Robert B. Wyatt's Story Till Now
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Robert B. Wyatt worked at The Golden Notebook, a small book store in Woodstock, NY, and wrote about it daily, comparing book selling in the early sixties at a large Manhattan book shop with book selling now in the waning days of 2009. He worked two weekends in late November and early December and two weeks before Christmas.

The Golden Notebook

The weekends:

Sat 5:04 AM, November 28, 2009

When I first entered the books profession as a clerk at the big Doubleday Book Shop on Fifth Avenue, New York City, forty-seven years and a month ago, my spirits were similar to those I felt when I returned to book selling at The Golden Notebook in Woodstock, NY. I was scared, and I was excited.

Of my first bookselling day in October, 1962, there is no memory of breaking out in a nervous rash, as I did contemplating work at The Golden Notebook, but at that earlier time my body probably reacted in some humiliating way best forgotten. Elder age memory lapses are our secret friend.

In the early sixties, hats were being discarded, but ties were daily attire for even the lowliest clerk who might have just got off the boat from Oklahoma. In twenty-first century Woodstock, ties probably had not been seen in anything but local theatrical productions. For my own return to the book selling stage, I decided to wear a tie, which somehow seemed appropriate for a recidivist bookseller. I couldn’t be mistaken for anything but an eccentric employee of a Woodstock business or perhaps something left over from Halloween. The day after Thanksgiving I was probably the only Woodstock resident wearing or possessing a tie. The tie was solid mauve and the shirt was white, but not buttoned down until later when a kindly bookshop patron corrected my oversight.

After I had passed through Doubleday’s revolving glass doors, I was instantly instructed in the way of carriage trade life. No more, “Hey, Bob.” I was “Mr. Wyatt”. And everybody else was Mister or Miss or Mrs. The notion of Ms had not crept into popular usage until about a year before my New York arrival.

I reverted to the Oklahoma Bob form as I pushed through the yellow Golden Notebook front door plainly labeled “Pull” and was greeted by Barry Samuels, who has operated the shop with Ellen Shapiro for thirty-one years. Also on hand was a pretty twenty-something lady named Emily, taking a break from college education. Emily apparently realized that the best education in the world is working in a bookshop. The only other professionals required to know everything are book editors and movie directors.

After hanging up my jacket at the back of the store, I helped Gaela, who runs the children’s bookshop attachment next to The Golden Notebook. I was struck by the silver-haired, physical similarity between Gaela and one of my favorite characters in my two novels. After hauling some Golden Notebook bags from a shed out back and carrying in some folding chairs for the noontime signing of Dani Noir, a young adult title by Nova Suma, I returned to the main floor of the store, where Emily instructed me in the intricacies of the machine once known as the cash register at the Doubleday shop.

At the big Fifth Avenue store we dealt primarily in cash, even though credit cards were increasingly employed by the affluent, who flourished at our store across from Tiffany’s and down the street and around the corner from the Plaza Hotel.  There were a few coins in The Golden Notebook till, but probably not enough change for ten bucks. As it worked out, on Black Friday most folks were spending more than ten bucks and usually made card payments. The technology was frighteningly reminiscent of PC operating systems, which strike fear into Mac enamored folk like me and the guys called the Macs, who populate my novels. I was relieved when Barry took over the contraption after my training session.

One of my objectives in working during the holiday season at The Golden Notebook was to recreate the magical lost days at Doubleday. I fondly recalled the moment when Doubleday’s glass doors began revolving at 9 a.m. I hit the keys on the cash register for my first sale. The entire day evaporated; the minute after 9:01 a.m. instantly became 5:59 p.m. and time for me to go home.

The first day at The Golden Notebook did not appear to pass that quickly, but I knew that soon there would be a recurrence of my early magical days.

So, that morning it was another opening and another show of tie. Perhaps I took another uncertain step further away from Doubleday? The Sunday shirt would be gray, the tie would have flowers.

Sun 10:10 AM, November 29, 2009

After a perfunctory ironing of my gray dress shirt and an arrangement of the flowery tie, I looked in the mirror. Poor old thing! Was the tie too wide, or not wide enough? What the hell? This was Woodstock, which favored the dress codes of all times and nations. Some Woodstockers probably would be wandering about in clothing akin to the two-button brown suit I wore daily to Doubleday at 724 Fifth.

