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In The Customer's Hands

Lisa Linn Kanae

So why do you want to work in a bookstore?" the Barnes & Noble manager asked me near the end of my interview.

I didn't know how many would-be booksellers he had already spoken to that day, but I bet I could have doubled my student loan check that he had heard the phrase "because I love to read" too many times. I wanted my response to be something self-reflective, yet inclusive; something discerning, yet unpretentious; something that would bring tears to his eyes.

"This is going to sound sort of corny," I said.

He looked at his wristwatch. "Give it a shot," he said.

"There's something about holding a book in your hands," I said. "It's magical. Being aware of its spine, its construction, its physical-ness makes the world contained in that book tangible. That's why I'd rather buy a book than borrow one."

The manager sat back in his chair.

"I have a real good feeling about you," he said.

I have to admit; that last line about buying a book versus borrowing one was one hell of a strategic move on my part. I'm no idiot. I was applying for a job in retail. Still, I had had romantic notions about working in a bookstore. I pictured a cozy, well lit maze of bookshelves and musty nooks where a fellow bibliophile might stop me to say, "You look so theoretically existential in that black turtleneck." Then I'd say, "If that's what you think, than yes, I do." I'd thank him or her for the compliment; after all, wearing a turtleneck in Honolulu's 80-something degree weather affirmed my bookish bohemianosity. I'd adjust my glasses and continue alphabetizing the hours away aligning book spines in a perfect row on the shelves. First I'd read Ai, then take a much needed break at Dadaism, and eventually end my shift with Malcolm X while sipping on organic Tazo chai from a mug I had made in a pottery class — non-credit of course.

In reality, being a bookseller for Barnes & Noble provided me little time to read, let alone Dada. Granted, my alphabetizing skills were incomparable, but no one warned me about having to use Books in Print to create annotated bibliographies for Ginko biloba popping grad students who thought libraries were passé. Who knew I'd lend my shoulder to the suddenly single weeping in the self-help section? Where in my job description did it say I had to bust minors hiding Playboy in the religion section and stop vagrants from taking sponge baths in the restroom? After I was hired, my training was limited to three things: how to use Books in Print, collect money, and fetch.

During orientation, new hires were taught the golden rule of book selling; never ever point the customer towards the book. Always accompany him or her to the appropriate section, pull the book from the shelf and place it in to the customer's hands. My pithy interview response about "holding a book" resulted in irony. I actually had spent more time pointing antsy customers toward the public restroom or re-shelving "spit backs" -- magazines, newspapers, and books that customers, who had no intention of buying a damn thing, left on café tables, chairs and the floor.

A bookseller's "related job duties," I had rationalized, was my way of paying my dues. I wanted to be a writer writing, what, I had no idea then, but I was determined to someday find my name on one of those book spines, hardcover preferably. Since I was an English undergrad, I was certain I had a sense of what people would or should want to read. In time, I learned to bite my metaphorical tongue when customers would say, with great seriousness, "where's Rodman's book?" or "I can't remember the title, but the author talks to dead people," or "is the cover of Monica Lewinsky's book really black?"

There was one customer who asked me, "where's that disc jockey's book?"

I took one look at his mullet hair cut and told him, "You mean that guy on TV? He always has strippers on his show, right?"

"Hookers too," the customer said. "Real hot babes."

"You'll find Stern's book with the rest of the New York Times bestsellers near the front of the store," I said pointing to the appropriate shelf. I wasn't about to escort a customer who referred to Howard Stern's book as bootilicious. Thank God Stern's book was in stock. On certain days, I suspected there had been a secret society of anti-bibliophiles who purposely asked for titles the store didn't carry.

For five consecutive Friday nights, a customer, whom I dubbed Sir Thespian, entered the store wearing wingtip shoes, ivory slacks, and a bright knit polo shirt — collar turned up to cover the back of his neck. He wore a cable-knit cardigan like a cape with the sleeves tied loosely at his chest. "Somebody should tell that dude the 80s are over," one of my fellow booksellers said as we watched Sir Thespian linger in the foyer as if he were anticipating the paparazzi. He looked like an aging tennis pro ala Jack Lord: tanned, sun rugged complexion, sturdy square jaw, and L'Oreal black hair with waves of gray at his temples.

