Turning Toward Home, with a Slight Twist

The Booty (with three days to go)

It’s a bad sign when you can’t remember where you spent the night, something most of us left behind in our carefree college days. But I don’t remember where Jack and I parked last night, just that the motel was clean and had an indoor pool. And that we were near storytelling friends Dan Keding and Tandy Lacy, but missed getting together – bummer!

It might be time to start for home. We are now in Mt Carmel, Illinois, and there’s a funny story to go with that in a minute. But first, let me tell you about The Book Stores of St Louis.

Larry Bowen had told us that the four independent bookshops in the big city had hooked themselves together into the Independent Booksellers Alliance, so we looked forward to hearing about this. Our first stop was Puddnhead Books, in the charming village of Webster Groves. (The shop didn’t open until ten and wherever we stayed the night before, I had dragged Jack out of it at 9, so the twenty minutes we ambled the streets peering in shop windows were silent and contrite on my part, triumphantly forgiving on Jack’s.)

Puddnhead is spacious, painted with bright primary colors, and runs heavily to children’s books. It was also the first place we’d seen with a resident animal, but, sadly, it was the dog’s day off. He lives with the adult buyer and event coordinator, and they weren’t in that day; the children’s manager was working the floor.

Jack and I ambled, discovering a shelf at the back with “gently used” half-price books the owners had read and brought in. We scored a couple there and Jack found yet another Bob Dylan book he didn’t own–which, given the morning’s timing debacle, seemed a small price to pay. The bathroom in Puddnhead cemented my belief that this was a charming place: authors who had signed books there left latrinalia on its walls. (That’s graffiti to you and me, but some of my friends are folklorists.)

The woman working the shop spent considerable time talking with us, but it turns out we were the second shop owners in two days to come by. Another couple, who owned a children’s bookshop in Minnesota, had passed through on their way to visit family, and had called in to see “another independent bookstore.”

We talked about the Amazon factor, and she told me something interesting: when Amazon put out its now-infamous call that anyone who produced a print add for local retailers selling anything cheaper than The Big A would get $5 below that price, customers did indeed react. They brought in lists of books they wanted and said, “We were going to buy these on Amazon but after what they tried to do to local shops with that campaign, we hate them.”

Backlash is America’s greatest asset, and much of our history is actually built on it, for good or ill. Up the localvores.

The lady at Puddnhead also spent considerable time advising a family on a book purchase for a young child, again something that doesn’t happen in the box stores. And she drew us a map to the other independent new sellers, plus a couple of used ones. We waved a cheerful goodbye and set our GPS to the second store.

Remember how I said when you turn a bookseller’s heart inside out, what displays is his or her bookstore? Well, let’s just admit that not everyone would feel a natural affinity to everyone else, no matter how hard we try. It’s not that we think the next store we visited is wrong, or bad, or even creepy, it’s just….

If Edgar Allen Poe had married Charlaine Harris, this is the bookstore they would have opened.

Steampunk meets zombie meets gentleman bookseller. Great shelves, reminiscent of that pretty Reader’s Corner run by Larry back in Rolla – but painted black and towering so high our friend Mike Samerdyke (6’3″) would have been hardpressed to reach the top. No ladders. No signs to tell you how to get the books down. Lots of magic books, though, so maybe the owner could levitate. Black floors, black walls, orange spider script designating the shelves. And to top off the creepy factor, Rush Limbaugh’s talk show was blaring over the speakers. In fact, our friend and fellow writer Mike Samerdyke and his daughter Olivia would have loved this shop, as would our friend and fellow writer Neva Bryan; both Neva and Mike adore Dark stuff, but Jack and I are more into little fuzzy animals with big brown eyes drawn by Garth Williams or Jack Kent.

Thanks, Mr. Steam Zombie, your bookstore is darkly lovely and we’re outta here. Bless you, be well, some forms of depression are treatable with medication, and we have some friends we’ll be sending your way.

We had intended to leave the new bookstores behind and visit a second-hand one, but the second Alliance member had shaken us, so we decided to see a third. Hello, “Left Bank Books,” where our spirits soared. They had a resident cat.

Spike ambling back into the office to resume working on his novel. He loved being petted, but flatly refused to pose for a photo. Or maybe we'd kept him from his daily word quota.

“Spike” was sitting in an office at a laptop, presumably working on his novel, when we arrived, and Danielle, the events coordinator, kindly left her desk (where she was clearly pretty busy) and spent fifteen minutes telling us about Spike and Left Bank, and hearing about our cats and shop. Left Bank has been in business 42 years, and has two locations. It does more than 200 events per year, and it has used books downstairs, new upstairs.

