I returned last evening from the vacation I was planning when I last posted. From 85 degrees to 15 in the space of a few short hours. But if things follow the pattern of the last few years, I will be able to carry all that sun and warmth with me until Spring finally breaks through. Last time I talked about packing work you won’t do, clothes you won’t wear, and books you won’t read. I did pretty well: actually wore most everything I brought, and got through that long list of books with only two spares. I hoped that, like last year, we would have to delay our return because of weather-related flight cancellations, but we managed to return on one of the clear days between “clippers.” Ah, well.
And work. I didn’t bring any, besides the books which are an integral and delightful part of my job. For a few days I drifted through, content that my biggest worries were keeping my frizzy hair under control in the humidity, being sure to wear enough sun block, and cleaning all the sticky sand off my feet. (I’m really not gloating, just trying to keep the memories fresh while the latest round of snow floats outside the window.) Adding to my contentment was the observation that there was not an electronic reader to be seen. Over the six years that my husband and I have been vacationing at the same small hotel on Antigua, I have watched the trend rise and fall. There are vacationers from all over the world there, and a huge Sandals resort is just down the beach. We love to walk along the beach, and a few years ago it seemed paper books had all but disappeared; everyone reading was holding a little machine of some sort. I admired the bravery of the readers; I’m sure I would have destroyed my device with sand or water. The little “take one, leave one” library in the hotel’s office was barren; the staff was grateful when I left my completed paperbacks behind. This year, the library was stocked with books in several languages, as were the small shelves in the suites. Well read, but looking for one more set of eyes. I couldn’t believe the reversion to paper was that complete, and so I made a point to look for an e-reader on the beach, by the pool, or under the shade of trees. I did not see even one during the entire ten days. I’m not sure what this bit of trivial, anecdotal evidence portends, but there it is.
The dearth of electronic readers was balanced by an experience that reminded me of a sometimes exasperating aspect of my job. The world sometimes seems to be full of people who know exactly how a bookshop should be run and what titles should be stocked. When customers jump into advice-giving mode (e.g. you should shelve all the books lying flat, so the title can be read without head-tilting, never mind the impossibility of keeping them in order), it generally suffices to respond, “Thank you. I’ll think about that.” When my husband and I took a catamaran trip this vacation, involving sailing around the island with stops for snorkeling and a marvelous Caribbean feast, we struck up a conversation with a couple who live very close to us in New Jersey. When the usual “What do you do?” questions arose, my husband, who is a clergyman, was suitably vague. There are professions that can lead to awkwardness, or too much in-depth revelation, or just plain annoying persistence. It’s Vacation! I didn’t think bookselling was an occupation best kept under wraps --- until this trip.
The wife told me how she loves bookshops, and so do her children. She couldn’t wait to visit mine, and bring them along. When I asked about which other independent shops in the area she liked, despite her insistence that she loved them, it became apparent that she really had no familiarity with my comrades. She proceeded then to name several books with which I am unfamiliar, telling me I MUST stock them. It turns out they are religious titles with a strong evangelical bent. Her next piece of advice was that I must lead my customers to these books. Miracles would happen. I began to feel that I was back in the time when we had a local character in town, referred to as “The Preacher,” who would harangue people on the street and come into my shop informing me that I should be selling only Bibles. As the boat trip was a social occasion, I barely knew this woman, and she obviously had overindulged in the rum punch, I responded by trying to change the topic. People love to talk about themselves, but every question I asked about her children or her work turned right back to how I should run my shop. And here’s the punch line: “I love to browse in bookshops, then I buy my books on Amazon.” My husband says that even as long as he’s known me, he’s never witnessed such self-restraint. I excused myself to the ladies’, and then went to the other side of the boat.
So I didn’t completely escape work. Once I regained my equilibrium, I actually found the whole incident quite amusing. But next time someone asks, I will be suitably vague. It’s just that I do so love to talk about books, and that’s usually where a conversation about my shop leads – vacation or not.
I mentioned in my last post that the reason I carry so many books on this annual winter vacation is that there is not a bookshop on the island. I am pleased to report that this is no longer true. As we sat in the departure lounge at the airport (there is only one, for all flights), during that long hour or more between international check-ins and actual departures, my husband and I took turns watching the carry-ons and browsing the opportunities for last minute gifts or souvenirs. The offerings are actually quite nice; few shops, but choices a cut above the usual keychains and magnets. In previous years I had noticed one shop with a few “airport” books among the magazines and candy. This time, I spotted several tall bookshelves in one corner near the departure gate (yes, just one gate). The irresistible force pulled me there.
I noted that the selection was perfect for the venue; not many titles in any one category, but good choices for readers of any taste. In mystery, Ian Rankin and P. D. James stood out. There were some well-chosen romances, thrillers, young adult novels, and a variety of nonfiction. As I carefully straightened a front-facing volume I had bumped while pulling out another to peruse (it’s instinctive), a young woman asked if she could help me. I told her that I was a bookseller and complimented her on the variety, quality, and display of her selections. She explained that she chooses and brings them from her main store in St. John’s, the nearby capital. When I said I had been told there wasn’t a bookshop on the island, she said they had been open for a few years and had just expanded to a second floor. I’m always excited to learn of new bookshops opening and growing. Perhaps this shop is partly responsible for the missing electronic readers. I know one place I’m planning to visit on next year’s winter vacation!
It’s back to the snow and cold, but with hope for the future of paper-bound books, the knowledge of a thriving bookshop in my favorite vacation spot, and an amusing story to add to my repertoire of bookselling advice anecdotes. And only 34 days until Spring!