I never saw Sir Thespian with the same woman, and all of his dates fit one profile: Asian, early-twenties, alluring, and dressed in Versace' or DKNY something or other. Most of the women were about two inches shorter than my five foot two frame, even if they wore stiletto pumps, and Sir Thespian was about two inches or so taller than me. Sounding vaguely like Sir Anthony Hopkins, who sounded vaguely like Sir Richard Burton, Sir Thespian asked for the most esoteric textbook titles on monologue, soliloquy, method acting, sensory technique, emotional memory, and the like, all of which the bookstore never had in stock

One evening, as it was with every Sir Thespian cameo, he swaggered up to the information desk with his date toddling behind him and asked me to find a book — I can't even remember the title now — that wasn't listed on the store's inventory.

"How can you not carry blah blah blah on such and such?" was all I remember him saying.

I knew how to spell the word 'gasp,' but I had never heard anyone actually do it. Sir Thespian definitely gasped, turned to his date and said, "Why am I surprised? Dilettante theatre — that's the extent of performance art in Honolulu."

He obviously performed these hissy fits complete with gurgled "r" to impress his date, but this particular woman rolled her eyes.

"Why don't you let me order it for you this time?" I said. "We don't seem to have it."

"Seems? Nay, it is. I know not seems," he said grinning at his date, who was busy pushing back her cuticles.

"I can understand why you don't carry yada yada yada or la la la," he said to me. "After all, only the most serious students of yada yada la la need those books, but blah blah blah by such and such? My gawd girl!" he gasped again, "such and such is the guru of experimental mime."

I said nothing and shrugged my shoulders.

His date yawned.

She broke away and scurried over to the magazine section where she thumbed through a copy of Elle. Since she split in the middle of his swan song, Sir Thespian untied the sleeves of this cable knit cape and draped it over one arm.

"The book will only take three weeks to get here," I told him.

"Thank you ever so much for putting up with me," he whispered. "Maybe next time."

He lumbered over to the magazine section, pulled a copy of Variety off the rack, and sat at a café table while his date plucked the perfume sample inserts out of Mademoiselle.

If I wasn't hunting for the last copy of Mutant Messages from Down Under, I was answering the phone at the information desk. When the Sesame Street character, Elmo, was to make a guest appearance in the children's section, I answered a phone call from a woman who demanded I make an appointment for her daughter to meet with him. I thought the call was a prank, so I laughed.

"What's so funny?" the woman asked. Her voice was as airy and hollow as the popular red puppet's voice.

"Elmo can't come to the phone right now," I said suppressing a giggle, "can I —uh — Can Elmo friend take message?"

"What don't you understand?" the woman asked. "My daughter wants to meet with Elmo."

"Is this Chris?" I said. "Get off the break room phone you dork."

I was tempted to say in my best Elmo impersonation, "Have your people contact Elmo's people," but when Chris walked up to the info desk, I knew I was screwed.

"Excuse me," the woman said. "Many children will be competing for Elmo's attention. I want him to meet with my daughter. Alone."

"I'm sorry for being so insensitive," I told the woman. "Would you mind holding for a minute?" I pressed the hold button, ducked down behind the info desk and unleashed a satisfying laugh.

What I really wanted to tell her was that Elmo had already arrived a week ago via UPS in a trunk that was reinforced with brass corners and a polyester strap. Some poor bookseller, most likely a short, skinny one, was scheduled to step in to the red shag carpet suit, slide his or her head in to the hollow round that was to be Elmo's head and stroll through the store for a half hour waving like a happy idiot.