The big shop in l962 harbored a bunch of characters who would have put central casting out of business. The immediate boss was a willowy gentleman not much older than I, who once confessed to me that his private professional dream was to be a hands model. I wonder now if his dream was realized.

His boss, who was in charge of all operations, was a short Italian with a profound knowledge of art. His was possibly the only shop in America that stocked such a wide variety of Skira and Rizzoli and Abrams and Phaidon editions. His scholarly interest in them was matched by his love of their high cover prices, which did not faze the purchasers served by our messengers taking the heavy works to homes on Central Park South and on up Fifth Avenue and Park Avenue.

At The Golden Notebook, I realized on my second day that there were still folks who bought art books that dazzled the eye and broke backs. They were to be cherished. Their musically inclined friends also did not hesitate to buy large-scale books on music, primarily of the Woodstock Festival generation.

Cheaper editions in paperback still outsold hardcovers of all weights, though the ratio was surprisingly slim. That ratio was different in the old days on Fifth Avenue where paperbound books were frowned upon and heftier books prevailed.

Doubleday assigned me to the disreputable  sales area in the back of the store, where paperbacks and juvenile books shared space. We had something of a monopoly in paperbacks because unlike the haughty other book shops down the avenue, we carried mass-market paperbacks, as did the newsstands and grocery stores of America. We also carried the larger-sized and more expensive trade paperbacks favored by students and educated travelers. Business increased substantially during my two-year tenure, particularly when I took over the paperback department after the suicide of my department’s head. I foolishly thought the increase was spurred by my ordering and stocking expertise. Now I realize wider distribution and heavier sales were merely a cultural trend.

Most of the east wall of The Golden Notebook is covered with both mass market and trade paperbacks, dominated by the latter. In the afternoon it was well shopped. Judith Thurman, the New Yorker essayist and biographer, plucked out a couple of novels by the recent Romanian Nobel Prize winner, Herta Müller, while later the prominent lawyer, Martin Garbus, bought a recent novel by Roberto Bolaño, who currently enjoys posthumously a following rarely gained by the living. Later I learned that death had been a boon for the sales of the Swedish thriller writer, Stieg Larsson, now the world’s second bestselling author. Death’s sting can be a stimulant.

The afternoon brought in many prominent booklovers. Carla Smith, executive director of the Woodstock Guild, showed off The Golden Notebook to her father in from Illinois for the holidays. Two other customers who loved books in a different way—they make books—stopped by. Barry and I kept our eyes on them. Both Peter Mayer of Overlook Press and Dave Goldbeck of Ceres Press are well known for arranging the shelves to accommodate their particular interests. The food and health shelves remained unscathed after the departure of Dave and Nikki Goldbeck, his Ceres collaborator wife and unflagging figure of both the Woodstock Film Festival and the Woodstock Farm Festival. The pair bought books for a forthcoming trip, though Dave vowed to finish reading three volumes of John Dos Passos’s epic, U.S.A., before breaking into their new pile of treasures from The Golden Notebook. Peter apparently had a stack of unhatched books in manuscript form at home, because he walked out carrying only Judith Thurman’s books.  No Overlook titles had migrated to face-out display during Peter’s visit.

As night fell, I violated the pact I had made with Barry that I would quit work for the day only if we had a fifteen-minute lull. It never came, but when my sister, Harriett Barton, the book illustrator, invited me over for dinner after work, I left early. One tends to get hungry when he hasn’t eaten since five in the morning.

Fri PM, December 4, 2009

Friday began with a bang when I crashed the left rear end of my Honda into an aggressive grape vine at the exit of my driveway. I first thought the crashing sound was made by the slamming around of  the carton of Jams and Fluffys I had placed in the back of the car for delivery to The Golden Notebook. Only when I arrived at the store did I realize that the vine had been cruelly destructive to my delivery wagon.

Later at the store, The Golden Notebook’s Darrell Whitbeck logged Jam and the Fluffys into the inventory system and placed the books on display. I placed a homemade poster in a vacant spot in the window: “MEET THE AUTHOR AND CHECK OUT HIS TWO NEW NOVELS. (HE’S NEARBY.)” It could have been an invitation or a threat. Below a dark picture of the author was a true invitation: “JAM & THE BOX is $13 and the FLUFFY’s version of his story is $10. Or buy both for $20 and get the whole story from both sides—only at The Golden Notebook.”

