By Deborah Willis
VICTORIA, B.C.: In one of my lives, I’m a writer. This means, essentially, that I contemplate the human experience while wearing my pajamas. This writer –– let’s call her Deborah Willis––prefers to be alone. Her shoulders are hunched from bending over a notebook and her eyes are strained from the computer screen.
Fortunately, there’s another me, and she gets out more. She goes by Debbie, and works in a bookstore, Munro’s Books in Victoria, BC. It has marble countertops, art on the walls and creaky floorboards. On my first day in the job, I was given the keys to the store, taught the combination to the safe and told to call the owner, Mr. Munro, by his first name. To be hired by Jim is to be welcomed into his family. He runs an independent, old-fashioned business, the kind of place that big-box stores and the Internet can never replace, but often do.
I don’t mean to make Munro’s sound like a museum piece, since it’s a profitable business. I also don’t mean to romanticize the work. A job is a job, after all. And besides, a bookstore can terrify a writer. Mysteries, romance, poetry –– they arrive in box after box, then many are returned unsold to publishers, to be remaindered or pulped. When faced with this, it’s hard for me to convince myself that the world needs another book, especially mine. Why bother? I often think as I put labels on the newest page-turner about a vampire shopaholic, or the latest novel hailed as “a triumph.” Why do you get up in the morning? my inner bookseller asks the writer. What’s the point?
If the bookstore forces me to ask these questions, it then answers them. Most obviously, the books I’ve bought from Munro’s have inspired my admiration and writing. While working amid the stacks, I’ve discovered Alexandar Hemon, Jack Gilbert, Miranda July, David Grossman, Lewis Hyde, Shalom Auslander and Anaïs Nin. The beauty of a bookstore –– a real physical store, with real physical books inside it –– is that it allows people to browse, pick up a book, hold it in their hands, read a few sentences and say to themselves, Yes.
But Munro’s has done more than introduce me to books. It has introduced me to those who read them. I’m referring to my coworkers, that delightful and eccentric family, but also to our customers. There’s the gallery owner who buys so many art books that we’ve given him his own account at the store. There’s Mr. Anderson, a man in his seventies who orders romance novels by the dozen. He wants love stories, not erotica, but doesn’t mind some titillation. “I like a little slap-and-tickle,” he says.
My favorite customer is Michael. He has long hair, wears a black leather jacket and one of his boots has a spur. When he walks into the store, you can hear his spiked heel click and spin with every other step. He is polite and soft-spoken, and looks exactly like Keith Richards. If I didn’t work at Munro’s, I would never guess that he listens to literature programs on public radio, and reads everything from Proust to Gravity’s Rainbow to The Irish Country Doctor.
The people I’ve met at Munro’s are readers, and it occurs to me that most writers don’t get many chances to meet them except on book tours. I’ve had the good luck to encounter readers almost every day, and I’ve learned that they are intelligent and demanding. They are rarely snobbish but always discriminating. They read for knowledge or for escape or for both. And to that question –– What’s the point? –– they are an essential part of the answer.
Deborah Willis’ debut story collection, The Vanishing and Other Stories, will be published in the United States this August 17 by HarperCollins. In Canada, it was named one of the the Globe and Mail‘s Best Books of 2009, and was nominated for the Governor General’s Award and the BC Book Prize.
READ: More about Deborah Willis on her blog, including the full essay excerpted above.