Wearing the costume, I had experienced once, is akin to slipping in a personalized sauna. Synthetic fur just doesn't breathe. Children spill cocoa or smear snot on the suit. They trip, punch, kick, tackle, and love the character — to death. Seeing out of the Elmo head (or the Cat in the Hat head, the Pooh head, and the Clifford head) is problematic. The range of vision is limited to the two screen covered holes that make up the character's eyes. Elmo can't see a four foot child unless that child is at least four feet away in front of Elmo.

Not only is the bookstore Elmo visually challenged, the bookstore Elmo is also mute. The 'real' Elmo only talks on TV because a professional Muppeteer's hand moves Elmo's mouth. Unless this woman happened to have a personal Muppeteer lying around her living room, her daughter was going to spend quality time with red fuzz and foam rubber. She might as well have invited the neighborhood's collection of carpet remnants for a slumber party or offered to take the kitchen café curtains on a trip to the zoo.

I regained my composure and released the hold button.

"I'm sorry," I said, "We aren't taking reservations, but don't let that stop you from visiting the store."

"Whatever," the woman said and then I heard dial tone.

Puppet groupies, seekers of booty, nay-sayers -- the bookstore attracted all sorts. There was one woman who had spent at least five hours one morning roaming the aisles without ever picking up a book. I had noticed her earlier that day. She had a striking head of white hair shaped into a long shag — sort of like Edgar Winter's hair, only fuller. She looked to be Chinese maybe, almond complexion, about sixty years old. Purple caftan and a pair of rattle snake skin boots; she was hard to miss, but I didn't pay much attention to her once I started loading an L-cart — a smaller version of a hand trunk — with romance novels I was suppose to shelve. As I pushed the L-cart pass the horror section, I realized that the woman was following me. What was even stranger was the way she'd narrow and bat her eyes. I looked up at the ceiling expecting to find an air conditioner duct spewing dust or cold air on to her head, but all I saw was the etched portrait of Edgar Allen Poe glaring back at me from a store column.

I pulled my L-cart down the romance aisle as she stalked me making sure she kept a distance of about two yards. When I parked the cart, she maundered in about three feet away from me near the Danielle Steel novels and started skimming through the book spines on the shelf. She'd sporadically glanced at the L-cart and then at me. I figured she was too embarrassed to ask for one of the romance novels I was about to shelve. But then she turned to squint at me for what seemed like a very uncomfortable two minutes, so I squinted too.

"Can I help you?" I asked her.

She lifted her right hand to her face as if someone were aiming a flashlight at her eyes.

"If you're looking for Malice, I've got a copy here," I said looking through the stack of books on my cart.

"You're a Leo, aren't you?" she said to me.

I was stunned.

"That's pretty good," I told her.

"I knew it!" she said clapping her hands. "I took one look at you, and I said to myself, she is a," she paused, fanned her hands out in a circular motion and said,

"Sun sign."

She stepped in closer. I maneuvered the L-cart between us.

"You are surrounded by an intense yellow and orange light," she said. "I can't even look at you for long. Just like the sun. You hurt my eyes."

For a while, I rather enjoyed being told I was as bright as the sun. But isn't that just like a Leo — vain, self-absorbed, a real sucker for a compliment. I don't have a psychic vibe in my body, but I knew she'd be trouble. One look at her dream catcher earrings told me she couldn't be trusted.

"Who owns this store?" she asked. "Your father?"

I laughed. I'm an ethnic mixture of Hawaiian, Chinese, Japanese, and Filipino. I'd have a hard time passing for a Barnes, let alone a Noble.

"No really," she said. "You are a natural born leader. You could own this store if you wanted to."

"I don't think so," I said giggling. "So, uh, what else do you see?"

"Your aura tells me that you will be very successful. You are dynamic, passionate, intelligent, kind, and," she paused to look up at the ceiling as if the light fixtures were sending her telepathic signals, "you will be rich and famous someday." How strange, I thought to myself, those words seemed so, well, familiar, and yet, there was one small snag. I had already read my horoscope in Vogue, Harper's Bazaar, Marie Claire, and Vanity Fair, and none of their charts said anything about me being kind. I went back to shelving romance novels.