As I had arrived at work two hours late, it wasn’t long before we began to prepare for the annual Woodstock Open House. Barry and Emily set out wine, glasses, a tray of brownies, bowl of taco chips, and what appeared to be guacamole, but in truth a cleverly disguised mélange of broccoli. A table and chair were brought to the front of the store for the first celebrity writer, Helen Weaver, the noted translator, whose book, The Awakener: a Memoir of Kerouac and the Fifties has just been published by City Lights Press. She came to The Golden Notebook to sign copies of the memoir as well as copies of a different kind of memoir about her beloved old dog, Daisy, The Daisy Sutra: Conversations With My Dog, which she had valiantly self-published in 2001. Hordes followed her entrance into the store as she arranged her books and prepared to greet old friends and sign her books. Foremost among them was the celebrated David Amram, usually described first as a composer, but also very well known in almost every aspect of the arts. I had long been a fan of his early writings, particular the memoir of his youth, Variations, which has had several variations, itself, from its first publication by Macmillan to the latest by Thunder’s Mouth Press. He observed the end of Helen’s signing with a performance of “Simple Gifts”, which left the audience delighted and moved as the two exchanged loving glances in apparent memory of their lives in the age of Kerouac.

After Helen’s departure, another chair was brought in for the next two guests, the brother and sister, Weston and Julia Blelock who issued Anita M. Smith’s Woodstock History and Hearsay under their WoodstockArts imprint in 2006. They were in to sign Roots of the 1969 Woodstock Festival, which they had compiled and published recently.

Forty years ago at the Doubleday shop, signings were not held because signed copies were not stocked. A signed copy was considered damaged because it could not be returned to the publisher if it went unsold. The fact that a signed copy might command a higher price in the collectors’ market many years hence was not considered. For example, Frank Herbert’s Dune in a signed copy is granted a five thousand buck premium over its usual ten thousand dollar price for a first edition in very good condition. More recently novelist Edmund White remarked waggishly that an unsigned copy of his works would probably be worth more than the many copies he had signed over the years.

In the early sixties, Jacqueline Susann and her publicist husband, Irving Mansfield, stalked Fifth Avenue after dark as they peddled Every Night, Josephine!, ostensibly about their poodle. They thought they should treat lowly clerks to a copy of their book for which they paid the shop the full price and signed with a flourish. We resented the mutilation of a book we could have exchanged had it not been signed. We could have traded for Thomas Pynchon’s first novel, V, or maybe John Fowles’s The Collector. I have no recollection of what Josephine did every night, but I know what Jacqueline and Irving did every night they were in town.

In the midst of our Golden Notebook signings, Frosty the Snowman suited up on the second floor of the store, putting on his snowsuit and snowhead, in preparation for a stroll about the streets. His identity is not as well kept as that of Santa, who appears anonymously in Woodstock’s Christmas Eve parade observance. Frosty is in truth the gregarious Kenny Carroll. I have no idea what he did out there while Helen and the Blelocks employed their pens, lending value as signed copies.
The departure of the Blelocks heralded the end of the Woodstock Open House and another successful day of book business at The Golden Notebook.

Sat December 5, 2009

Frosty the Snowman would have felt even more at home on Saturday as snow began to fall toward mid-day. It was quiet on the streets and in the store.

Barry perused a recent shipment of spring catalogs, bundled in distribution arrangements of imprints from various companies. From a single source, hundreds of titles were available for ordering. But which? And how to choose from the bright promises, hopes, and lies within? If printed catalogs grew too weighty, there were also electronic versions on line for another snowy day.

I worked on a web project associated with my novels until the quiet was broken by a visit from an agent, Joy Harris, who kindly bought my books, as well as several others. There is delight when a publishing professional spends good, hard-earned money of their own on books they could cadge from any publisher in town. There are many editors and agents who haven’t bought a book in years and—one often suspects—haven’t read a book in years. Joy is clearly not one of those folk.

As the snow increased and store traffic decreased later in the afternoon, I invoked the fifteen-minute rule for departure. In exchange for the hours off, I promised Barry I would be on hand when he conducted another signing across the street for a collection of essays, Walking Woodstock: Journeys into the Wild Heart of America’s Most Famous Small Town by Michael Perkins and Will Nixon, published locally by Bushwhack Books. The gathering was described by the authors as a “Foot Stompin’ Book Party” The portents were good if sales on a snowy day are indications. The pile up near the front desk was quickly sold, sometimes three at a time on the eve of the signing. If we had a bestseller for the day, it surely would have been Walking Woodstock. I wondered what the next day might hold amidst the foot stomping.

