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story time by juleshg

16 Jan

Janet sat down in the cement stairway in the back room of her little book store and leaned forward to let her chin fall to her chest. As she closed her eyes she tried to focus only on her breath.

Come on Janet, you can do this… She inhaled slowly through her nose then pursed her lips trying to control the stream of air as it left her lungs.   In, two, three… Out, two, three…

It had been almost a year since her last panic attack but the heart palpitations and the tightness in her throat were just as terrifying as Janet remembered.   In her younger years she would sit herself down with her head between her knees until the dizziness and the shakiness subsided but since she turned fifty the arthritis in her spine had left her too stiff to even come close to that position.

She wiped her clammy hands on her pants before reaching up to unbutton the top of her white cotton blouse trying get some extra air into her lungs. Letting her head roll from one side to the other, she tried to relax the muscles in her shoulders that always pulled up tight when she was stressed. Her first instinct was to climb the staircase and retreat back to her small apartment over the store. She wanted to climb into bed, pull the covers over her head and forget everything that had happened today. But, this afternoon was children’s story time and she needed to get herself under control before one of her customers got concerned and ventured into the back corridor to check on her. Since she could imagine nothing worse than someone seeing her in this panicked state, she took one last deep breath, stood up straight and re-buttoned her blouse. It was time to put on a happy face and greet the world — whether she felt like it or not.

Usually Janet loved story time. It was a small town but the weekly session had been drawing steady crowds since she introduced it last year. The young children liked to arrive early and jostle for a spot in the front row where they could see the book’s pictures more clearly. Sometimes Janet even chose a ‘helper’ from the front row to come up and turn pages with her. Meanwhile the moms browsed the shelves and gossiped over coffee. In a town the size of Cranton Creek it was inevitable that a gathering this size would lead to a run-down of who was divorcing whom, who had been drinking too much at the bar last night and which newly-married woman had been seen flirting in the bank line with the new doctor in town. Janet always joked that there was one story for the kids and lots of stories for the moms. She would be damned if the talk of the town was: did you hear that Janet at the book store is having a breakdown? I saw her last week and she looked horrible.

She hadn’t looked horrible when she woke up that morning and headed down the long familiar staircase to open up the shop. In fact Mondays were her favorite day of the week. She loved seeing the children and the moms always left with a book or two so sales were typically strong.

This morning she was extra happy when she saw Bob walking down the street. Bob had arrived in town a few months ago and had become a regular at the shop. He was a writer so books were his passion and he frequently came in with an extra coffee for Janet so they could chat about the books they both loved.   Last month when he asked her to dinner she knew all of the  story time moms would be discussing her date the following week but she couldn’t have cared less. At her age, she would be foolish to turn down a shot at romance.

Bob came into the store with a big smile. “Hello there beautiful,” he said with a wink. “I thought I would come by to hear this morning’s story. I have heard through the grapevine that you are wonderful with the kids so I thought I would come check it out for myself.”

Janet felt herself blushing like a schoolgirl as she turned away to get the kids ready for their story. As she went to sit down she realized that in her fluster she had forgotten her reading glasses behind the counter. She looked up to see if one of the mothers was around to grab them for her but instead she saw Bob. While his back was half-turned to her she could clearly see the book he had stuffed under his jacket.

Janet sat stock still for a moment before jumping up and racing to the back room. Bob had stolen from her. Was this the first time? She doubted it… She was an old fool for believing that he had been smitten with her in the first place but she would be damned if that was the rumor that headed through town.

Instead, she stepped back into the store and said in her loudest voice: “there are my glasses. I thought I had left them upstairs.” She headed back to her spot in the middle of the children and announced that today she would definitely need a helper. As children’s hands flew up all around her she looked up and saw Bob smiling at her. With only a quick second’s delay she looked him straight in the eye and smiled back.

protocol by pyritefortune

16 Jan

Mr. Baraclough has been visiting as long as the bookshop has been here. A fine old English gent, tweed suit, small round glasses, with a particular penchant for nineteenth century French literature. Always had a pleasant remark about the weather, the colour of the new paint on the jeweller’s shop, or the latest eccentricities of the town council, but never ungentlemanly enough to venture into politics or religion. I had always regarded him as part of the furniture, Tuesday mornings, regular as clockwork.

