Summer 1995. Broken glass and sad news.

I got up and walked around the store for what seemed like the hundredth time today.  I looked at my watch: 10:33. I looked for books that were out of place or crooked on the shelf.  There were none, since I had just checked ten minutes earlier and no customers had come in since then.  I wiped the shelves with a dust rag, but there was no dust because I had already dusted twice today. I felt like I had been here forever.  I sat back down behind the cash register and looked at my watch again: 10:36. This day was going by so slowly.

I picked up the book I was reading: The Chamber, by John Grisham.  It was about a lawyer defending his grandfather, who had been given the death penalty decades earlier and was running out of time to appeal his case.  I had just finished reading Grisham’s most recent novel, The Rainmaker, about a lawsuit against an insurance company.  I bought The Chamber in paperback using my employee discount, but I was not enjoying it as much as I did The Rainmaker.  I continued reading, feeling a little disappointed.  I put the book down at 11:02 and walked around to check the shelves again.  I knew that nothing would be out of place or collecting dust yet, because no customers had come in since the last time I checked the store.  I just needed to walk around again for a change of scenery.

This day was a perfect example of what my summer had been like so far: boring.  I went to a roller hockey game with Rachel Copeland, and I had lunch with Catherine Yaras once, and that was the extent of the time I had spent with friends this summer.  I had gotten letters from Sarah Winters, who had lived downstairs from me in Building C; Tiffany Rollins, who had lived in Building K and had classes with me; and Molly Boyle, my friend from the Internet who lived in Pennsylvania.  But none of them were anywhere near Santa Lucia County.   The Fourth of July, Independence Day in the USA, had been last week, but my family stayed home and did nothing. Fireworks were illegal in Santa Lucia County, and the night of July 4 had been too foggy and cloudy to see any public fireworks display.  I had some fun creative projects I was working on, though, and I was playing a lot of Super Nintendo. My game of choice at the moment was Donkey Kong Country.

In the front of the store was a tall vertical rack of greeting cards, visible from outside through the window.  I looked out the window at the parking lot. Books & More was in a strip mall anchored by a grocery store, which was ahead of me on the left.  People were entering and leaving the store, each one of them having a much more interesting day than me, purely by virtue of the fact that they were not stuck in this boring store on a slow day being forced to listen to classical music.

The rack of greeting cards squeaked as I turned it.  The cards were all straight and in the right place, just like they were an hour earlier the last time I checked.  A poster of a painting of flowers, in a frame behind glass, sat on the floor leaning against the wall between the window and the shelf that held magazines.  As I turned around to go back to the desk, I accidentally bumped the poster. It fell forward and landed on the ground. The short, coarse carpet was not enough to break its fall, and the glass shattered.

Crap.

It had happened.  The first time I had ever seriously screwed up at work.

My brain shut down for a few seconds.  What do I do? I did not know, but I was going to have to tell Jane.  I would not be able to hide this. I messed up, and I needed to take responsibility.

Of course, just at that moment, with a mess of broken glass on the floor, a woman walked in.  “Hi,” I said, smiling. “Don’t go over there,” I continued, pointing to the broken picture frame.  “There’s broken glass, and I didn’t get a chance to clean it up yet.”

“That’s ok,” the customer replied.  “I was just wondering where I could find the children’s section.  I’m looking for a birthday present for my niece.”

I pointed the customer in the direction of the children’s books and stood near the broken glass.  I needed to tell Jane and find out what to do, but I did not want to leave the customer unattended, nor did I want to risk other customers coming in and stepping in the glass or cutting themselves.

After the woman bought the gift for her niece, I went into the back room, where Jane had been making phone calls and doing bookkeeping.  “Jane?” I said. “There’s a problem.”

“What is it?” she asked.

I explained about knocking over the poster and breaking the glass.  “I’m sorry,” I said. “It was an accident.”

“There’s a broom and dustpan over there, and a vacuum cleaner.”

“What about the poster?  How would I fix the glass for that?”

“You can take it to a glass shop.”

“Do you know where one is?”

“You can try the phone book,” Jane told me.

That would work, I thought.  Jane did not come across as sarcastic to me; she was probably trying to help me figure things out on my own.  I did not ask whether or not I would be paying for this myself; I just assumed I was, since it was my fault.

I carefully picked up the large pieces of glass and threw them in the garbage.  I swept as much of the rest as I could into the dustpan, throwing that away as well, and I vacuumed the area for several minutes, making sure to get all the glass.  I had cleaned up the mess, but there was still the matter of getting new glass put into the frame.  I had never done this before. I did not know how to deal with glass shops. And I had no idea how much this would cost.

