Short Fiction for Guests of the WordFeeder
Saturday, January 2, 2010
Inspired by my favorite corner bookstore.
“Hey, babe,” Toby Cooper looked up to see his wife, Amanda, and their three year old son, Nathan, on their way in. “Close the door, will you?”
Toby was the third generation owner of “My Family’s Bookstore” that had been there on the corner for what seemed like forever. It was and had always been an ethnic neighborhood, a place where people from somewhere else came on their way to making something more of themselves. Amidst all this change, My Family’s Bookstore was one of the few constants.
Whatever their origins or reasons, just having made it this far was proof of their motivation, of character and commitment which, by and large, would serve them well. Toby’s great-grandfather was no exception. He began waiting tables and eventually managed a prominent local restaurant until he retired. It was his son, Toby’s grandfather, the first of his family to go to college in a time when not everyone did, who started the bookstore. When he retired, his son, Toby’s father, took over, expanding the store into their building’s second floor, growing the business for Toby who came to work there full-time after he graduated. And now, with the untimely death of his father a few years ago, the store was Toby’s. He was young, but ready. It was a bookstore he had been born to run.
“Hi, Daddy!” Nathan was so excited, his dark brown curly hair bouncing as he trotted around the big old desk in his father’s office to give Toby a hug. Climbing up on Toby’s lap, he would pay attention, shaking his head up and down, left and right sometimes, touching the papers on his father’s desk as if he understood what was happening. The three of them lived in the loft apartment on the fourth and top story of the building. The bookstore was on the first two floors, and kept its supplies and extra inventory in the basement. The third floor was divided into two apartments that were rented. It was a good, sturdy building, the kind about which people like to say, “They don’t make them like that anymore.”
Amanda held on to the brass knob when she pushed the door shut so that its frosted glass panel didn’t rattle too much when it hit the frame. “What’s up?”
“Hold on.” He picked the phone and pressed the 2. “Hey. ..Yeah. Would you mind taking care of Nathan for a while? ..Thanks.” A few seconds later, the sound of Carol jogging up the wooden steps that ran next to the office let them know the was coming.
“Hey, Nathan!” she almost shouted, bursting through the door the way she did that always made him laugh.
“Hey!” Nathan was glad to see her. “What’s up?” It was a question he always asked, regardless of the circumstances.
Lifting his son up, sitting him on the edge of his desk, Toby asked for a favor. “Hey. Would you mind hanging out with Carol for a while?”
“Stay close and do what you can to help her.”
He nodded his agreement, squirmed out of Toby’s hands and hopped onto the floor, running over to grab Carol’s outstretched hand, and they were off to do stuff. The fact was, Nathan was remarkably helpful, holding books when she stocked the shelves, counting the inventory, two of these, three of those. He’d learned to say, “Welcome to ‘My Family’s Bookstore,’” and “Can I help you?” to customers, looking way up at them, playing with his fingers while he said it. It took a while for him to say, but always made them feel good about shopping there. He was only a little kid, but he knew what he was doing. If the customer needed help, one of the staff would step in, but take Nathan with them from shelf to shelf to the register, and then to hold his finger on the knot of the ribbon if there was something to wrap. It would be his store one day, if he wanted it, and if it was still there to give him.
Back in the relative quiet of Toby’s office, Amanda could read the stress on her husband’s face. “You talked to Jimmy.” It wasn’t a question. Jimmy had been the store’s accountant for more than decade now.
“Yeah. He doesn’t think we’re going to make it.”
“What does he know?”
“He knows a marginal business when he sees it. There’s just…” and he stopped, interrupted by a rap on the door. “Come in.”
“Hi, Mr. Morales,” the part-time handyman they’d hired a few weeks ago. He was a good looking man in his early 70s, with a strong face and determined eyes that seemed out of place and made you wonder what they had seen that made them that way. As far a Toby knew, Mr. Morales had lived in the community for most of his life – although his Mexican accent was still evident, as was often the case with older immigrants who came here as adults. A pleasant, very effective man, they’d hired him to keep the store in shape, to make the little repairs their landlord wouldn’t. “Good morning.”
“Is it okay if I replace the plug on your floor lamp,” he asked, glancing toward to corner of the room, away from the windows, that was darker than it should have been.
“Uh, sure. Go ahead.”
“I’ll just be a minute,” he responded, reaching into the pocket of his jeans to take out the new plug, a small tool bag in his other hand. “Mrs. Cooper,” he smiled politely.
“Good morning,” she responded. “..Nice job on the shelves, by the way.”