Over the years, I’ve picked up a fairly good sense of the literary tastes of all my regular customers. If it had been a copy of Maupassant or Balzac, I would have just assumed he had slipped it inside his jacket in a moment of senior abstraction. It wouldn’t be the first time one of my more mature regulars had forgotten they hadn’t already paid, and happily packed a book away into their bags with a cheery goodbye. But a biography of Attlee, that wasn’t even in his usual section of the shop. Instead of lurking in the literature section in the dusty corner by the heater, he’d picked the shelf opposite the counter,  directly in my eyeline, and slipped it calmly but quite deliberately inside his jacket.

I half expected him to make eye contact, to check whether I’d seen, but he simply turned his back and left the shop. I couldn’t have spoken, even if he had come to the counter, just stood, frozen in place, with the voice of my father ringing in my ears. I had never thought that it would actually happen, not after this many years. And certainly not Mr. Baraclough. I took a shaky breath, tried to push back the wave of nausea and hastily glanced around the shop at the other customers. Had anyone else noticed him? Was anyone watching? No new faces, nobody making eye contact nor attempting carefully to avoid it. Nobody followed him out. It was a clean drop.

I still had half an hour until I closed for lunch, each minute sitting like a lump of lead in my stomach. It was too tempting to drop the books where I stood and go, but I had to stick to the plan; nothing out of the ordinary, my Father had said, everything like clockwork, nothing for any watchers to notice. In the early days, all I would have had to do was call my father, if it happened, and he would take care of it. And then when he became ill, he’d sat me down, told me the full story and taught me the rest of the drill.

At one, on the dot, I pulled the blind down, stood for a few nerve-stretching moments making smalltalk with a lingering pensioner, and then closed the shop. Finally I could climb the stairs, two at a time, and grab for the phone. As I dialled the number, I could hear the gentle voice of my father, reciting the digits with me as I wrote it down time after time after time, drilling it into memory, and smell the charred paper as he burned it in the hearth afterward. It rang four times, and was answered by a woman.

“Jameson’s of London, Jennifer speaking, how may I help you?”

“This is 5-6-2-9-4”.

“What is the protocol, 5-6-2-9-4?”

I count quickly through the list he taught me. “Today’s protocol is green. I have a message for someone named Apollo; I’m to tell him that Garnet has made contact, and has signalled that his identity is compromised.”

“Message understood, thank you.”

The line went dead, and I was left with nothing but my pounding heart. I thought of my father; a soldier with a briefcase, patiently fighting the red tide with his files and paper clips and treasury tags. And as the tears began to run down my cheeks, I pictured Mr Baraclough, drowning his memories of Moscow in the world of  Flaubert and Dumas, while he waited for them to hunt him down.

civic duty by phoenix.writing

16 Jan

It was a reasonably busy Saturday afternoon, the bell on the door dinging every few minutes as someone came in or out, most of them greeting Janet and exchanging pleasantries as they headed further into the shop on a quest for something new to read—or at least a way to pass a few minutes out of the drizzle that had yet to let up all day.

There was nothing about the day to suggest that it was going to be at all out of the ordinary—right up to the moment that Janet caught a glimpse of a very guilty-looking Tom stuffing a book under his jacket near the back of the shop.  He was partially obscured by shelves, but there was really no doubt about what he had done.

She’d always been a good deal more tolerant than many in her generation when it came to the youth of today.  While others complained about the degeneration of morals, lack of respect, and the destruction of the English language, Janet usually found that people got what they expected.  When treated with respect, there was a pretty good chance that someone would respond with respect.

This was not universally true, of course, so while Janet always wrote off a portion of her stock to theft, it was generally a small portion, and she tended to think of it as charity work.  There were those who could barely afford to feed themselves, never mind keep entertained, and Janet would just as soon that someone took up with a book than went out drinking or joyriding or fighting.

