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Beers Books, A Sac-Town Treat
In honor of Tin House’s on-going Buy a Book, Save a Bookstore campaign, this is the first in, what we’d like to be, an ongoing series in which writers and staff members reminisce about some of the bookstores that have impacted their lives. Below, Lance Cleland discusses his tenure at Sacramento’s Beers Books:
After graduating from UCSB, I landed in Sacramento with a degree in English and a bad case of whatthefuckdoIdonows. Not having bolstered my resume with impressive summer internships, I found the job market bleak, and in some cases downright seedy (I had some romantic notions about taking on work at a by-the-hour motel, but got cold feet when the proprietor asked about tetanus shots). I was down and out in that middle class sort of way. As I wandered the city and felt sorry for myself, I came across a bookstore with a help wanted sign in the window.
As a student, I didn’t haunt bookstores. I remember going to Borders to read magazines and Walden’s to get books for school, but other than that, I stayed away from the dimly lit, overflowing dens of paperbacks I knew many of my classmates went for. It wasn’t that I didn’t like to read; I had caught the bug by then, and often finished everything on the class syllabus before the second weekend of the term. This had to do with confidence. There was something intimidating about those packed rooms with shelves full of authors I had never heard of. The people who worked in the bookshops seemed to be participating in a type of education that I was both envious and leery of. Theirs was a place for self-reliance, for taking intellectual leaps, while I was used to regurgitation and for reading what I was told.
Beers Books had been in Sacramento seventy years when I stepped in to apply for the job. The aisles were strewn thick with second generation titles, stacked in a way that made them both cumbersome and inviting. The names on the spines were a varied lot, introducing both long-out-of-print titles and familiar editions. Prices were marked by pencil on the title pages. The wall behind the register was covered from floor to ceiling with the odd ephemera they had found nestled between the pages of the books over the years. The Kinks could be heard playing throughout the store and a rather large and regal cat named Raffles ambled around with the air of entitlement that is to be found in all good bookstore cats.
I don’t recall much of the interview. I think I said Capote, the most literary name I knew, was my favorite author, but regardless, the conversation lasted the better part of the afternoon. A week later they offered me a job and I began my second education.
In the five years I spent working at Beers, I came to know the different imprints, the flawed first printings with their missing words, the facsimiles and the book-club editions. I discovered writers long out of print, the men and women who once held up mirrors to their time, no blurbs on their dust jackets, just a faded photograph and the promise of a story you had never heard before. I got to know the collectors, the cheap paperback seekers, the people who only bought books new because they wanted to be the first to crack the spine, the tale inside somehow the better for it. Most of all, I acquired a passion. Beers made me a lover of the bookstore. It made me appreciate days spent among the stacks, following an unmarked trail that leads you from one title to the next, until you land in that well-worn chair in the back of the store with the perfect book, the one you devour over the weekend and pass along to friends. This is an achievement that should be won over and over again. Sure, we can buy our books from home, click on this, check out that, but in doing so we deny ourselves a part of life. Places like Beers give us a tactile connection to books that is vital to our enjoyment of them. The smell of thousands of old titles warming themselves in the sun, the way the pages feel after so many different hands have moved through them, the new arrivals shelf promising something different, these are the sensory details that I have taken with me, not just from Beers, but from all of the bookstores I have been in.
I do come back to my first love though. I make it a point to visit Beers every time I return home. And there in the window, basking away on a stack of mysteries, sits Raffles, the ambassador of all narratives. Every customer gives her the time, but I like to think she still remembers my touch. She accepts my advances for a minute or two and then gives me a little love bite, letting me know it is time to move on. Down the aisles, she seems to suggest, to find something new. Even if it has been previously owned.