Sun December 6, 2009

The next day’s activities at the Kleinert/James Arts Center of the Woodstock Byrdcliffe Arts Colony proved to be one of the grandest successes in the history of The Golden Notebook signings with nearly two hundred copies sold. We didn’t do so well at our stations across the street, but we had the promise of Christmas sales when I returned to the store on the following Friday. I didn’t recall ever selling as many as two hundred copies in the old days at Doubleday. The biggest haul we ever had of anything was during a crowded lunch hour when a shoplifting patron apparently managed to tuck away in his coat fifteen copies of the “hot” novel, Terry Southern’s Candy.

The two weeks before Christmas

Fri, December 11, 2009

It was a dark and stormy day in Woodstock; only the most devoted patrons of The Golden Notebook pulled open the door to enter. From time to time, however,  strangers wandered in and moved from section to section. Current titles were up front with books about Woodstock and the Catskills lurking nearby, fiction on the east wall confronting non-fiction opposite it and--as a kind of buffer zone--selected fiction and non-fiction rested on tables between them. Further back were poetry books, movie titles, mysteries, and animal books. And at the rear of the store lavish art books shared space with sale books. There was something for everyone.

A stormy day can be useful for planning future events. During this day, some of Barry’s cohorts in the Woodstock Writers Festival to be held February 12-15 dropped by the shop to discuss the “4 Days of Peace & Books” . Among those arranging the gathering, involving memoir writing—and reading—are along with Barry, Abigail Thomas, Susan Richards, Martha Frankel, and Laura Shaine Cunningham.

The current discussions concerned a Julia Child-themed dinner Valentine’s Night at the Bear Café in which area resident, Julie Powell, author of one of The Golden Notebook’s bestselling titles, Cleaving, would be featured. She is the author of Julie and Julia, a book used by Nora Ephron for her movie of the same name. Also on the dinner menu for that night is a program of music with short readings from memoirs, appropriately entitled, “Love Bites.” And on the primary menu will be three of Julia Child’s most favored dishes, served by the Bear’s Eric Mann.

Cooking seems to be a popular theme at The Golden Notebook. The shelves of cookery books are up front at the store on the left as one enters. Curiously, it is the area most frequented by younger patrons. One wonders which stand the youngsters take in the Woodstock kitchen wars between animals and plants. Do they subscribe to Julia’s boeuf bourguignon or a Deborah Madison vegetable stew with a forbidden supply of four tablespoons of butter?

Covering all those bases was another Golden Notebook regular, Suzi O’Rourke, who operates Cooking by the Book, a New York City food and cooking services company. When she stopped by, she pointed out her name in perhaps the most famous cookbook in history, The Joy of Cooking, for whose last two editions she served as director of the test kitchen, surely one of the most formidable tasks in modern bookmaking. No day goes by in The Golden Notebook without the visit of someone directly involved in the writing or making of a book.

A day filled with the thought of food, but not the eating of it, sent me scurrying off into the dark and stormy night in search of sustenance: animal, vegetable, or mineral.

Sat, December 12, 2009

Business picks up on weekends when weekenders, day visitors, and houseguests join resident Woodstockers at The Golden Notebook.

After an interview and some picture taking with Woodstock writer and photographer, Andrea Barrist Stern , who is preparing for young readers an endearing picture book about a turtle and a rat (yes!) I arrived at work to be confronted by another writer and photographer, the spirited Dakota Lane who’s launching a YouTube series, entitled Hudson Valley WOW TV

Dakota and I had corresponded from time to time and met briefly, but we had never had the opportunity of chatting at greater length. We did so on this visit as she bounced around the store in an attempt to connect The Golden Notebook with her YouTube themes: “health, green living, relationships, art, cooking, pets and wildlife, nightlife, style, beauty, nature.”

It seemed that the only uncovered channel was Armageddon. I suspect she would be prepared, covering it thoroughly with her digital camera.