Tom, however, could afford a book.  The slight, dark-haired boy—young man, now, she supposed—was a favourite of hers.  He was quiet and studious and had spent whole afternoons with her when he had a spare, helping out if it got busy just because he could.

He’d refused to be paid, though she had occasionally managed to talk him into taking merchandise, seeing where his eyes strayed and then pressing the book on him as he was leaving, not taking no for an answer.

That was what made this so shocking.  Had he asked, she would have given the book to him, a fact which she had assumed him well aware of.

He waited until she was busy with a customer before sidling past the counter, offering her a faint wave as he hurried out.

Janet had to wait nearly half an hour before it let up enough that she could head back to the section that Tom had been browsing.  Her lips tipped up at what she found.

There, on the floor, was a twenty dollar bill, folded so that it looked as though it could simply have fallen out of someone’s pocket.

It wasn’t that he couldn’t afford the book, it was that he’d been too embarrassed to buy the book from her.

Apparently, it was time to order a couple more copies of The Survival Guide for Queer & Questioning Teens.

small town chill by jmforceton

16 Jan

What did she just do? She’s stealing a book. What else could she be doing? She put the book under her jacket. OK, that explains the coat on an eighty-degree day. Doesn’t know the mirror behind her gives me a perfect reflection off the window at the end of the isle… I thought she was a dear friend… She is a dear friend. She was mom’s best friend. Been buying books here since I opened thirty years ago, 1968. Is this the first time? Why – must be a reason. It was from the top shelf of the medical section, left side. Well I don’t know what she’s thinking but I don’t want to embarrass her. It’s only a book… What is she thinking? Alzheimer’s? Can’t be, she’s still a better bridge player than I am… June said she thought Ruth was seeing an older guy. Aids, no it can’t be. She would never tell me, so caring and intelligent, but so private. Never reveals anything personal. Come to think of it she must have a hard time bidding and playing bridge, so against the grain to hint at what she’s holding let alone actually lay her cards on the table, on the other hand she hates to lose. Read, and I think memorized, every bridge book I’ve ever had in the store. She’s coming to the register.

“Hi Ruth, how are you today?”

“Yes, it is a beautiful day.”

“Find everything OK?” She’s buying another Evonovich, female bounty hunter, always gets her man. Maybe it is about a guy.

“Yes, that is the latest Evonovich. I haven’t read it yet either. The next one isn’t coming out till May. That will be $19.95.”

“Did you talk to June today?”

“No, well she can’t host the bridge game tomorrow night tonight so it will be here upstairs at my place.” A little vodka in the punch, maybe I’ll find out more tomorrow?

“Thanks, have a great day. See you tomorrow.”

There’s her daughter to pick her up. Must have been food shopping next door. Let’s see what’s on that shelf. A to C on the left. Huh, I can’t believe it. She took one of the books I brought in for Willy, that crazy old coot. Cryogenics. How our mad scientist got hooked on the idea of human cryogenic preservation is beyond me. I think the book she took was the one by a Dr. Frolick, a Dutch writer related to Van Gogh. Can’t talk to Willy lately without him saying, “lost generations” five times. I’m surprised Ruth found them. I know I told Jimmy to shelf them in the fantasy and science fiction section. Gives me a chill to the bone just to think about it. No wonder she was wearing a jacket.

mrs. johnson by pjrob

16 Jan

“Here we are, Mrs. Johnson. Gwendolyn Brooks, Selected Poems, 1963. I knew I had some of hers somewhere.”

Janet held the volume to her chest as she descended the rickety wooden stepladder. “Do you know, it’s been years since anyone has asked for American poetry. That’s why I’ve kept it on the top shelf all these years, next to the Ancient Greek.”

The bookshop was Janet’s world, with its uneven floors, low lintels and handwritten signs. There had been a bookshop belonging to her family in the building since 1786. It was spread over nine rooms and two levels, with many more shelves in the corridors and staircases between. She lived above the shop, her flat delineated by a thin chain across the stair.

Janet made her way to the counter and opened the book to find a price. “That’ll be £2.20, please. I’ll rub the price out for you,” she said, searching the counter.

