If suppressing objectionable material amounts to ‘civil disobedience’…Mr. Thoreau, Mr. Gandhi and Dr. King … are rolling over in their graves.
~Chuck Robinson, co-owner of Village Books, former employer, hero, fellow bike geek, friend. Quoted from “Booksellers The Battle Joined,” The Washington Post 1990
I started this post awhile back when there was a call for stories about relationships that started at Village Books. My inner nerd started to sing, and I went straight for my notebook. I wrote long love letters to the friends that I’ve made as a result of my two-three years as a bookseller. It’s a rambling mess of gushing love for people, and really it’s not very interesting if you aren’t those people. And I’m sure, over the years, I’ve told each of them in my own way–either over drinks or during random chats–how much they mean to me.
In short, I’ve met all of my closest dearest lovingest bestest friends because I worked at Village Books (VB). And the folks who aren’t in that BFF category are some of the most interesting people I know. This bookstore is more than a former job to me, it’s the hub on the wheels of my life and education.
I feel like I worked at VB during the golden years. The best years. When the coolest booksellers worked there. When the place was in its prime. The best. But really, I bet every employee feels that way. Every alum must have that feeling. When I got my personalized party invite post-card in the mail with a handwritten note, I got weepy. How sweet that Dee did that for every alum! For me.
There are also many people who have remained working there since I’ve moved on. How many readers can say they know people who have retired from an independent bookstore in this era? Sadly, very few.
And that’s what’s cool about VB. They not only created a vital corner of the Bellingham community, they are A Community. We are a community. When I first got hired, somebody asked me how I got hired without an PhD! That’s how smart the booksellers are to folks in the community. Like every great job I’ve had, I just got lucky. I was in the right place at the right time. Right Place, Right Time: A Memoir.
Back then, VB had just celebrated their 20 anniversary, and I remember how young and kinda hippy everyone looked in the photo of the “first booksellers” at VB. What a bunch of long-haired, long dress wearing, long beard growing, unkempt outdoorsy au natural hippies, I thought. I may have hugged the photo thinking “My People.” My lip prints are probably still on the glass of that photo frame.
Thanks to Colophon Cafe, which is adjacent to VB, for taking a chance on me as a waitress (and putting up with my smartass mouth); I was able to get to know the bookstore folks. I would shop for used books using my discount pulling dollar bills from my African peanut soup stained apron, I would talk with whomever was working the desk. When one of the employees admitted she was going to quit, I made my pathetic pitch to Chuck and Dee when I was serving them lunch. I told them I was an English major, and that I would love to work for them. They encouraged me to apply, and I spent hours crafting my sentences, checking my spelling, and dreaming about finally leaving food service to sell books. Out of a five-inch high stack of applications, I got an interview, and ultimately the job.
Little did they know how horrible I am with numbers, and what a complete mess I was with cash registers, money, and bookkeeping. For every mistake I made with bookkeeping, I tried to make up for it by creating meaningful book displays, alphabetizing children’s books, and being a good listener to folks who liked to talk books. I also tried to maintain my “Alyson’s Picks Shelf” like a shrine to my nerdness. And truly, some of the conversations I had behind the counter with my fellow book employees are some of the best examples of geeking out that I’ve had in the workplace. It’s a special place, and I’m honored to be an alum.
When I got into graduate school (the first time), Dee wished me good luck and told me I’d always be welcomed back if I needed a job. Turns out, two years later, I needed just that. I spent two months at VB before I moved to Seattle to work as an adjunct, and that’s when all of my VB relationships flourished and became the beautiful part of my life that I call my friends. How can I ever thank you, Chuck and Dee, for giving me so much?
In the years since I’ve left VB, the economic and political times have not been easy to independent bookstores. To anything independent. To anything I care about, really. I kept a watchful eye on the news of independent bookstores and what I observed from afar made me proud. Chuck and Dee weren’t going down easy nor without a fight. Par for the course with those two, really.
They have a long history of fighting censorship and when it comes to Banned Books, they don’t just teach adults, they get the kids involved. How many kids have grown up reading books in VB? Chelsea Cain, a NYT bestseller claims to still have the thesaurus her mother purchased from VB. I still have my discounted used copy of Cain’s Wild Child: Girlhoods in the Counterculture. All of my VB friends from that era had toddlers or small children when I started working there. Those kids are now in college or in their 20s.
I recently counseled one of them about not getting accepted grad school. Even his safety school rejected him. He said, “My mom told me we should talk because you’ve been rejected a lot and you might make me not feel like such a loser.”