Dakota attempted to chat me up on camera in front of the Green section, where I no doubt betrayed my ignorance. If I were to be a success at the Golden Notebook, I had to bone up on greenness. Greater comfort was found near my own two novels in the novel section nearby. She asked me to read the first paragraph of JAM & THE BOOK aloud, something I done only in the darker nights of the soul in the two years spent writing it.

I blurted out awkwardly:

“Jamison James turned over in bed. His wife’s eyes were open, but something of their blueness was gone. Her arm was neither hot nor cold. Jamison felt Bay’s hand and then touched her forehead as if checking for fever. Then a breast in search of a heartbeat as his hands fluttered desperately over her still body. One touched her thigh. With that, he fell upon her, his body on hers. Naked, he stumbled to the phone and punched in 9-1-1 and called Bay’s doctor, the police, the fire department. His gestures might be useless, but they probably would put things in motion.”

Customers stared and fled from the store. Dakota smiled kindly and moved away to photograph Barry in front of the store.

I had not thought about reading first paragraphs in public, even though I’ve seen folks do it at readings. Contemplating a repeat performance, I checked out the feline-narrated first paragraph of Jam’s companion novel, The Fluffys & The Box , then sighed comfortably; it was easier:
Cats are not as dumb as some people think they are.

Sometimes it’s easier to talk like a cat.

Nothing seems to sell a book store item as well as an event. Saturday’s event was vocal when Woodstock’s choral group, Ars Choralis, performed across the street at the Woodstock Art Association and Museum in celebration of their new CD, “We Dream A World” The Golden Notebook conducted the CD sale from both the WAAM and the store. By the end of the day, the CD was the store’s bestselling work alongside WALKING WOODSTOCK, which was down to four copies. We figured those copies would be gone by noon on Sunday. Would the publishers bring a new supply before we ran out?

Sun, December 13, 2009

Sunday was a bit of a rerun of Friday; again, it was dark and stormy when snow changed to rain as I shoveled and salted the sidewalks in front of The Golden Notebook and the children’s book annex in preparation for the arrival of Patrick Carlin. He was scheduled to sign copies of his CD reading of his late brother George’s memoir, Last Words as well as his own novel, Highway 23. Despite the bad weather, many fans of both Carlins gathered at the store. A good time seemed to be had by all.

With the main attraction in the adjoining store, Elisa Winter, a knowledgeable part-time worker at The Golden Notebook and a chef at the Omega Institute over in Rhinebeck, helped me rearrange the cookbooks. The section is usually hard-hit during the holidays because cookbooks often come in lavish formats and thus are deemed impressive gifts.

I asked Elisa why so many younger browsers seemed to gather at the food bookshelves. She figured that with the advent of such television shows as “Iron Chef,” “Hell’s Kitchen,” and “Anthony Bourdain: No Reservations,” kids saw cooking as a competition, a spectator sport. I wasn’t certain of the theory, but the disarray of the books indicated that there must have been some kind of sport at play in the store.

The act of sorting “vegan” from “vegetarian” was challenging. I was further baffled when I learned that Julia Child and Emeril Lagasse were large stars in the cooking firmament, too large to be relegated to the foods of France and Italy or our regional shelvings of international cuisine. They had obtained The Joy of Cooking and The Fannie Farmer Cookbook  status and were to be placed with their peers.

While we sorted out the health and diet titles, Elisa told me that one of the central books in her life had a Woodstock connection. She said she had learned to cook with Jane Brody’s Good Food Book. Thus when Jane, who has a house in Woodstock, once handed Elisa her credit card she was revealed as “the Jane Brody.”

“I nearly fainted, “ Elisa said. “I couldn’t help myself; I had to hug her.”

Of course, no author can ever receive enough hugs. Ask any one of them. Even Dan Brown.

Two days of food talk at The Golden Notebook seemed enough. It was probably time to move on to another area of human concern and start rearranging its shelves. Fiction is easier; all you need is an author’s name placed in alphabetical order.

Mon, December 14, 2009

A store open for business seven days a week should have a day of rest; Monday was restful at The Golden Notebook. It was a meltdown day after the snows of Sunday, so a little order could be made while the store was quiet.

Reshelving and putting novels and short stories in order alphabetically by author is restful. It’s a task far easier than working with non-fiction, which has a tendency to be all over the place and nearly impossible to categorize, especially if it could be construed as green. There is hardly a new book without a green aspect nowadays. What would Melvil Dewey, who invented the Dewey Decimal Classification for libraries, do? It wasn’t my problem as I moved toward Edward Abbey and Jane Austen and the other A’s on the fiction wall.