“Thank you dear,” Mrs Johnson replied. “I know I must have asked before, but you don’t sell stamps, do you Janet? Since the Post Office shut last year I haven’t found a good source on this side of town.”

“I’m afraid not. Apart from a rather ill-conceived foray into selling notebooks and Post-It notes in the ’90s, I’ve always been strictly books. It was awful that they shut the Post Office. And the council seem determined to shut every public service they can. I heard they’re even going to shut the leisure centre next year. Anyway, mind you you go, Mrs. Johnson.”

Mrs. Johnson was something of a regular. She was quite thin, in her early eighties, and walked with a stick. She kept herself tidy and her face was nicely made up, but her clothes were somewhat worn and faded. She still lived in the house that she used to share with he late Mr. Johnson. She came into the shop every few days, but mostly just to browse the shelves before leaving empty handed. Occasionally she would ask for something specific, and sometimes she would buy it.

As Mrs. Johnson left, a peculiar shape under her coat caught Janet’s eye. She was horrified to spot the corner of a paperback as Mrs. Johnson turned into the street. For a few moments, Janet stood in shock. Although Mrs. Johnson’s visits had got a lot more frequent since her husband’s death, she had been coming to the shop every now and then for thirty years. Janet regarded her as a friend, and was one of very few customers whom she would offer a cup of tea when she felt in conversational mood.

She had never known a theft in her shop, and was sure her father had never mentioned one. It wounded not because it was a breach of the law, or of etiquette, but because it was a breach of trust. After all, the bookshop was her home.

For the rest of the day she could think of little else. When she closed the shop at half past five, she decided to check the thick ledgers that contained the records of her stock. They were organized by section and shelf, and contained every book that had been for sale since 1995, when they were last replaced. Against each book was the price and date at which it was bought and sold, which she used when assigning prices to new stock.

Over the next six hours, she meticulously compared her records to her shelves. As would be expected, the ledgers weren’t exact. Meticulous though she was, occasional mistakes had been made. She found sixteen books that were missing from the shelves, and three that were missing from her inventory. Of the sixteen, twelve were old stock that were most likely to be mistakes, but four were only added to the shelves in the last month. There was no way that any of these four could have been sold without her remembering.

The twelve older books were spread fairly evenly across the shop, and so were mostly non-fiction. The four recent books were all fiction. She wrote “MISSING” against the twelve old entries, and hesitated briefly before writing “STOLEN” next to the other four. After spending the afternoon thinking about the hundreds of visits by Mrs. Johnson since her husband died, she was extremely relieved to realize the thieving must have started quite recently.

Five days later, Mrs. Johnson visited again. Janet’s heart lurched, but she managed to conceal her emotion and make light-hearted conversation. When Mrs. Johnson started browsing, she suppressed the urge to follow her around the shop, and instead distracted herself with a crossword. Some eight clues later, Mrs. Johnson left without buying anything.

Janet waited ten minutes, then shut the shop early to check the inventory. The non-fiction remained the same, but she had only got as far as “C” in the fiction before she had to write “STOLEN” against a Catherine Cookson. And ten minutes later, next to a Carola Dunn.

When she reached “H”, she realized she had made a mistake. One of the books she had marked as stolen last week was present on the shelf. She double-checked herself, and rubbed out the “STOLEN” from the entry. By the time she had finished, there were four books marked as “STOLEN”, but an entirely different four from last week. She broke into a broad grin as she went back through the ledger changing them to “ON LOAN”. The council had a lot to answer for.

gorillas in the sunlight by snedapants

16 Jan

Janet felt an immediate sense of betrayal. How DARE he? Her heart started racing. What to do? Say something? See if he’ll pay? She tucked a strand of gray hair behind her right ear, and tried to remember to breathe. It was just a book. Was it worth losing a friend? And one of her only regular customers?

In that moment of pure outrage, she wondered how she’d gotten here. When she was young, opening her own store had been a dream. She’d lie awake at night, inhaling the scent of her mother’s old books, and imagining the way the sunlight would stream through the front window of the store. It would be her safe haven, a place where she could chat with customers about Pride and Prejudice, about Mark Twain, about books they’d loved for years, and wanted to revisit. Janet would be at home there, it would be a warm and welcoming place that she loved to spend time in: her very own store, in the town where she’d spent her whole life.