I looked up “Glass” in the yellow pages section of the phone book.  Back in 1995, search engines on the Internet were in their infancy, and most small local businesses did not have Web sites, since most of their customers were not regular Internet users.  I found one not too far away called Bill’s Glass Shop. I had heard that name before; I had seen their trucks around town, and I think my parents got a new window there once, when I was a kid and I hit a baseball through my bedroom window.

I picked up the phone to call Bill’s Glass, but I got nervous and hung up before I dialed.  I needed a plan. I would explain to them when I did. I would ask if it could be fixed, how much it would cost, stuff like that.  I took a deep breath and picked up the phone again, this time actually dialing the number.

“Bill’s Glass,” a male voice said on the other end.

“Hi,” I said.  “I accidentally knocked over a poster in a picture frame, and the glass broke.  Can you fix that?”

“Sure we can.  How big is it?”

“I didn’t measure it.  It’s like a regular poster size.”

“So about 24 by 36?”

“That looks about right.”

“We can get that done for you today.  Can you bring it in now?”

“I should be able to soon.  How much will it cost?”

“Including labor and everything, let’s see, around thirty dollars.”

That seemed reasonable to me.  I did not like the idea of spending money on the fact that I was clumsy, but I had no choice now.  “Sounds good,” I said. “I’ll bring it down as soon as I can.”

“You know where our shop is?” the man asked.  I told him the address I got from the phone book, and he confirmed that I was correct.  “See you soon,” he said.

“Thank you.”  I hung up and walked to back room.  “Bill’s Glass says they can do it today,” I told Jane.  “Should I take it there when my shift is over, or should I go now?”

“You can go now,” Jane replied.  “I can take a break from this and work the front until you get back.”

“I’ll be back soon,” I said.  I carefully put the poster and picture frame in the back of the car and drove toward Bill’s Glass. It took about ten minutes to get there.  I had no trouble finding the shop. When I got there, I parked and took the poster inside.

“What can I do for you?” the man behind the counter said when I walked in.

“I called a few minutes ago about the poster in the picture frame?” I said nervously.

“Oh, yeah!” the man said.  “Let me take a look at that.”  I handed him the poster, and he looked at it, assessing the work that needed to be done.  “We can get this done right now. It’ll only take a few minutes.”

“Sounds good,” I replied.

I sat in the lobby of the shop, staring awkwardly at everything on the wall for a few minutes.  I saw a newspaper sitting on a table next to my chair; I started reading that.  How did this work? Did glass shops have waiting rooms? Was I supposed to wait here? Should I go back to the car? I felt completely out of place, but I just sat there, trying to act like I knew what I was doing.  After I finished reading the newspaper, I stared at the same things on the wall that I had stared at before.

About twenty minutes after I got there, the man brought out Jane’s flower poster with the glass in the frame repaired.  “I got you all fixed up,” he said.

“Thank you,” I replied.  I paid him, took the poster back to the car, and left.

As I pulled out of the parking lot, “Touch of Grey” by the Grateful Dead came on the radio.  I turned it up and started singing loudly. My dad loved the Grateful Dead, and he often saw them live when they were playing on this side of the country.  My parents had been eating Ben & Jerry’s Cherry Garcia flavor ice cream, since long before Ben & Jerry’s was trendy, just because the flavor was named after the Grateful Dead’s Jerry Garcia.  Once when I was in high school, Dad invited me to come with him to a Dead concert. I said no, because I had heard stories about the kind of things that Deadheads are into, and I wanted to stay as far away from that stuff as possible.  Also, although I did not particularly dislike them, I only knew a few Grateful Dead songs at that point in my life. I felt like I would not be able to appreciate the music well enough.  A little over a year ago, Dad had tickets for a Dead concert that he ended up not being able to go to, because we were in Jeromeville for an event for incoming freshmen.  I do not know if he ever got to see them again.

Touch of Grey was my favorite Grateful Dead song.  Many rock bands that stay together for a long time seem to end up having one more big hit late in their career.  The Grateful Dead was a product of the hippie counterculture of the 1960s and 1970s, but their most commercially successful album was In the Dark, released in 1987.  Touch of Grey, from this album, was also the first Grateful Dead song to have a music video, which I often saw on MTV at the time.  I have a theory that the album was successful because many of the Deadheads of my parents’ generation had gotten real jobs by 1987 and were actually able to afford to buy the album.

