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Good For What Ails Ya

I recently spent several days at Left Coast Crime, one of my favorites of the annual conventions of people who write crime fiction and the people who love to read it. This year it was held in Reno and, as is typical at these events, there were several book-dealers on hand. Most were offering collectibles – pristine first editions, gorgeously vulgar pulp paperbacks. My friend the author Charles Salzberg scored this beauty [insert Postman picture], though he won’t say what he paid for it.

The only dealer offering “reading copies” (as opposed to collectibles) was Sundance Books & Music, a local store. I had a chance to chat with the owner, Christine Kelly, and I think both of us imagined that I might be able to give her some practical help, but that’s not how it turned out. Instead, she told me that she came from “a medical family” – her parents and brothers are all doctors, surgeons, medical researchers. Brought up to believe in the importance of a life of service – and in the notion that health-service is the only really acceptable option – she went to nursing school. And was miserable. Eventually, she stumbled into the world of books, and found her home.

But despite knowing where she belongs, she still carries a lot of guilt. She sells stories, for goodness’ sake. How can that possibly compete with healing broken bodies?

It can’t. But that doesn’t mean it doesn’t offer value, sometimes…enormous value. I told her that my bookstore, Partners & Crime, had been about a mile due north of the World Trade Center, in New York City. The morning of September 12, 2001, my partner Kiz and I went to the basement, and started hauling out all the bottles of soda and crates of napkins and paper plates we could find, leftovers from years of bookstore parties. St. Vincent’s Hospital – like Partners & Crime, now gone – was collecting supplies for the people working at the site of the attacks, desperate to dig survivors out of the rubble. The weather was warm, so we propped the front door open, but we had no plan to open for business: Who on earth would want to read murder mysteries at a dreadful time like this?

Our customers, as it happens. And I don’t know why I was surprised: Books have been my refuge for as long as I’ve been able to read them, my safe place when the world has felt unfriendly. Our cash register didn’t stop ringing, all through that terrible September. Most of the time our sales tended to tilt noticeably toward the hard-boiled end of the mystery spectrum, but for months after the attacks, we couldn’t keep Agatha Christie and Ngaio Marsh in stock, so eager were our readers for books where it all comes out right in the end and there are scones for tea. 

“I feel like the neighborhood pusher,” I’d say to Kiz, and I wasn’t far off: Our merchandise was addictive. But it was good medicine – reasonably priced, with no ugly side-effects, and as healing as anything in a doctor’s bag of tricks. No, books don’t cure cancer or knit up broken bones. But they can sooth pain and ease heartache, they can supply courage and determination, fuel righteous anger, prompt needed tears or necessary chuckles. I won’t go so far as to claim that a life in books is a life of service, I said to Christine, but people need what you provide, and their lives are better for having it.  Tell that guilt you’ve been carrying around to find someone else to snuggle up to.

So I didn’t tell her how to be a better or more profitable bookseller – not sure I have much wisdom there in any case. But I figure I put in a morning of (hey!) decent service.

How have books helped heal you?

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