The Last of the Bookmen

The Lorry Bookstore saga continues. . .
After a sufficient amount of time spent on the cash register, I was aching to get onto the chewing gum laden floor and sell sell sell.
Standing in my way? A  4 ft tall shellacked old lady whose smile could curl my dead lanky straight hair until I resembled Little Orphan Annie. Her wolfish canines gleamed most when she was severely displeased-but in public-and trying valiantly not to pitch her voice an octave above sounds only dogs hear, enveloping the bookseller on the receiving end in highly combustible vitriol. She rarely succeeded in refraining. Or, if she felt the bookseller’s offense needed a stronger hand, she’d summon her 3.8 foot tall husband from the office

conveniently located around the corner, and he’d scrabble in, confer with her, then demand a conversation outside with whomever was so unfortunate enough as to forget to load the miniscule ‘bathroom’ with toilet paper, or didn’t find the used copy of How to Win Friends and Influence People that she just knows was on a shelf over by the large window because she herself put it there 10 years before.

Standing side by side at their malovolent  best, no one would blame a stranger if he mistook them for almost life size evil dolls.

And they weren’t  the owners of the store!  Their wheelchair ridden son was. Before the immediate thought of, ‘oh, how terrible for him’ enters the conversation, one must be also informed that his disablilty did nothing to combat his being a large sharp chip off  their old blockheads.

However, this tale is not centered on the characters described. They are needed for context.

For some reason, Mrs. Lorry (no not her real name) liked me. Ok, liked is a strong word. Saw me as less threatening than her usual cashiers. You know, those people, the ones of color. (no, she didn’t use inoffensive words, plus ‘color’ was not a term back then). I was white, young, and educated, and, friend with the one person everyone adored, including the son, Bob. Wrong thinking, still, I was given much more slack, than the others.

But that very wary acceptance of me was the problem. She wanted me on the register. Not helping customers.

Enter my bookseller White Knight. Lou Stein. (real name) Hardly the picture one sees in Howard Pyle books, Lou was a massive man, vertical and horizontal. Middle aged, which could have meant anywhere from his 30s through his 50s, with somewhat greasy thinning hair and standard black glasses which invariably needed fixing, stuck together with whatever tape he found around the store. His wardrobe ran the gamut of brown or gray pants and frayed collared shirts with permanently rolled sleeves to gray or brown pants and frayed collared shirts with permanently rolled sleeves.

He lived for books.

Not a sliver of exaggeration in this statement. Lou needed book dust to continue breathing, and he found it in the underground caverns, the massive shelves of books his closest companions.

Lou wanted to bring me into his world, I suppose. He saw in me the enthusiasm he once held, before life and the Lorrys bled it from him. They denigrated him behind his back, to his face, to his side, probably upside down, if he could stand on his head. I do not remember one decent word uttered to him or about him by the Munster family. Yet, they thoroughly depended on him to stay afloat. He was the crazy glue keeping that place together.

Yes, he was eccentric. Yes, he stayed below far more than above. We knew nothing of his private life, only he grew up in the Bronx, close to Yankee Stadium, still resided there. A long long subway ride from the Bronx to City Hall Park where the bookstore was. We booksellers were vaguely aware of a checkered history with the Lorrys-one legend says he walked out on them  and didn’t return for a couple of years.

He was cranky when forced above ground because one of us could not locate a volume.  He’d  hone in on and pry loose the missing tome from behind a tall stack of How To books, or scan a rack of paperbacks and notice the book out of order, retrieve it, plop it down by the register, flip up the counter, and ponderously descend the spiral staircase, with nary a word the entire procedure. His look of distain said it all.

He was also a sweet, kind, giving man. And in ways, child like. He loved unicorns. He would fully brighten over a spirited debate. Almost shy, in his interactions with me, he was one of the extremely rare people I allowed to shorten my name to Di. He was special.

His love of  sharing books was infectious. He began my lessons in bookselling. No grades or tests or graduation day; a daily dose of common sense and tricks of the trade began to become absorbed. I learned the sections, the titles, the publishers, the remainders from new stock, just released titles from ones that needed returning. Understanding a reprint, from a first edition, a classic from a fleeting novel. My education took place while DOING. Assisting customers, restocking, organizing sections, clearing aisles. Responsibilities he held were transitioned  to me.

One day a rep from Bantam was in. Lou came upstairs when needed for ordering next season’s titles. He called me over, told me I was ordering the books this time, and shambled below. From that point on I ordered paperbacks while hardcovers stayed Lou’s balliwick. For the rest of my time there I was near equal to him in experience and responsibilities, and even to the manager, another character for another story.

He was among a dying breed. He stepped away from some of the work he held most dear, and gave me a gift of it. No drama, no bru-ha-ha. Quiet generosity. He gifted me, as Oprah would say, part of his soul, the bookman part that lingers, and will for the rest of my existence.