For at least three and a half years, the Derby Square Bookstore in Salem, Massachusetts, announced plans to go out of business. The first time I went in, right after I had moved to Salem three Augusts past, I felt terrible that such a quirky little bookshop had fallen victim to the big chains. I was charmed by the tiny shop with its precariously balanced, disheveled stacks, organized more by whim than by title. Housed in one of the old brick buildings near the old town hall, the shop had more character than any new-fangled outlet could ever hope to achieve. In solidarity, I bought a heavily discounted book and told the hulking curly-haired, bespectacled proprietor that I was really sorry that they were going out of business and that I wished they would stay open, as I loved the shop.
“Thanks,” he sighed. “We just can’t do it.”
As August passed to September, and then to October and November, I got acquainted not only with the big curly haired co-owner, but also his partner, who bore a striking resemblance to Christopher Lloyd. Every time I stopped in, they told me that they would be closing any day and that the books were priced to move. Something seemed off, however, as they were still taking special orders, and they didn’t seem to be doing anything else about leaving.
I moved that December, and I didn’t go back to Salem again until that spring. As I walked through the pedestrian mall, noting all the touristy, Salem Witch Trials oriented shops, I expected to see an empty place where the weird little shop had been. They were still there, however, with their “Store Closing” signs still posted in the window. I walked in, and the curly haired man looked at me quizzically before launching into his store-closing speech.
“I remember,” I said, browsing through the stacks, worried that books might come cascading down on my noggin.
“Oh, yeah,” he said, “Haven’t seen you in here for a bit.”
I explained that I had moved and bought another discounted book from Christopher Lloyd, perched behind tall stacks of books, with a space wide enough for a stack of paperbacks. He told me that his mother was sick and that he had plans to move to Florida later that spring.
“We’ll be closing then,” the curly haired man chimed in.
“That’s too bad. I’ll miss seeing you here.”
My visits to Salem became less frequent over the next couple of years, but I would still stop in the shop whenever I was in town. Every time, I heard the same speech before I got three feet in the shop. I’d nod, and go about my shopping. While some of the books bore the signs of age, I noticed a lot of new titles and gradually caught on that they weren’t really going anywhere.
Today was gray and icky, like yesterday, and so I decided to go to Salem to do a little poking about and stop in the coffee shop. I went to the bookstore, and something was different. Hand-lettered neon signs about the discounts assaulted me, but I didn’t see anything about the store closing. I stepped in, and that Curly Haired Bespectacled Guy greeted me with news of their discount. He didn’t mention that the store was closing. Perhaps they finally caught on, too.
The books are still discounted, and some of them are still incredibly old (Fat Sparrow, I saw a number of Ursula Le Guin titles and wished that I had your recommendations in mind, as a couple of books were rather old). A fan, perched up on some sagging stacks in the back of the store, had a heavy coat of dust, and upon seeing it, I sneezed. Undeterred, I walked back to the fiction section. Milan Kundera’s The Book of Laughter and Forgetting caught my eye (I know as a feminist, I’m supposed to hate him, but I don’t—he just writes so incredibly well). I picked it up and looked around for the book I was hoping they’d have, Veronica, by Mary Gaitskill (I’ve been meaning to read this one for a long time). Alas, I didn’t see it. Oh, well, I thought, I can get it some other time.
Curly Haired Bespectacled Guy came alongside me, after telling another customer that his David Eggers book would be there early next week, to ask me if I needed help. I told him what I was looking for but that it wasn’t a big deal if he didn’t have it. “I’m in the middle of a book, and I’m picking this up, so I don’t really need it right now.”
“Oh, I can order it for you. I’m placing an order on Monday. The discount will be ten percent.”
I smiled at him, letting him know I was in on the joke, and placed the order. He didn’t react. I purchased my book through the tiny opening in the book stacks, gave him my name and phone number, and told him I’d be back when the book was in. I stepped out into the drizzly grayness, happy that the Derby Square Bookstore was still in business.