As I drove back toward Books & More, singing “IIII WIIIIILL… GET BY” along with the radio,  I thought about the odd situation I found myself in. I had a piece of fancy artwork in the back seat.  Not original artwork, of course, it was a copy, but it was some fine classy painting of nature by some artist with a name in another language that I could not pronounce, the kind of artwork that belonged in a store that played classical music.  And I was sitting up front, blasting the Grateful Dead. I guess that’s just me. I don’t fit neatly into stereotypes and cliques.

“It’s fixed,” I told Jane as I walked back into Books & More, holding the poster.

“Thank you,” Jane replied.  “I’m going to put this back in the office until I can hang it properly, so this doesn’t happen again.”

“That’s a good idea.”

Jane went back to the office with the poster and stayed back there to work on bookkeeping, leaving me up front at the cash register.  Business did not appear to have picked up while I was gone; the rest of the day was just as slow, and I spent much of it reading The Chamber with classical music in the background.  It was a slow day, but I felt like I accomplished something.  Maybe I would have been better off not having broken the glass in the first place, but now I knew how to get picture frame glass fixed if it ever came up again in the future.

I find it somewhat amusing that I spent the summer working in a stuffy bookstore with art on the wall and classical music playing, yet I have multiple memories of that job that revolve around the Grateful Dead.  About a month after the broken glass incident, I arrived at work on a day that I was working the opening shift with Paula, the other part-time employee who also knew my family.  Paula coincidentally arrived at the same time I did.

“Good morning,” I said to Paula as I got out of the car.

“I just heard on the news this morning that Jerry Garcia died,” Paula said.

I stood and stared for a few seconds, feeling shocked.  “Wow,” I replied.

“Yeah. I hope your dad is taking the news okay.”

“I know.  I feel bad because Dad always wanted to bring me to a Grateful Dead concert, and I never did because I was afraid of what kind of things happen at Grateful Dead concerts.  Now we’ll never get the chance.”

When I got home from work that day, Mom and Dad were both sitting in the living room.  “Did you hear the news?” Mom asked in kind of a somber tone.

“You mean that Jerry Garcia died?” I asked.

“Yeah.  People have been calling all day to make sure Dad is okay.”

“Are you ok?” I asked Dad.  He shrugged noncommittally.

Every year after that, when shopping for Christmas presents for my family, I always got Dad a Grateful Dead book or calendar if one was available.  In recent years, the Bay City Titans baseball team has done some sort of Jerry Garcia or Grateful Dead tribute every year in August, since Jerry’s birthday and death anniversary are both in August, and I have been to this event multiple times with my parents.  The last time I attended this  event, I listened to the Grateful Dead channel on SiriusXM satellite radio every time I was in the car for a week before the game. But I still regret never having been to an actual Grateful Dead concert with Dad.  Sometimes, windows of opportunity close with no warning.  It is difficult to find that balance of going out and taking advantage of every opportunity, yet still getting enough rest to avoid exhaustion. I still struggle with that balance today. Sadly, missed opportunities are just a natural part of life.  No one can possibly do everything, so all I can do is make the most of what I have and do my best to live my life.

jerry g
Jerry Garcia bobblehead, from the Titans game on what would have been Jerry’s 70th birthday, August 1, 2012.

That’s a great video, but the song is edited, missing the guitar solo.  Click here to hear the full version.

June 22, 1995. The first day on the job.

“Hello, Greg,” Jane said as I walked into Books & More.  Jane sat on a stool at the cash register. She wore a long-sleeve blouse, a blue-gray color, with black pants.  She was slightly shorter than average, with dark hair and wrinkled skin. I never did know how old Jane was, or if I did know, I don’t remember now.  I would have guessed around sixty.

Jane had kind of a rough appearance, but she tried to make herself look classy.  There was a popular movie from a few years ago called Kindergarten Cop, in which Arnold Schwarzenegger played a police officer working undercover as a teacher.  One of the students in the class had a drug dealer father who was planning to abduct him, and the drug dealer had his creepy mother working with him.  Three days ago, I had been to the store for a sort of job interview, although I had been told that the job was already mine. Jane probably wanted to make sure that I was responsible and trustworthy.  The first thought I had that day when I first saw Jane was that she reminded me of the drug dealer’s mother from Kindergarten Cop. I didn’t dare tell her this to her face, of course.

“Hi,” I replied, hoping not to give away the fact that I had no idea what I was doing.

“Are you ready?” Jane asked.

“Yes.”

“I was thinking I’ll start off by showing you around.  Then I’ll show you how the microfiche reader works, so you can take orders for customers from the catalog.  When someone comes in, I’ll show you how to use the cash register.”

“Sounds good.”