He didn’t answer, but turned and waved back to accept her compliment.
Toby rolled his chair under the desk, putting both his forearms down, interlocking his fingers as he leaned closer to Amanda who was sitting in the small, worn corduroy wing chair that was her favorite. Kicking off her shoes, she curled her legs under and crossed her arms. (“Life’s too short, her mother used to tell her, “not to be comfortable.”)
“It’s.. It’s the same thing we’ve been talking about for months,” Toby said softly. “We just don’t have the space to do enough business, or the volume to get competitive pricing from our distributors. We do more for our customers, but…,” he tilted his head slightly and stopped to breathe, “these aren’t wealthy people. They’re not going to pay a premium for service, and nobody, nobody waits anymore for us to order something they can find on the shelf at one of the big stores. If they can’t hold it and read the first couple of pages, they might as well buy it on-line. And why..,” he shrugged the one shoulder and raised his eyebrows, “why keep coming back if they can’t find something they want.”
“Hey,” she reassured him, “We’ll do the best we can, for as long as we can. …How ‘bout if I look for another location? I know you don’t want to move, but…”
“I don’t. This is our neighborhood. If anything, we should have the advantage here because these are our people. What makes you think we’ll survive or do better someplace else?” And then he reconsidered, tired of denying the inevitable. “..But you’re right. We do need to start looking. I don’t think our new landlord’s going to give us any choice. See what we can afford. Just ..start close. Maybe we can at least keep our apartment.”
“How about if we keep this place, but open a second and then eventually a third store to get our volume up? Maybe stores with different specialties? I could run one with nothing but arts and entertainment books, you know, lots of the big ones people like to leave out on their coffee tables.” She was playing with him a bit, but wasn’t kidding. “Seriously. Think about it. This store would be our headquar…”
The door was still open from when Mr. Morales had come in, but Joyce knocked on the frame anyway just to be polite. “Sorry, but I need some help.”
“Sure,” Toby looked over at his manager standing in the doorway, waiving her in. “What do you need?”
In she came, but not alone. “Toby, this is Aleshia,” a little girl, seven or eight years old. “She would like to buy this book,” Joyce explained, holding it up.”
“Hm. I didn’t know we carried that.”
“We don’t, …and she only has one dollar to spend.”
The little girl held it out, the dollar, to show it to him.
Toby looked at Amanda, and back at Joyce. “No kidding? ..Hey, Aleshia. That’s a great book. Did you turn the pages? Do you think it’s something you can read?”
“Yes, Sir,” she answered timidly, standing close to Joyce for protection. “My mother and father will help me if I have any trouble.”
“Are they with you?”
“No,” she shook her head, “They have to work. I stopped by on my way home from school.”
“Well, okay. Uh, Joyce, I believe the price of that book is 75 cents, tax included. Would you put that in a bag and offer Aleshia a fresh brownie? And Aleshia, …”
“Thank you for coming to ‘My Family’s Bookstore.’” He smiled at her, and she back to him, a broad, warm smile with lots of teeth, the kind of smile that would make Toby’s day.
“Close the door, will you Joyce. …And Joyce, make sure Aleshia gets home safely. Maybe Maura can walk with her on her way out to pick up supplies.”
“Sure thing. ..Com’on,” Joyce took Aleisha’s hand, grabbing the edge of the door behind her back on her way out.
“Bye,” Amanda waved to the little girl who looked back over her shoulder at the two of them, and at Mr. Morales standing in the corner just finishing up his work.
“Wait for me,” Mr. Morales picked up his pace to make it out before the door closed, as if he couldn’t have opened himself if he had to.
“Gracias,” Toby said to Mr. Morales’ back, doubting if he heard him.
“He speaks English, you know.”
“Yeah.” Toby had always wished he could speak Spanish. His grandfather had learned it pretty well from his customers. Just the basics, if Toby remembered correctly, but enough to get by in the neighborhood which was much more Hispanic then than now.
“And 75 cents?” She wasn’t mad, but gave him “that look” anyway. “It’s no wonder we’re not making any money.”
“What the hell. As far as I can tell, we didn’t pay for it.”
“What’s that make,” Amanda was curious, “a dozen or so books you didn’t know you had that have turned up in just the past few weeks?”
“Are you kidding? When Joyce and I did the inventory on Monday, we found 87 books we never ordered. Plus the ones we sold, that’s 121 – all them children’s classics, brand new hard cover editions of titles that have been around forever.”
“Should we call… Who should we call?”