But reality is never what we want it to be, and Janet realized that earlier than she had ever wanted to. The store was, on the surface, exactly what she wanted. The floor and the shelves were a beautiful golden hardwood that captured the natural light, and made you feel warm. The chime on the door was gentle and soothing, a sound she should have enjoyed hearing. The walls were a light cornflower blue that brought out the colors of every dust jacket and book poster; they accentuating the best of each and every item they surrounded, including Janet’s graying hair and light eyes.  It was, by all accounts, a beautiful store.

But day-to-day, there was nothing beautiful about it. Not for Janet. Since she had opened the front doors, Janet had grown to hate what she was doing. She hated reshelving books people pulled down and left on tables. She hated the people who brought in books covered in coffee stains with ripped pages. She didn’t understand those people. Who could treat books like that, she’d wonder as she inventoried their drop off. No one was ever happy with the prices she quoted, and she was waging a constant battle against bigger, newer bookstores. People didn’t seem to understand that what she offered was different, was special.  She didn’t have the newest Harry Potter, and she was sick of people stopping in to ask about it, and heaving a huge sigh when she said no. Janet wanted to scream every time someone asked her what her website address was. She was tired of keeping track of finances, of realizing how little money she was making; of being in the same sad town she’d always been in, three steps behind the rest of the world. She felt stuck, trapped, and most days, woke up feeling like there was a gorilla on her chest. Janet couldn’t breathe.  She wondered some days if she’d ever known how.

And now this? Really? One of the few customers who did want to talk about books? One of the few people she could tolerate, one of the few people who she thought appreciated it all? She couldn’t take it. She just couldn’t take it anymore.

Janet sighed. And then sighed again. As she stirred her tea, she wondered what she would say to him. How could she work this so that life wasn’t totally unbearable? How could she fix this? She couldn’t afford to lose the book, but she couldn’t afford to lose the customer either. And really, who ever wants to lose a friend? Who ever wants to ruffle feathers, however deserved it may be? So she weighed her words, lost in the motion of stirring the tea leaves and gazing at the pattern the sunbeams made as they burst through her children’s book display in the front window. She wanted to disappear. She wanted to evaporate. She wanted to get in a car and end up somewhere inappropriately warm, and not have to deal with this shit. She wanted anything and everything but this conversation she was about to have.

And then, without even realizing it, she nodded her head and waved goodbye, as he breezed past her with a grin, out the front door and on to the sidewalk, with the stolen book tucked firmly in the warm crook of his arm.

She wondered, just for one millisecond, so quickly that she wasn’t even sure it had happen, what it would have been like to run after him and smack him in the face.  And she smiled, really smiled, for the first time that day.

joy by ingridfnl

16 Jan

Janet approached Philip, who stood staring at the titles of books in the Sex and Erotica section.

“Philip,” she said, her voice tight, “Can I help you?”

Philip, startled, took two steps back towards Anthropology and Archaeology.

“No!” he almost yelled. “No!”

“Well, if you’re quite sure,” Janet replied.

“I don’t need help!” he replied, stepping yet further backwards, almost tripping on a stack of books waiting to be shelved in the Classic Cars section.

Janet could clearly see the outline of the book clutched under his jacket. She had always backed away from these confrontations… these stolen books. Ever since someone had said, “Well they’re used books. I mean, they’ve already been paid for once…” Janet had let the occasional petty theft go by. But Philip? And that book.

Janet took a step towards him, and held out her hand expectantly.

Philips face turned a shade fire engine red and sweat popped onto his forehead. He tripped backwards over the pile and fell sprawled in the aisle.  Janet shook her head, and turned away from him, “Really, Philip. It’s a 1972 edition, original and signed  by Alex Comfort himself. How could you?” She took a few more steps towards him. “You don’t have to take it,” she said, “you can have it if you want it so badly,” and then she winked and walked away.

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