Jane then showed me around the store, so I could become familiar with what books, magazines, newspapers, greeting cards, and other items were on which shelves.  I tried my best to pay attention. Books & More had exactly three employees: Jane, the owner; me; and Paula McCall, the connection through whom I got this job. My family had known the McCalls for a few years now; they had a middle school age son named John, who played basketball and baseball with my brother Mark.  With school out for the summer, and John home all day, Paula wanted to be home more and cut back her hours at Books & More. She had told this to my mother, who mentioned that I was going to be home for the summer and that a job would be good for me. Ordinarily, I would not be happy with Mom intruding in my life like this, setting up a job for me without consulting me at all.  However, I had no plans for the summer, and looking for a job on my own, having to interview and make a résumé and a good first impression, sounded kind of terrifying, so I was okay with it.

“May I help you?” Jane said to a well-dressed middle-aged woman who entered the store a minute ago.

The woman handed Jane a list.  “My son is in honors English at St. Luke’s, and he has to read these books over the summer.  Do you have them?”

“We do,” Jane said.  She gestured for the woman to follow her to a shelf near the front of the store to the left; I followed them as well.  “For all of the high schools that have summer reading assignments, I have all of those books here in a special section.  I spoke to English teachers at all the schools in Gabilan, and Plumdale High, and St. Luke’s.”

“That’s a really good idea,” the woman said as Jane pointed out the specific books on the woman’s list.  She brought the books to the cash register, and I watched carefully as Jane rang up the sale and handed the woman the receipt.

After that customer had left, Jane showed me how the microfiche reader worked.  This was the most interesting thing I learned that day. Books & More ordered its inventory from two different book wholesalers.  Apparently, the standard practice at the time was that these companies would send their catalogs to bookstores on microfiche. If we needed to order a book for a customer, or if we needed to order more inventory for the store in general, we would look it up in the wholesale distributor’s catalog and use that to place an order when we had enough items to order.  I knew very little about microfiche, except that libraries kept archives of things like old newspapers on microfiche. A microfiche card apparently consisted of very small printing on film, so that the entire catalog of the thousands of titles supplied by these companies could be listed on just a few cards. A microfiche reader was basically just a giant fancy lighted magnifying glass.  Within a few years, the Internet would emerge as a commonplace consumer technology and make microfiche all but obsolete. So far, Books & More was not connected to the Internet.

For me, making an order from these catalogs was simple.  I just had to write down the book title and International Standard Book Number on a clipboard that Jane kept next to the cash register, and Jane would make the order when we had enough items to order.  That seemed simple enough. If I noticed we were out of something, particularly a book that was a top seller at the time, I also needed to write that on the order sheet when we ran out.

For the rest of the morning, I essentially shadowed Jane as she rang up customers, dusted shelves, and took special orders for customers.  I ate lunch in the office in the back of the store around noon. When I finished, Jane said, “I’m going to take care of some things back here and take my lunch break.  Do you think you’re ready to be by yourself on the cash register?”

“Yes,” I answered.

“Let me know if you need anything.”

“I will.”

As I left the office, I noticed Jane getting a pack of cigarettes out of her purse and stepping out the back door into the back parking lot.  As I walked back to the cash register, I had a sudden realization. Jane reminded me of a female version of the Smoking Man from X-Files, one of the show’s primary recurring villains.  Her mouth and lips had the same shape as those of the Smoking Man, and seeing her with a cigarette triggered this association in my mind.  Maybe the bad guy’s mother from Kindergarten Cop and the Smoking Man had an affair sixty years ago, and Jane was their love child.

I looked at the rack of hardcover bestsellers at the front of the store.  The Rainmaker, by John Grisham.  Rose Madder, by Stephen King.  Beach Music, by Pat Conroy.  Jane told me that I could read when things were slow in the store, as long as I did not damage merchandise that I did not intend to buy.  I also got twenty percent off everything in the store. I had read a few Stephen King books before, and I was about to pick up Rose Madder when a man walked in.

“Hi,” I said, walking back to the cash register.

“Can you help me?  Where might I be able to find Rising Sun by Michael Crichton, in paperback?”

“I’ve read that book.  I liked it.”

“I did too.  It’s a gift for my father.  Did you see the movie?”

“I didn’t.”

“The book was better, to be honest.”

“That’s what I heard,” I said as we walked to where I thought the Michael Crichton paperback novels would be.  I looked around… they were not there. This section had mystery and horror and romance. I turned the corner… one side of this aisle had science fiction and fantasy, and the other side had nonfiction.  I checked to see if Rising Sun would be filed under science fiction; it was not.  It was not really science fiction, other than the fact that it involved a technology corporation.  I walked the entire length of that aisle and turned back up the next aisle, past greeting cards. I let out a resigned sigh.

