When her friend mentioned she needed help at her bookstore, novelist Suzanne Strempek Shea volunteered. She had just completed treatments for breast cancer and saw it as a way to return to the world. "I am now an author working in a bookstore," she says. "...Not unlike a dairy farmer hanging around the cheese shop. A fashion designer lurking in the boutique. A movie producer hunched down in the last row of the theater."
In Shelf Life, Shea takes the reader inside Edwards Books in Springfield, Massachusetts. The store occupies a space in a half-empty downtown mall. The employees and customers are drawn like characters in a novel.
There's Janet, the owner who crows out the author's presence to customers, embarrassing her at first. Janet is forty-nine, slim and "dressed daily in all black Ann Taylor."
There's Janet's seventy-seven-year-old mother, Flo, who raised six kids and now works at the store six days a week and goes "home to make some Italian specialty like polenta from scratch," then "lifts a pair of weights to stave off osteoporosis and end her day."
And there's the morning manager, Pat, whose "cool selection of earrings, many of them beaded" reflect her Native American heritage.
A year in the life of a bookstore is what you get when you pick up Shelf Life, and no two days are alike. The author makes opening up at 6:00 a.m., receiving a new shipment of books in boxes, setting up displays, and ringing up sales to lunchtime browsers sound like something we should all want to do, if only for a day.
For a writer, librarian, and book lover like me, Shelf Life is a real treat. Shea is an advocate for the independent bookstore, and we all know how they struggle to survive in this day of megastores with cappuccino bars. Edwards does not serve coffee to its customers, who don't seem to mind at all. What they get instead is personal service and recommendations from people who know them and what they like to read. They also get the morning paper and greeting cards, neither of which makes much money for the store. Some customers come in every week and even every day.
The customers, too, become characters in the hands of this novelist and memoirist. There's the man who left his dentures on the counter. And the woman who bought two copies of The Dual Disorders Recovery Book. The shy man in the self-help aisle who wants a book "on talking to, you know, women." And Bill McGregor, who works at the bank across the street but who ends each day with a chat at the store and a check to see "if there's anything new related to fly-fishing."
Shea's sense of humor is fresh and wry. She begins a chapter about the Easter season with the words, "Christ is risen. So his display must come down." Later in the chapter, she reports that "hottest were the $12.95 Bibles." She flashes back to her childhood and Mrs. Bigda who drove the bookmobile, takes us to the bookstores she visits on tour with her own novels, and remembers the libraries she visited as a high school and college student.
At her first bookstore reading for her first novel, Shea's mother and friends arrived with dozens of pierogi because, as her mother saw it, her daughter was "writing about people who were eating these things, and the least I could do was serve a few." The author's website says she can still be found about once a week at Edwards Books, behind the cash register, setting up displays, or "eating French fries from inimitable Tower Grill."
Suzanne Strempek Shea is the author of five novels, Selling the Lite of Heaven, Hoopi Shoopi Donna, Lily of the Valley, Around Again and Becoming Finola, and the memoir, Songs from a Lead-Lined Room. Her next book, Sundays in America: In Search of Christian Faith, is forthcoming in spring 2008 from Beacon Press. She lives in western Massachusetts.
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