of other customers.
“Don’t mind me saying this,” I said, “but you look like you’re trying to hide.”
Yes,” he replied.
“Do you mind if I ask from whom?”
“I’d rather not say.”
“Understood.” We both carried on in silence. It was a slow, quiet day.
“I don’t mind you sitting there as long as you want,” I said after a while, “on one condition.”
“Do you want a coffee?”
“Here,” I handed him a five. “Get two. I take mine black.”
He brought the coffee back, and the right change, and we sat together, chatting about books. After another two hours, he rose and went to the door. “Thanks,” he said.
New stories walk into the shop every day. Financially, I’m less well off than I used to be, but my life is richer. I’ve learned that, almost as much as I like the books, I like the customers, and I have become more tolerant of their idiosyncrasies. They pop in to surprise me every day, usually in good ways and often in bizarre ones. I absolutely could not make this stuff up.
Bookstores get the same people who come into public libraries. Who knew?
I love this. Thanks for writing it, Peter. For some reason, the one I’m still thinking about is the young woman who seemed so excited to buy Mockingbird. I wonder. Was it the first book she ever bought? Was she excited because it would be used and she might get it cheap and then brag about her bargain? Was she a student whose school banned it, and she was thrilled to be rebelling? Had she read that it held a secret code to an ancient treasure? Don’t tell me. : )