“I’m sorry,” I said.  “I’m new here. Let me go find out.”

I walked to the back of the store and opened the office door slightly, peeking inside. Jane looked up from her desk.  “Yes?” she asked.

“I’m sorry.  I still don’t know my way around the store, and a customer is looking for Michael Crichton.”

“That’s in Fiction.  Let me show you.” I followed Jane, thinking to myself that I knew that Michael Crichton was fiction but too embarrassed to admit that I had forgotten where the fiction section was.  I said nothing. Jane pulled the book off the shelf and gave it to the customer, who had followed us.

“I’ll ring him up,” I said, hoping to redeem myself after forgetting where to find fiction books.

“Okay.  Let me know if you need anything else.”  Jane returned to the office as I typed the amount and figured the sales tax on the cash register.

“Do you take Visa?” the customer asked as he got out his wallet.

“We do,” I said.  Another test for me: did I remember how to use the credit card machine?  As he swiped his card, the machine printed a receipt; I tore it off and gave it to him.  “Sign this, please,” I said. As he signed it, I pressed another button on the credit card machine.  A second copy of the receipt printed, which I gave him to keep as I stored the signed copy in a drawer of the cash register.

“Thank you,” I said.  “Have a great day!”

“You too!” the man replied, as he walked out of the store with his book.  I could not help but feel discouraged. Sure, I had been successful with the cash register, but I still had not learned such simple things as where different kinds of books were located.  My first test on the new job, and I felt like I had failed.

I was still curious to start reading Rose Madder, or at least see what it was about, but I had something more important to do.  Rose Madder would have to wait.  I walked up and down the shelves, learning where everything was located.  Fiction. Children’s books. Magazines. The books on school required reading lists.  Cliffs Notes. Nonfiction. History. Greeting cards. Art. Reference. Humor. All of the other things I had found when I was unsuccessfully looking for Michael Crichton.  

As I walked around, I was surprised to hear a familiar song on the radio, since the station that played classical music was always playing in the store.  It fit the kind of upscale image and clientele that Jane was marketing to. I knew very little classical music; most of the classical music I knew were pieces used in commercials, movies, or as the case was right now with this familiar song, old-timey cartoons.  It was the song that goes “da-DUN da-da-DUN-dun, DUN-da-da-DUN-dun, DUN-da-da-DUN-dun, DUN-da-da-DUN,” and there was an old Bugs Bunny cartoon where Elmer Fudd sang “Kill the WAB-bit, kill the WAB-bit, kill the WAB-bit, kill the WABBIT!” to that tune. I think it was actually called something about valkyries.  I hummed along to the part I knew, which wasn’t very much of it, as I walked up and down the aisles again, learning where to find things.

Another customer came in shortly after the Valkyrie song ended.  “I’m looking for a really old science fiction book,” she said. “Where would that be?  Do you have a science fiction section?”

“Yes,” I said, confidently walking toward the back to the right, where I saw the science fiction section.  “What is the book you’re looking for?”

Stranger in a Strange Land, by Robert A. Heinlein.”

“Wait,” I said, turning around.  The customer did not realize it, but it felt like life was asking me a trick question, but I knew the correct answer this time.  “We have a separate section for books that are on reading lists for schools that have summer reading assignments, and Stranger in a Strange Land is there.”  I walked up to the shelf of summer reading books, in the front left of the store, and pulled out a copy of Stranger in a Strange Land, handing it to the customer.

“Thank you,” she said.  “I’m going to look around a bit.”

“Okay.  Just come up front whenever you’re ready.”

I walked back to the cash register, satisfied with myself.  Sure, I wasn’t able to help the customer who was looking for Michael Crichton, but I knew exactly where to find this other customer’s book.  The customer came to the front desk with two greeting cards (I knew exactly where in the store she found those) to go with her book; I rang her purchase on the cash register, she paid cash, and I gave her the correct change.

Working in a bookstore was new to me.  Working in general was new to me. I was still learning, but I shouldn’t beat myself up for making one mistake on the first day.  I would figure things out eventually. Paula was not working that day, and I was scheduled to work until 2:30; Jane would run the store by herself until it closed at 6:00.  When it was time for me to go, Jane told me that I could go home; I filled out my time card and said goodbye. I stepped outside; the sun had long since burned off the morning coastal fog, but a cool breeze kept the air from being too hot.  I walked back to the car, feeling optimistic about the new job, and I began humming that Valkyrie song again.