The problem was one of size. Size counts. When I worked at
Doubleday several decades ago, paperbacks were usually manufactured in two sizes. The popular form was “rack-sized” to fit into displays of that nature. Through most of the latter twentieth-century, this was the prevailing format. Another size came into the market place when regular trade publishers issued their titles in sizes similar to their hardcover editions. They could use the original printing plates from their old press runs. Or—don’t be shocked, delicate reader—they could “strip and bind” by ripping away the original hardcover cases of unsold copies and replacing them with paper covers. It was better than selling them off as landfill, a not uncommon practice. These were called “quality” paperbacks as opposed to the allegedly rude, vulgar mass-market volumes. The two sizes were usually segregated in stores. The Scribner Bookstore, located down the street from my Doubleday shop, deigned not to carry mass-market titles and stocked only their own backlist paperbacks in the works of Wharton, Hemingway, Fitzgerald, and to spice things up, Marcia Davenport. For the record, their plain covers were a low point in American cover design. Of course, New American Library’s Ian Fleming mass-market titles were no beauties, but one knew what was contained within.

In the last decade of the last century, as mass distribution of paperbacks diminished and chain stores began to dominate the marketplace, the trade paperback became the preferred format it is today.

Inexplicably, however, an alternate size has emerged in the industry. It’s the width of a mass-market title and about the height of a trade paperback. The narrative content appears to be similar to that of the smaller books, but the type size resembles that used in trade paperbacks. One wonders why this hybrid form has been chosen. Perhaps it was a way of rationalizing a price bump of a couple of bucks.  One thing is certain: the variety of the three sizes makes a hell of shelving fiction, especially when The Golden Notebook’s paperback shelves accommodate only two sizes.

Stretching like a basketball player or crawling doglike on all fours, I finished rearranging the titles only to discover later that a title was difficult to find because I had placed it out of order in the clash of the book sizes.

Well, nobody’s perfect. After all, tomorrow is another day.

Tues, December 15, 2009

There could be poetic justice in the fact that the last book sold at The Golden Notebook on Tuesday was Blank Slate. The day, itself, was something of a blank slate, but as patrons entered, I realized that the store was something of a community center. Faces became increasingly familiar as regulars dropped by from time to time and conversations trailed from day to day. The Golden Notebook was what a proper store should be.

Wed, December 16, 2009

It’s a bit of Woodstock merchant wisdom: if you can find a parking space in the parking lot behind the store, business is not so hot. In this chilly weather, there was a parking space. ‘Nuff said.

Thurs, December 17, 2009

The afternoon was heated up a bit by the arrival of a front-page interview with me by Andrea Barrist Stern in the Woodstock Times.  Within moments, I was signing copies of the paper near the color photograph of me at my home among my books. And we sold a copy of THE FLUFFYS & THE BOX, employing my cat paw rubber stamp.

Another highlight, which might sound odd to someone who has not worked in a bookstore, was finding just the right book for a customer. A gentleman asked if we had a book on fishing for his son-in-law. Darrell found just the right book that could fit in a pocket or creel. It was about fishes of the Catskills. There was a bonus: the entire book was waterproof. Later a customer asked what we had on gems. Back in the gems and mushroom section (don’t ask, but they are both products of nature) Barry found just the right over-size book, a perfect gift. The village idiot can find a novel if it is in stock, but it takes special skills, primarily found in smaller stores, to find a special edition in a special field. That’s the sort of thing that makes an icy, not-so-hot, day worthwhile.

Fri, December 18, 2009

Frankly, anyone brave enough to go outdoors in the day’s weather should have been welcomed with open arms, and we did so as temperatures soared into the double-digits. It is common wisdom that bookstore patrons usually enter a store without a particular title in mind and they rarely look at the price. Such knowledge makes a miserable, rotten, freezing day desirable as folks seek warmth. There’s some kind of advantage in all kinds of weathers.

Sat, December 19, 2009

This entry is being written two days late. Had I written it on December 20, I probably would have been threatening to blow my brains out over on the Village Green near The Golden Notebook. The weather people had predictions of a massive storm and we knew what that meant for business in downtown Woodstock.