[Thanks! “Friend.” Talk to Alyson, she minored in Loser Studies.] But yes, I said, Aunt Alyson knows what’s that’s like, and it sucks. It’s the worst. But. Something else will come about. Something else is waiting for you. Something. I promise. You’re a good guy destined for happiness. You already have somebody who loves you for you, so that’s a start.” He said, “I just don’t feel like an adult and I think I should by now.”
To which I responded: Welcome to the club, kid.
And you see, time has passed. Quite a bit. The building has changed. The whole place is different, but VB is going strong. Like public libraries in Bellingham. VB is an ally to the public library system and they support the Whatcom Community college and Western Washington University. If you do a search of major fund-raisers in Whatcom County, you’d be hard pressed to find something that VB was not a part of in some way. They are a model business. For a community. By a community.
VB helped my career in ways I would have never thought of when I was scheming to get hired there. I got my first experience talking to large groups of people by introducing authors. I learned how to type faster with the data entry I did with new books (I loved that mindless work just as much as I loved the new books). I wrote my first book reviews. I got to help the book buyers select new books for the upcoming seasons. I made connections who eventually published my first hiking and cycling articles. I got to work as a volunteer tutor with the Whatcom Literacy Council thanks to the VB connection.
When I sat for one of my first community college job interviews, we talked mostly about VB because the chair of the English department loved VB just as much as Powell’s in Portland, OR. In fact, we talked so long about books and VB, I wasn’t sure if I made a new book geek friend or if I got the job when I left. I was hired to teach two classes, for the record, yet she barely asked me about my teaching. And most of all, I learned how a business can make a profit while still being a vital part of the community. One book at a time.
And these days, people think that I want to kill the publishing industry. Books. Writers. That I want to kill bookstores. Publishers. Authors. The Printed Word. And that’s simply not true. No, that’s not it.
I want to end the large-scale exploitation of students by corporations who want nothing to do with community, people, education, and equity. They only want profits. If I can’t make education free for all people everywhere all the time, then I at least want a hand in killing the profits of corporations who prosper off of students. When I advocate for Open Education, I’m not saying that books shouldn’t exist. I just want a college student to have some disposable income to buy comic books, trashy vampire romances, heady classic literature, magazines, young adult fiction, cookbooks (even the anarchists), fiction, and of course, memoirs for their free-time. For life-long learning. All from a place like VB. From a community of people. Of readers. Of people.
While I was an adjunct at Everett Community College, I shared an office with the brilliant Dr. Charles Fischer, a fellow former indie bookstore employee. We’d spend our office hours geeking out on politics, books, and teaching. He published an article in Seattle Magazine titled “Seattle’s Disappearing Bookstores” and he shared the link with me, writing, “Man, this research was depressing, but I think you’ll dig this. I hope you like it.”
Let me share my favorite quote from Charles’s article:
While I was in graduate school in the ’90s, I worked as a clerk at Magus Books in the University District—a neighborhood that has consistently defied gentrification. Magus is arguably one of the best bookshops in the city. Much of its spirit goes back to Dave Bell, who bought it in the 1970s and was its longest and most formative owner, giving the store its distinct shape and personality. An outspoken advocate for civil liberties, the late owner kept a brand-new copy of The Anarchist Cookbook, along with psychedelic mushroom kits, in the locked display case in the front of the store. Though Bell had a science background, he made a point of hiring liberal arts people, many working toward advanced degrees or already with them. Rhodes scholars worked side by side with graduate students in English and philosophy. A day spent in Magus was a day spent in the best class you ever had in college—I remember talking about the pattern of human carelessness in The Great Gatsby with Dave Heller, who now teaches philosophy at Seattle University, and having Bill Kiesel, now publisher and editor of Ouroboros Press, break down the dialectical gymnastics behind Malleus Maleficarum, a medieval treatise on witches. Hanging out in Magus was like hanging out with the knowledgeable and quirky clerks in High Fidelity. Perhaps the only reason Hollywood has never made a hit movie about used bookstores is they don’t come with a soundtrack.
What a great writer, that Charles. I loved it.
Every one of them words rang true/And glowed like burning coal/Pouring off of every page/Like it was written in my soul from…Wait. Sorry. I’m ripping off Bob Dylan here (but it works, right?). This is exactly what I felt. What I lived. What happened to me. How a job felt like part of my education.
And so this Saturday, I’m going to attend the party celebrating 35 years of a village of books. A village of people. Of readers. If you’re in Bellingham, I hope to see you there. We need to celebrate what Chuck and Dee created for us and anyone who walks into the door of their bookstore. A Community.
Expect me to ask you, “What are you reading?”