Have I mentioned how much alike booksellers and bartenders are? We are both usually to be found behind counters, those fortresses from which we cannot escape. It’s a truism that part of being a bartender is dealing with garrulous drunks. But did you ever guess that booksellers are also subject to this sort of unasked-for assault? It’s my pet theory that some time in the afternoon, when the barkeeps can stand it no longer, they finally kick the poor drunks out. The drunks then immediately head for the nearest bookstore. Not the Barnes & Noble.no. A large, busy store would not have the necessary trappings. Besides, a large, busy bookstore has no compunctions about kicking people out.
No, the place for a drunk to go is a nice, quiet used book store.
Do not misunderstand me. I’m not talking about young, belligerent drunks here. They pick fights and would never think of confiding in a bookseller or even entering a bookstore. I’m talking about people who are old enough (though they don’t have to be all that old) and smart enough (though they don’t need to be that smart) to realize the wrecks they’ve made of their lives. These are the people who need to feel the importance, if only for a little while, that even a single listener can convey.
It is understood by all drunks that we booksellers have no other duties than to listen to other people’s troubles. We have no troubles of our own. In fact, were it not for the gracious drunk who comes in to keep us company, we would be splayed out with our feet on the counter, reading comic books or falling asleep on duty.
So the drunks believe they are doing us a favor, no doubt. What could be as interesting as, say, an incoherent account of the flying saucer you might have seen twenty years ago? Or the wife (a saint or a bitch on alternate days) who no longer lives with you? Or the bright prospects you once saw before you like a castle blazing in the sun, a castle you could never reach, a castle that has crumbled into dust?
Even with that all said, I have to add that I like drunks, I really do. I like them and pity them when probably the last thing they need is pity. I should know because for many years I was a drunk myself, staggering up and down the streets of Chicago, just wishing someone would listen to my own sad story.
I haven’t had a drink for 20 years now, and as a result I have fewer sad stories to relate. So when drunks enter my shop, fairly sloshing over with spirits, I usually do give them some of my time. I smile and try to make the smile genuine, the smile of the affable listener they seek. I know I’m not helping them any, but maybe they’ll at least feel that somebody does find that flying saucer story (the one they can’t quite remember as something real or something seen in the strangest dream) pretty interesting, after all. They have to feel just a little bit important, don’t they, if they can ever hope for (or I can hope for them) a point in time when they at last do find the strength to stop their long, slow, very public suicide?