"You are destined to do big things. Big!" she said. "I can see your future."

"You're psychic too," I said.

"Auras, palms, tarot, numerology, crystals, séance, channeling, automatic writing, income taxes — I do it all," she said.

"Then tell me something," I whispered.

I picked a Danielle Steel paperback off of the shelf and held it out in front of her.

"You see this lady?" I said.

The woman lifted her hand to her face and squinted violently.

"Oh her aura is bright too," the woman said. "Very very bright."

"It says on the back of this book," I whispered, "that this woman has sold 410 million copies of her novels, and that everyone reads Danielle Steel."

The woman nodded.

"So, what do you think?" I said. "Will I be the next Danielle Steel?"

The question was a rhetorical one of course, but enquiring minds wanted to know.

The woman slid her hand in to her jeans pocket and pulled out a business card.

"Make an appointment," she said handing me the card. "Only twenty-five dollars for the first hour. Ten for any additional hours. That's cheap these days. I'm not getting any more messages about you right now. Must be the lady on the book. Her aura is blocking yours."

That did wonders for my morale. I didn't have anything against romance novels. Escapism is a healthy excuse for broadening one's vocabulary to include words like "heaving" and "supple." But how was I supposed to be the next Colette or Dorothy Parker if my aura could be eclipsed by the likes of Steel? I didn't dare show my new psychic friend a copy of Fabio's novel.

"You cannot solicit your services in this store," I told the woman.

"I could change your life," she said.

"Believe me," I said. "You already have."

I put the novel back on the shelf, pushed my L-cart back to the storeroom where I suffered from yet another "maybe-it's-time-to-apply-for-law-school" moment. About a half hour later, when I walked back on to the floor, I saw the woman following the store manager towards the exit. She squinted all the way out the door.

It didn't take long for me to realize that what sold well was never an indication of what was written well. I might as well have worked at the Gap or the Sunglass Hut: retail was retail was retail. At the same time, I knew I'd get fired if I had to push Hello Kitty cell phone cases or moisture infusing shampoo. "Oh save your money," I'd say to a customer. "Who the hell needs a botanicals and olive oil hydrating masque blended by indigenous Guatemalan women anyway? It's not like you're basting a donkey." But a book? I could sell a book, even if I had to contend with a few bookstore regulars who had no intention of buying one.

A bent, elderly wisp of a man named Earl was a regular customer who frequented the cook book alcove, and he wasn't interested in Pacific Rim cuisine. He had permanent dibs on one of the two overstuffed arm chairs in the section. When the doors opened at 9:00 a.m., Earl shuffled into the store carrying a tattered duffle bag. He greeted all the booksellers by name, especially the women since he was an incurable flirt. "Good morning, Tina. I thought you were off today, Gail? How was your day off, Lynn? Didn't you close last night, Lisa?" We'd wave back and then ignore him since he would spend several hours napping in the comfy chair. Once 5:00 p.m. rolled around, Earl left the armchair, zipped up his duffle bag and shuffled out the store.

One would think that a congenial old man like Earl couldn't possibly be a pain in the ass, but he had a habit of interrupting staff with attempts to make small talk while they were trying to get work done. One morning, while I was busy shelving an entire L-cart of cookbooks, I saw Earl shuffle towards me. Since I knew he'd want to chat, I decided to stare at a copy of The Joy of Cooking. "Joy" isn't necessarily the word I'd use to describe the act of cooking, but I was desperate. I wanted to avoid Earl.

"You look very busy this morning Miss Lisa," Earl said interrupting my attempt to memorize a stuffed cabbage recipe.

"What do you think about this weather we've been having lately?" he asked.

I thought Honolulu's weather was about as predictable as my attitude towards cabbage in general. It never changed. Why bother asking. But since Earl looked to be about eighty years old, I couldn't bring myself to be impolite.

"Pleasant," was all I said to him as he stared at my breasts.