The town was far more interested in stocking up on food and recreational condiments than gift books at the Golden Notebook. From time to time someone would come in to get warm, spotting an irresistible book--then another and then another, finishing Christmas shopping properly. This was not enough to warm us at the Golden Notebook.  I left early to greet weekend visitors, who were staying at my House With Bear on Deck, where we battened down the hatches for the approaching storm, threatening a premature darkened Christmas.

Sun, December 20, 2009

Not all the miracles occur on 34th Street at Macy’s. We had our own little miracle overnight in Woodstock: snowlessness.  At dawn I raced to the window and beheld my dark driveway in front of the house. No snow had covered it. The driveway was also dark. I’d be able to go out and work. More important, customers surely would be coming in after neglecting us on Sunday

The atmosphere was not unlike something out of Stephen King’s new novel, Under the Dome, in which a Maine town is shrouded in a massive dome..

King is a patron saint of booksellers, not only for his ability to generate sales, but also for his enthusiasm for reading as well as writing. Not enough writers know that reading and writing are inseparable. The notion of King’s dome, rendered benevolent by the storm gods, came to mind at the store when we considered that perhaps the Woodstock area was covered by a magic dome that warded off the predicted storm.

The magic prevailed through the day as customers streamed in. Gaps began to appear in the windows as well as the front table where King’s book loomed before disappearing with customers.  Last copies were sold and replaced with other deserving titles, who would remain until Monday’s shipments came in. (Spell-check said I should say which, rather than who in the preceding sentence. Spell-check doesn’t know that a book can be as potent as a person.)

The day got better and better, as folks came in and found what they were looking for—and better still, what they didn’t know they needed.

Much of this was reflected in a later missive from our old friend, Janice King, who for many years worked at The Golden Notebook before moving back to her native West Coast to sell books at Whitman College in Walla Walla, Washington. Though Janice is homesick for her life at The Golden Notebook and Ulster County, she is having a swell time at Whitman, where book sales have increased dramatically. This will not surprise any of her Golden Notebook patrons. She shared a bit of her bookselling philosophy:

“Here is my theory of selling books...the bookseller is hosting an event.  The guest is made to feel special and cared for by having a personal experience and she walks away with a memento of that experience that adds up to $100 or $200 worth of books. People are fascinating and over the years I have had the privilege of glimpsing into the hearts of many through the patterns of books they choose. It is quite intimate and sometimes unnerving.  Many folks who fail to make an impression with personality have made a profound impression on me by their choice of books.  This knowledge has kept me from being as judgmental as I once was. I want my livelihood to be books.  They make people more mysterious and they remind me that my mechanic and the girl who mows my lawn have rich interior lives. I ramble... Happy Solstice my friend.”

And well doth she ramble, doesn’t she?

Mon, December 21, 2009

It was like the good old days in Dickens’s London and Paris: “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times . . .” and it was the season of Light and the season of Darkness because it was the winter solstice.

The best of times was selling out of books. No one likes the return of authors’ shattered dreams after the first of the year when unsold books are sent back for credit. It was a delight to see piles of books melt away.

The worst of times was the late delivery of sold-out titles. Most needed was the local book, Walking Woodstock, which is printed up in Troy. The authors provided a few of their own spare copies, but only enough to fill special orders. When books go out three and four gift copies at a time, substantial stock is needed.

The interview with me in the Woodstock Times continued to bring in old friends and suddenly new ones. Some of them even bought my novels. I gratefully would have licked their muddy feet if they asked; there is no shamelessness greater than a novelist’s. Even a pat on the book jacket brings pleasure.

Monday turned out to be like the good old days at Doubleday when the hours evaporated in the rush of last-minute shoppers. It was surely the shortest day of the year.

It is curious to note that books are a kind of last resort as gifts. Folks eventually recall that books make the most personal gifts, expressions of both the giver and the recipient. And, frankly, they’re a hell of a lot easier to wrap than a puppy.

Tues, December 22, 2009

On many days there had been a kind of ebb and flow of store traffic, as if the green light had flashed, admitting customers through the front door of The Golden Notebook, or turned red, halting admission. On Tuesday the flow was steady with neither traffic jams nor empty streets. Out of season, Tuesday’s sales would have been the equivalent of a good Saturday’s green light.

It was a mellow, Woodstocky kind of day.