“And what, Watson, report a case of serial ‘shopgifting’? I’m pretty sure it’s not a crime give something to a retailer.”
“Where do you think…”
“Hey,” Toby waived her question off with both hands. “We’ve got more important things to worry about. This meeting in a couple a minutes,” he checked his watch, “I don’t know what they want, but it can’t be good. Our lease is up in six months. They’ve bought our building and the two next door.”
“Even if they’re willing to let us stay, we can’t afford an increase.”
“Hey, I get it. I don’t like it, but I get it. Start looking for someplace else, in the neighborhood if poss…” Toby’s phone buzzed. “Hello. …Yeah, send them up.”
“Is that them?”
“Yeah. Let’s do this.” I was time to get himself psyched for what would likely be a difficult conversation, getting up from his chair as he heard their steps coming up the stairs. (Amanda stood up, reaching down to pull on her shoes without unlacing them.) Opening his office door, Toby stepped outside to greet them.
“Yes, but please call me ‘Toby.’”
“Thank you, Toby. I’m Maria Santos, President of Santos Development.”
“Our new landlord.”
“Yes. This is my brother, Miguel, and our attorney, David Warner – and there’s one more person that will be joining us.”
“And this is my wife, Amanda.”
“Good to meet you, Mrs. Cooper.”
“Please, have a seat,” Jacob suggested, pointing to the chairs around a small work table they’d cleared off for the meeting.
“Thank you, Toby, but we won’t be long.” Miguel was tall, and good looking, his face instantly familiar, but neither Toby nor Amanda knew why. And he was polite, “We don’t mean to interrupt your business,” but in a sincere, and not at all patronizing way.
Toby looked at Amanda, and him at here. That they weren’t staying, and had brought their attorney, wasn’t a good sign. “Can I get anyone something to drink?” Amanda asked, hoping to break the ice. “..We have some homemade brownies, still hot out of the oven?”
“Sounds tempting,” Miguel answered, “but…
“Mr. Morales?” Their handyman was standing in the doorway. “Was there,” Toby asked him, “something else you…”
Without waiting for Toby to finish, their handyman looked at Miguel and smiled. “Hello, Son.” Stepping forward, he put his hand on his son’s neck, slapping it gently instead of giving him a hug. “You look good. Thanks for flying out. We’ll catch up over lunch.” For Maria, who was standing next to Miguel, he had a kiss for her cheek. “Hi, Honey.”
“Hey, Dad.” However often they saw each other, which was a lot lately, something about him made, the way he was always glad to see her, her made her feel good when he was around. It was the way he felt about both his children. Always had, when they were little kids, and always would.
“David,” he shook hands with the attorney. “Thanks for joining us.”
“My pleasure, ‘Bearr-tow.’”
“Mr. Morales?” Toby didn’t understand.
“Mr. Cooper… Toby. I’m Berto Santos. ‘Morales’ was my mother’s maiden name, and these two beautiful children are mine.
“What happened to your accent?” Amanda wanted to know.
“I never had one. I was born here, 72 years ago, a few blocks away in the apartment of a relative where my mother stayed when she came here, pregnant, from Mexico, after my father died.
“And,” Toby was remembering the interview when he hired Mr. Morales, now Santos, “the recommendation you gave us from the law firm where you said you use to work?”
“I did work there. As an associate, then partner, and then Managing Partner until I retired a couple of years ago.”
“And now you’re a handyman?”
“My mother was a maid. It’s honorable work. Let me apologize for deceiving you. I wanted to learn, first hand, what it was like here. I just wanted to make sure you and your wife were still running the store the way your grandfather did.”
“What does my husband’s grandfather have to do..” Amanda had a question, but realized this was really between Mr. Santos and Toby.
“And the other night, when one of my staff ran into you going up the stairs into one of those really expensive townhouses on the other side of the square, the ones that have their own street that’s blocked by the chains. He said he asked if you worked there too, because it seemed like a lot, what with the work you’re doing for us, for a retired handyman to handle. And you told him not to worry, that you had help. ..That’s your house, isn’t it?”
“Hm. So what’s this all about, Mr. Santos?” Toby walked around to his chair and sat down. Amanda took his lead and curled back into her wing chair. Please,” Toby asked them, pointing to the space in front of his desk, and they pulled over three of wooden folding chairs that had been around the table.