"I understand you Oriental gals make great wives," Earl said noticing the book I was holding. "You need a good husband to take care of."

I had needed a good husband like I needed an abacus, but all I could do was smile, nod, and alphabetize.

Comments like, "your slip is showing," "that neckline is lovely on you" or "you look like you could use a back rub" grew to be a little annoying after awhile, especially when I was combing the self-help section for the last copy of The Road Less Traveled for a less than patient customer carrying a bottle of St.John's Wort.

I couldn't decide what was more annoying: Earl's guilt free licentiousness or the guilt I suffered from because he was obviously old and poor. Since he had spent the majority of his day sleeping in the cookbook alcove, I wasn't sure if Earl had a home. It wasn't my place to ask, but I imagined him to be a vagrant or church charity case. On Sunday mornings, he'd show up wearing a baby blue leisure suit blessing everyone like some evangelist from Three's Company, but during the rest of the week, he dressed in what looked like Goodwill giveaways. Sure, he was a dirty old man, but it was the "old" part that rapped my knuckles, so to speak, whenever I envisioned the possibility of him hobbling at a crosswalk or watching the TV weather report in a shelter.

If Earl wasn't asleep or ogling women, he was copying quotations from Bartlett's and proverbs from the Bible onto the backs of crumpled fliers or scratch paper that he would stuff in to his duffle bag at the end of the day. He had elegant cursive — sharp letters of equal height written within straight margins. He told me he had plans to publish his collection someday. He wasn't loitering; he was doing research. He even helped collect spit backs and occasionally scolded customers who had left half eaten bagels or empty drinking glasses on the table in his cook book alcove.

One morning, Earl tried to return a hard cover coffee table book.

"I didn't know you were interested in Harley Davidsons," I said trying to lift the book off of the cashier counter.

"It was a gift," he said.

It was a common scam; steal a book from another store or buy a bargain book for cheap and then try to exchange it for cash. Earl was able to get cash for his motorcycle book, and he bought himself a mug of Starbucks and a bowl of soup. When he tried to pull the same con a few days later, management refused the return, and Earl eventually stopped coming in to the store. A woman we called Rat Lady — a petite fantasy fanatic who wrinkled her nose while she blathered on about dragons and mice armed with swords -- had already moved into Earl's armchair by the time I realized he wasn't showing up anymore. He was like that old tree that no one paid attention to until it got cut down.

"You seen Earl lately?" I asked one of the other booksellers.

"Earl who?" she said. "I'm kidding. Maybe he's at Borders."

"Traitor," I said.

I imagined him lying in an alley behind a Borders Books and Music — a stolen Bartlett's splayed open on his chest; duffle bag ripped open, scraps of paper strewn over the sidewalk. What if he had had a stroke? Or tripped and broke a hip bone? I wondered if he had family, or even better, a trust fund. I pictured his safe-deposit box bulging with gold bullion and Mark Twain aphorisms scribbled onto promissory notes and Swiss francs. What if he lived in one of those million dollar Kahala mansions up the street from the store? At least that's what I had wished for him; a comfortable home where he could obsess over a book that would never get published. Maybe that's why I cared about Earl. He was, in a way, like me: an aspiring author, an earnest wannabe. I never saw him again, but his infamy paralleled the fictional characters surrounding what was once his comfy armchair. He had a name, a place in time, and an open-ended conclusion that had left me wiser for the wondering.

Barnes & Noble was never meant to be just a bookstore. It fostered community, culture, literacy, and sex. On weekend nights, the store transformed into the thinking person's meat market. Espresso shots took the place of tequila. Customers preferred peppermint ginseng tea over Long Island iced tea. Standard pick-up lines like "haven't we met before?" or "I bet you're a Libra" changed to "have you tried Erica Jong?" or "I bet you do The Utne Reader." Art Deco fixtures and Chopin drifting from the PA system displaced the mirrored disco ball rotating to Funkytown. The reclining female nude painted on black velvet displayed behind everyman's bar was swapped for a Mark Summers "scratchboard" portrait of Amy Tan.