Wed, December 23, 2009

Wednesday seemed to be as Woodstocky mellow as Tuesday, with a similar mix of crowds and nothingness. Business picked up as the sun set. Folks began to ask if we gift-wrapped. Others asked for gift suggestions. There seemed to be a gentle desperation in their voices.

For those wanting something simple and literary, I pushed Alan Bennett’s witty novella, The Uncommon Reader, about the circumstances in which the current Queen Elizabeth took up the habit of reading late in life. It had never occurred to me that she was a reader, but there is no assurance that to this day she has read books; Bennett’s work is a novel, after all. And it’s deliciously funny, almost as funny as Patrick Dennis’s Auntie Mame or Terry Southern’s The Magic Christian or Stella Gibbons’s Cold Comfort Farm or any piece of paper to which Paul Rudnick now applies his pen.

It might be more satisfying to sell a seventy-five dollar picture book, but there it is more pleasurable to gift-wrap a hundred-and-twenty-eight page paperback like The Uncommon Reader.

I felt comparatively carefree in my waning days at The Golden Notebook. There wasn’t enough time for me to rack up many mistakes, though there was still a lot to learn. It had taken me two years to learn the bookselling trade of the sixties at the Doubleday shop.  My couple of weeks and the earlier two weekends spent at The Golden Notebook had sped by, as I feared they might—not at all unlike the days before Christmas at Doubleday. That evening I was not waxing nostalgically because I thought I had another day for mustering sentimentality. Little did I know what would befall me.

Abigail Thomas, local author and a ringleader of the forthcoming memoir festival, stopped by. I shared with her my new recipe: slice a pound of raw Brussels sprouts as thinly as possible and toss with a tablespoon each of olive oil and of lemon juice along with a cup of walnuts (To hell with the toasting; I always burn them) and serve as a very good and odd salad.  The conversation wasn’t all about cooking. We talked about a few books and I shared with her my favorite last line from fiction. It’s in a book I published as A Wyatt Book for St. Martin’s Press: Dodie Smith’s I Capture the Castle which Michele Slung and Susan Isaacs told me to reissue. I plucked The Golden Notebook's copy down from the shelf and read aloud to all the store: “I love you. I love you. I love you.”

Yeah, I certainly was getting sentimental on the eve of the Eve.   As above, “little did I know. . .”

Thurs, December 24, 2009

Christmas Eve, the big day at The Golden Notebook, arrived. It was to be riotously busy. Little did I know. . .

I showed up late, about noon Thursday and said,  “Barry, I don’t think you want me working here today.” And with that, I lifted my dark glasses to reveal swollen eyes that resembled a non-human species—perhaps a porpoise or toad. He suddenly seemed to be very, very busy or perhaps he was hoping I’d lower the shades and get out of The Golden Notebook. Readers are sensitive to freaks.

The night before, after whacking up the Brussels sprout salad at my kitchen counter, I whacked up root vegetables for a gratin, forgetting that a couple of years earlier I had had an allergic attack after consuming a “health” drink containing raw carrots. Something in my nose issued forth. I moved away from the cooking counter and scouted out the tissues. I rushed a couple of antihistamine tablets down past a small catch in my throat. And tears joined the other facial precipitation. I quit the kitchen. I figured if I went to bed, time would take care of me and I’d be off to the Golden Notebook for that predictably busy day. Wrong.

“No, I don’t think you should work today,” Barry said with a look that suggested zombies were fine for fiction, but not for serving the patrons of The Golden Notebook. I fled, went home, and hid out until I looked less zombie-like and there was a cover of darkness over Woodstock.

My bookselling days were at an end again.

A Note: 17 February 2010

“The Golden Notebook bookstore, Woodstock, N.Y., is up for sale. In a letter to ‘Fellow Independent Booksellers’ posted on the Bookshop Blog, co-owner Ellen Shapiro wrote that after 32 years in business, the shop is looking for a new owner.

‘This step is being taken because the illness of one of its owners makes it impossible to provide the hours and service that the community has come to expect and deserve,’ Shapiro explained. ‘Our goal is to find a buyer who will continue to maintain it as an independent bookstore.’ ”   —Shelf Awareness

And then good news:                     

Golden Notebook logoUnder the new ownership of Jacqueline Kellachan and Paul McMenemy the Golden Notebook reopened on October 29, 2010. It can be visited at 29 Tinker St, Woodstock; its news and services are available at and on Facebook: The Golden Notebook Bookstore


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