I mentioned Amazon and she gave a disdainful sniff. “We’re not worried.”

They didn’t have reason to be; even in the Dead Days between Christmas and New Year, the place thrummed with people (many of whom were happy to greet Spike when he sauntered up the stairs after leaving us. We heard cries of “Hey, Spike!” from several directions.)

“Left Bank” had the comfortable feeling of an overstuffed armchair, books everywhere, people everywhere, cat ambling through. A localvore’s dream, in fact.

Three distinct bookshops, three distinct personalities: that’s a good way for large city sellers to cooperate with each other; we were impressed.

From there we beat it across Illinois toward Vincennes–and, unknowing, the best customer service story of the day. We’d booked a hotel online the night before from… wherever it was we were. By the time we left St. Louis, we really didn’t have a chance to stop anywhere else with a bookstore; we’d marked the town of Olney as having one, but we got there after 5. So we just drove into the dark, me getting a bit tired and cramped, looking forward to the Super 8 in Vincennes.

Which didn’t have any record of our reservation.

We hauled out the laptop and checked the phone number. The hotel clerk looked nervous. “That’s an Illinois area code.”

Illinois, as in, the place we just drove across? The flat place of crazy drivers passing each other, that had only one bookstore in a three-hour stretch?

We rang the number; the hotel was in Mt Carmel, Illinois, about fifteen minutes back the way, and South another twenty. It wasn’t so far off our track, but it also wasn’t where we were standing. I explained and asked the woman at the Mt Carmel Super 8 to cancel our reservation.

The disembodied voice sounded politely sympathetic. “We can’t cancel after 4.”

“The website told me you were in Vincennes! We’re not going South.”

“I am very sorry.”

Every book I’d read about employees not getting to make their own decisions, about the disincentive to provide customer service via disincentive to think for oneself at all, came flooding forward. She couldn’t make this decision; it was no skin off her nose. Red hot rage flooded me.

“Fine,” I said. “Thank you and goodbye.” I didn’t hang up on her, but I didn’t wait for her to say anything else, either.

The poor child working the Vincennes Super 8 looked something between frightened and sympathetic. She made us a Mapquest printout to the other hotel, and we drove back the way we’d come, me rehearsing a careful yet thorough speech about customer service, decision making and the ability of consumers to reciprocate via feedback sites and blogs and other free speech venues.

“We are the Beck reservation,” I said to the woman behind the counter, a petite redhead whose eyes barely saw over the top. Those eyes narrowed.

“I thought you weren’t coming.”

“We had no choice.” I narrowed my eyes back at her. “We can’t afford to throw away a night’s fee if you wouldn’t cancel us.”

“I did cancel you,” she said. “I called my manager, and he agreed that if this wasn’t where you’d intended, you shouldn’t have to stay. Do you still want to stay here? We have room, but you’d said this wasn’t where you wanted to be.”

That ‘wah-wah-wah-wah’ noise the sitcom of life sometimes produces when God wants to teach us a little humility began to play in my head.

“Why didn’t you do that while I was on the phone?” I asked.

She shrugged. “I had to call him back. And…” her eyes narrowed even more. “You didn’t give me a chance to say anything about your calling me back. I didn’t have your number to call.”

Jack and I looked at one another, me teetering between rage and laughter. Jack’s mustache twitched.

“Where are you headed, anyway?” Nikki (as her badge announced) asked.

We burst into laughter. “Anywhere we want,” Jack said. “We run a bookstore, and we’re visiting independent bookstores and secondhand ones. My wife’s just written a book, so we’re seeing how other people run theirs plus meeting places where she might do publicity later.”

Nikki looked at me. “What’s the book about?”

I couldn’t help it. “Customer service.”

Nikki laughed. I was starting to like her. She launched into a very careful play by play of the many fine features of this particular Super 8, including the free breakfast and where the ironing board was located in the room closet. Apparently the hotel had just been vacated by a very large church group that came every year right after Christmas, and used up most of the staff’s internal reserves of diplomacy, so our call had been rather the icing on her “The Customer is always right” cake. Or perhaps the butcher knife slicing through it.

Either way, all’s well that ends in a belly laugh, and next time I want someone in a customer service position to help me, I may believe a little more in their self-efficacy and general goodwill.

Look closely at the name in this star (from the streets of St Louis)

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