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John Benditt in conversation with Nancy Pearl - University Bookstore Wednesday, February 25th, 7:00pm
Annie Bloom’s Books
There’s a philosophy in feng shui that the condition of your basement radically dictates the condition of your whole house. The basement being foundational, with energy moving upward. The theory goes that if your basement is messy, cluttered, dim and cold, then it produces stagnated chi (i.e., bad juju) for everything above it. You can’t be successful, happy, healthy. This is what I’m thinking about as I stand in the subterranean guts of Annie Bloom’s Books in the Multnomah Village neighborhood of Portland, OR. Some feng shui master somewhere is puking in her grave.
Directly above me via a set of creaky wooden stairs is the Annie Bloom’s that customers know: blue carpet, neatly shelved books, and calligraphy signs designating sections like “Fiction,” “Judaica,” and “Self-Help,” that were hand-painted by Employee #1. There’s one of those “Staff Favorites” tables that authors long for their books to land on, and greeting cards and CDs and even a bookstore cat, Molly Bloom.
The store is well-lit, cheerful, calm. Down where I am, in the vast underbelly, is where inventory is received and overstock is stored. It’s where books are entered into and tracked with a software program so ancient it – I shit you not – uses DOS. The floor is concrete. The ceiling is exposed beams and wires – but not in the cool, industrial loft way – lined with fluorescent lights. There are tables and desks and file cabinets and haphazardly stacked books and boxes and office supplies. A life-sized cutout of Stephen Colbert points towards the tiny bathroom, for whatever desperate customers really can’t wait until they get home.
Down here is where the store’s book buyer sits at a desk overflowing with catalogues and ARCS and stacks of paper. Anyone shorter than his 6’6” frame would drown amid the clutter. Two feet away from him sits the publicity and events dude, and maybe a whole three feet away from them is the store owner. In between them all sits one of those giant wooden spools (what the hell goes on those things, anyway?) turned on its side to create a table. It is also littered with books and catalogues and file folders and random scraps of paper. That’s where they sit with the publishing reps trying to hock their wares, and that’s how the big decisions are made at Annie Bloom’s: by talking to each other. That may seem, well, obvious, but a Simon & Schuster rep says it’s actually quite rare. At many retailers, she has to talk to 10 different people in 10 different locations to get them to buy a book.
To the naked eye, the basement chaos is some sort of feng shui nightmare, making it hard to explain – energetically speaking, at least – how this small bookstore has managed to stay in business while so many others have shuttered, why its employees are basically happy and dig their jobs, even though they’re all hopelessly overqualified and predictably under-paid.
Before you head down the “hallway” toward Stephen Colbert, there is a small altar commemorating Employee #1. He’s the one who painted the calligraphy upstairs. Annie Bloom’s opened in 1978, and its first regular employee was Richard German. An elfish, perennially stoned bike advocate, Richard was known as The Unofficial Mayor of Multnomah Village. He emptied the trash and sorted through the recycling and fetched more rolls of wrapping paper when more rolls of wrapping paper needed to be fetched. He sometimes slept in the far back corner of the basement, a space so dark and dank that the only time I ventured back there was to search for the cat. Richard kept some clothes in a locker; his bike was always leaning against the wall. Three years ago, Richard was camping on the San Juan Islands when he had an aneurism and died.
Richard’s wake was held in the Irish restaurant next door. Attendees were crushed up against each other; some had to stand on the sidewalk outside and peek in. The Annie Bloom’s employees sat near the back, stunned and wondering who these people were? It’s just like a funeral, you know, to bring someone’s friends together with his family, and have each group be slightly suspicious of, and grateful for, the other.
It’s small, this shrine to Richard. It takes up no more than two feet in a 2,500 square foot basement. It includes a dirty baseball, Richard’s passport, his glasses, two packets of Emergen C, the Clive Cussler novel he was reading before he died, and a small tattered black address book. The first page is for “Personal Information.” For his permanent address, Richard had handwritten that of Annie Bloom’s.
So maybe that feng shui master isn’t really puking her guts out. Maybe she rolls her eyes in feigned disgust, but deep down inside she knows perfectly well why this big-ass mess works.
Liz Prato is a 4-time Pushcart Nominee, winner of the Minnetonka Review Editor’s Prize, runner-up for the 2007 Juked Fiction Prize, and winner of the 2005 Berkeley Fiction Review’s Sudden Fiction Competition. Her stories and essays have been published in over 2 dozen magazines, literary journals and anthologies.
Karen Shepard will be reading at Annie Bloom’s Books this evening at 7pm.