Mr. Santos sat close to the desk, putting his right arm on it, his left hand on the edge. “My mother, their grandmother,” he added, turning toward his children for a moment, his pride evident in his expression, “eventually learned to speak and read English well, but in the beginning, Spanish was her only language and that of our relatives and the friends we made. I learned my English on the streets and when I went to school. I didn’t know about using a library, and we had no money, but I would come in this bookstore, whenever I could. At first, for the cookies your grandmother made. Little icebox cookies with walnuts, small enough that I could pop a whole one, still warm from the oven, in my mouth.”
“I have the recipe,” Amanda could smell them cooking, “if you like it.”
“Not him,” Mrs. Cooper,” Maria reached out and touched her arm, “but for me, when you have time. I’ve been hearing about those cookies my whole life.”
“He… Your grandfather would let me sit in a corner, on the first floor, under a table he made on crates and covered with books. He let me read books I couldn’t afford, helped me sound out words I couldn’t pronounce and didn’t understand. He did this for years,” Mr. Santos looked around the office, remembering the man who had been so good to him. “Your Grandfather said I could ‘borrow’ the books, and return them when I could.”
“Let me guess,” Toby was thinking out loud. “121 children’s classics?”
Mr. Santos laughed softly. “Yes. I’ve brought them back, the current editions of course. I still have the originals in my study at home. As you can see, I’m a man of my word. …When I was older, he would actually pay me a quarter if I gave him a detailed book report, 50 cents if it was written and at least 3 pages long. He made me write, in cursive, small,” he held up his hand, his thumb and first finger “this close” together, “on a yellow legal pad with narrow lines so there had to be a lot of words on the page. Sometimes, my mother would make a plate of enchiladas that he liked, and we’d eat them together in this office while we talked about the books he loaned me and others. And then I would go home and tell her, my mother, about the stories I read, what she called my “Enchilada books.” We did this, your Grandfather and me, until I left for college. After that we would write to each other, and I’d stop by now and then, with a plate of enchiladas until my mother passed away.”
“Maybe,” Amanda was wondering, “it’s a recipe I can have?”
“Of course, Mrs. Cooper,” Miguel promised her. “I’ll get it for you.”
“Well, Mr. Santos, uh ..thank you for returning the books, but that can’t be all this is about? You’re my new landlord. We all know my lease is up in six months. What exactly is it that you want to talk about?”
“I’m here to pay a debt, Mr. Cooper, to return a favor, long overdue. My son, Miguel, runs one of our companies. You may have heard of it.” Nodding to his son, Miguel gave Toby and Amanda his business cards which they read and then looked at each other.
“You’re the what,” Toby asked, moving his eyes as he made a mental list, “one of the top 10 on-line booksellers in the country?”
“Number eight,” Miguel volunteered. “..and growing. Number one for children’s books which is still our core business.”
“Here’s the favor, Mr. and Mrs. Cooper. Listen, and then take the night to think about it. If you’re interested, call Miguel. He’ll have David prepare the papers we need and make it happen. It’s simple. One: As you probably know, I’ve bought the buildings next door and this one. Under your supervision, but at my expense, Maria’s company will remodel them and grow your store into all three buildings. That’ll give you space you need to be competitive. Your new lease will be a percentage of your gross that you can afford, that rises and falls with your sales. Two: You can buy whatever books you want through our distributor relationships. We’ll provide financing, if you need it. No one buys better than we do. Same for advertising.”
“Will we have to change the name of the store?”
“No. This isn’t about buying you out. I don’t want your business. I just want your grandfather, in case he’s listening, to know I never forgot what he did for me, and for my family. If I hadn’t learned to read under your Grandfather’s table… Well, fortunately I did. And if your new store succeeds, if the model works and we open more of them in similar neighborhoods around the country, we’ll want to own those with you, the Coopers and the Santoses. ..Think about it, and call us tomorrow, even if it’s just to talk about it some more. I’m sure you’ll have questions. Call Miguel and I’ll be there too. …Com’on,” Mr. Santos told the other three, “your mother will be waiting for us. Let’s let these people get back to work.”
“Wow,” Toby and Amanda said to themselves.
Standing up, Mr. Santos reached across the desk to shake Toby’s hand. “Thank you.”
“You’re welcome, Mr. Santos. We’ll think about it,” as if there was anything to think about, “and give Miguel a call.”
…and then he turned to Amanda, shaking her hand too. “Mrs. Cooper, I’ve enjoyed working for you and your husband, but I’ll be quitting now.” He smiled. “Joyce has a list of the repairs I hadn’t gotten around to yet.” Looking back at Toby on his way out the door, “You keep what you owe me. I’ll take a couple of brownies on my way out.”
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