On Friday nights, whenever I was assigned to stand behind the information counter, I'd watch the players arrive. The magazine section was the barrel in which one could shoot fish. All one had to do was pretend to be immersed in the pages of a magazine and wait for the right person to inadvertently bump. "Excuse me," followed by "you read that often?" was exchanged, and the rest of the conversation would take care of itself. Choice of periodical was a demonstration of one's personal interests and professional status. If one's face was buried in The New Yorker or Harper's, one was considered the well-read metropolitan. The already coupled and content read People magazine since they had no one to impress. In the Barnes & Noble singles scene, connecting with a prospective partner not only depended upon literacy; good taste in reading material was as important as coming from a socially prominent family or attending the right college, which had to have been better than, say, waking up with a hangover next to someone who doesn't know the difference between "lain" or "laid."

One Friday night, near closing, there were a dozen or so customers left lingering in the aisles. It was time for the Good evening Barnes & Noble shoppers. It is now 10:45 p.m., and we will be closing in fifteen minutes announcement given over the PA system. The announcement, which was the passive aggressive form of "we want to go home," ended with the much-anticipated "mahalo for shopping at Barnes & Noble."

That night, before we closed the doors, I had to fulfill restroom duty. I pushed the women's restroom door open and saw two pairs of feet — a pair of Air Jordan's and a pair of red platforms — in the gap between the floor and the wall of the handicap stall.

"Excuse me," I said to the feet. "We're closing."

Both pairs of feet levitated and disappeared.

I was in no mood for handicap stall sleaze. I had just spent eight hours at the information desk responding to customers like the woman who had screamed, "How many times do I have to tell you; I don't know the title. All I know is that the cover is blue."

"Are you sure it isn't beige?" I said. "That might help me narrow the possibilities here."

"Neeyoh, I said ba-loo. And I think the word "love" is in the title."

"Love? Well why didn't you say so in the first place?" I said.

"Borders has the book," the woman yelled. "Why don't you?"

Then there was the observant young man who had asked me, "Why isn't there a clock in this store?" I looked at my watch and told him "it's about nine o'clock."

"I didn't ask you for the time," he said. "I asked you why there weren't any clocks in this store," and then he walked away.

An equally young and observant woman stopped me in the history section and asked, "Why isn't there a Xerox machine in this store?" I figured I might as well tell her the truth, since it was the stupidest question I had heard that night.

"Because," I said speaking slowly, "we . . . want . . . you . . . to buy . . . the book."

"That's the lamest excuse I've ever heard," she said. "You obviously don't want to spend money on a copier."

She had a point.

Then the infamous president of MENSA, who found perverse pleasure in pointing out the fact that I was not a member of MENSA, had asked me "do you speak English?"

"As a matter of fact," I said, "I do."

"I reserved the cookbook alcove for our MENSA meeting," she said pointing to the customers sitting in the comfy chairs. "Can you tell me what those people are doing there?"

"Reading cookbooks," I said.

She was not impressed with my dazzling display of logic.

Eight hours of this nonsense can push a humble bookseller to the brink of hostility, so when the couple in the handicap stall tried to hide their feet, I rapped my knuckles on the restroom wall.

"Listen," I yelled. "I'm going to count to three and walk out of this restroom. Then, I'm going to count to ten, and when I come back, I expect to find you — both of you — gone.

The feet gradually reappeared.

"One." I crossed my arms over my chest.

"Two." I took one last look at the handicap stall.

"Three. I'm leaving now," I said and walked out.

I returned to the information desk without any intention of counting to ten. I should have been finding books for that couple, not finding them in the restroom making out. To my surprise a girl, who looked to be about thirteen trying to be twenty, took all of ten seconds to teeter out of the restroom. She hadn't yet mastered the precarious art of walking in platform shoes, but she semi-sashayed down the wide center aisle of the bookstore anyway, as if she were a fledgling Naomi or Cindy working the catwalk. She didn't seem embarrassed. She smiled — more like gloated -- as she adjusted her halter, yanked the hem of her black, Lycra mini skirt, and paraded out the door. Half of me wanted to congratulate her, and the other half of me wanted to slap her silly.

About four seconds later, her partner in handicap stall crime, Mr. Air Jordan's, skulked down the center aisle with his baseball cap visor worn low to hide his eyes. He looked to be about thirteen years old as well -- baggy cargo pants, a Chicago Bulls jersey about two sizes too big draped over a pair of shoulders hunched over with guilt. When he finally reached the foyer, he sprinted out the door.

I checked the handicap stall and found The Joy of Sex, special edition with photo illustrations, on the Koala Kare diaper changing station. I picked up the sex manual by pinching it at one corner and said to myself, it ain't exactly D.H. Lawrence, but at least it's a book.

On April 5, 1997, while driving to work, I heard a radio announcer say that Allen Ginsberg had finally died of stomach cancer. The last time I cried over the death of a celebrity was when Jim Henson, creative genius of The Muppets, passed away in 1990 of pneumonia. All I knew about Henson was Kermit the Frog, Ernie, the "Ma Nah, Ma-Nah" puppets, and the movies Dark Crystal and Labyrinth, and yet, I cried as if I had known Henson intimately. Like Henson, all I knew about Allen Ginsberg was through what he had created.

Ginsberg's poetry was the topic of conversation for the rest of the night. There wasn't a bookseller in the store, probably in the nation, who hadn't read "Howl" or "Sunflower Sutra" at some point in his or her life, which reminded me of why most of us worked in a bookstore. Sometimes the job seemed like just another retail position from hell, but for the most part, the booksellers I had worked with really did love to read.

I felt Ginsberg's presence in the store that evening — not ghostly mumbo jumbo. A bearded apparition sitting in lotus position didn't haunt the poetry section. Instead, like magic, he had gone from living legend to immortal in a matter of a few hours. His ability to transform cynicism and disillusionment into music made me look around the store and wonder if Ginsberg would enjoy observing the crazies roaming the aisles. I think he would.

Right before closing, I told the manager that we had to acknowledge Ginsberg's death. Maybe I was being a bit melodramatic, but he agreed. After he gave the closing announcement over the PA system, he read the first few lines of what is probably considered the most recognizable poem in contemporary American literature.

I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness, starving hysterical naked, dragging themselves through the Negro streets at dawn looking for an angry fix,
angelheaded hipsters burning for the ancient heavenly connection to the starry dynamo in the machinery of night,
who poverty and tatters and hollow-eyed and high sat up smoking in the supernatural darkness of cold-water flats floating across the tops of cities contemplating jazz

At closing time, there were always a few customers who were either too engaged with reading material or too comfortable to get up out of the armchairs. We never asked them to leave; we'd trudge around the store yawning loudly or whistling Aloha `Oe while collecting empty coffee mugs and used napkins. As far as they were concerned, we were invisible, but the truth was these people had no where else to go.

In retail, the customer is always right, and the salesperson is always nothing but a salesperson. The roles rarely shift, bend, or blur. But on the night of Ginsberg's death, while the store manager read the first few lines of Howl, the hierarchy that separates customer from bookseller vanished. We, all of us who had heard Ginsberg's words over the PA system, left the nooks, the cook book alcove, the music section, the L-carts, the café, and gathered in the center aisle of the store where we became listeners.

When the manager finished reading, there was no applause, no hoots, no wiseass remarks, only silence. The dozen or so customers who heard the poem brought whatever they had been reading to the information desk and filed quietly out the front door.

One girl, maybe fifteen years old, stopped in front of me.

"I know you want to go home," she said, "but could you help me find that poem?"

"Sure," I said. "Come with me."

We walked to the poetry section, and I pulled a trade paperback edition of Howl off the shelf and placed it in her hands.

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