I pull into a parking space in front of The Boxing Donkey, an Irish pub in Old Town Roseville. Two men in black tees and tats up and down their arms lean over a motorcycle. They don’t look up as I get out of the car. To my right, a woman with a cane sits on a green bench in front of the train station, flipping through a magazine. The entire area is quiet, the air is cool, the sun is soft. I look to my left and see what could be a town in the mid to late 1800s, the kind of railroad town that sprang up everywhere… if you ignore the modern architecture of the now defunct nightclub.
I’m here for the closing of Beatnik Books, a small bookstore a couple of doors down from a space that’s only used on Tuesdays for AA meetings. The familiar rolling bookshelves stand beside the door, though they are emptier than I remember. The bicycle that normally sits out front is gone. I walk through the door and see an older woman in the middle of the room holding a vacuum. I’ve never seen her before. Is she the owner? I smile and she smiles back, though her eyes are distant, tired.
“Welcome,” she says.
In May 2013, Patty and I moved to Roseville. I’d just graduated from the MA Creative Writing program at Sac St. and was filled with words and wonder. I wanted books. I wanted them badly. I scoured the internet for any place in or near Roseville that sold books and visited them, one by one.
In the Creative Writing program, I’d always felt myself unfitting, as though the residue of capital clung to me like mud. I’d been a business major, marketing concentration, and held jobs where I sold things to people that they didn’t need. I gambled. I craved money. Most of the people in the program were the opposite. They listened to indie music and watched foreign films and though money was important, it wasn’t the thing, like it had been for me for so long.
When I walk into a place like Barnes and Noble, I feel like I fit. A mixture of literature and unabashed capital. A mixture of business and art. Every time I walk through Barnes and Noble, someone eventually asks if I work there, if I can assist them with a book they’re looking for. I belong.
Then you have the larger indie bookstores like Powell’s in Portland, which I love, don’t get me wrong, and though you can tell by the dusty shelves and the used trade paperbacks that they’re not B&N, the trace of profit still lingers. It’s a business, of course, and businesses are there to make money. But you’ll see a beaten up book for $12, one you know you could get at a garage sale or a thrift store for much less, and yes, you want to support your local business, so you buy it, even if you don’t feel great about it.
Then there are the small indie bookstores. These are the places where lit majors who can’t fathom a job away from books work until their 40s (if the stores stay open that long). They have books you’ve never heard of. And the people who shop there are generally the same kind of person you’d see in a creative writing program – smart, artsy, sometimes counterculture.
I’m not this person, and so when I go to these types of bookstores, I usually feel uneasy. Like I’m trying so hard to be someone I’m not.
After our exchange of smiles, the woman disappears in the back. Where once an area for kids and classic books and records existed, now there are empty shelves blocking the path to the far half of the room. The cash register sits unmanned. I sidestep to the nearest section. Philosophy. I grab a tattered hardback of Plato’s Poetics and skim. The book is only 50 cents, but I already have it, so I set it back on the top shelf and keep looking.
I spend a good portion of my free time looking for books. On a typical Saturday, I might wake up early and chart a path from one estate sale to the next, a garage sale or five (or a community sale if I’m lucky), and end up at a thrift store (or two), an antique store (or two), and a used bookstore (or two). The main thing I’m searching for is something I know I’ll want to read at some point in my life – in truth, I’m close to a 1,000 books now and I’ve only read 300 or so of them – and though I’ll never catch up, I always want that possibility. You never know if that one piece of knowledge you’ll glean from a book will be available to you at the library or online… better to have it immediately available at home (at least that’s what I tell myself).
But I also search for a book’s value. Value in the capitalistic sense. Monetary worth. Sometimes, at lunch, I’ll walk to the nearby Goodwill and search for valuable books. Last week, I found a 1918 Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin and an 1876 compilation of The Tales of Washington Irving. As soon as I saw them, I Googled them. They range from $40 to $100 online. Not bad for books that cost $2.99 each.
I also “invest” in the hope of appreciated value. Last week, at the same Goodwill store, I also found a first edition, signed copy of Me, Earl, and the Dying Girl. Not a popular book…. Yet. The film treatment of the book just got rave reviews at the Sundance Festival and so hey, it’s the author’s first book, if he gets popular, maybe it blows up and the book becomes worth a lot more than the $2.99 I paid for it someday.
The problem is, I never sell. I convince myself to buy books based on its value, or its potential value, and yet they sit in the shelves of my den, unsold and many unread. I just can’t part with them. Something about selling a book for profit makes me feel guilty, like I’m seeing a part of myself I don’t want to see.
I stroll into the second room of the store where they house most of their fiction. Between the current fiction and the children’s lit sections, a woman in her early 40s sits on the floor with one leg crossed under the other. Beside her, a stack of books rises to her shoulder, one breath away from toppling over. A wrinkled copy of Faulkner’s Sanctuary sits open on her lap while her young son pulls books from the shelves.
“Mom, have I read this one?”
She looks up, reading glasses perched on the edge of her nose. “I don’t think so.”
“Can I have it?” he asks.
“Of course,” she says and pats the floor beside her. “Why don’t you sit down and start reading it now?”
I wait until he sits down before I move to where he stood, looking through the children’s books. I can tell by the depletedness of the shelves that all the good stuff is gone. Still, I riffle through the titles of books I’d never heard of. On the pages, drawings and scribbles. Names. B-O-B-B-Y written in nascent penmanship. On one book, a note written from a father to his daughter, telling her he loves her.
Books are valuable for a lot of reasons, I think. And bookstores are magic. Bookstores are soul.
The term Beatnik, generally used to describe those who followed the Beat Generation (authors like Ginsberg and Burroughs), is definitely not a word anyone would use to describe me. Or Roseville for that matter. So I saved Beatnik Books for my last stop in my tour of area bookstores. I had a feeling that I would feel uncomfortable, that I’d find a bunch of hippies sitting around peddling ephemera so esoteric, so counterculture, that I’d immediately be made for a poseur. But their books were cheaper than any other bookstore – nothing over $4 – so I decided to give it a try.
It was a Saturday night and music spilled out from The Boxing Donkey and other nearby restaurants and bars. Just inside the doors of Beatnik Books, a group of older teens in oversized hoodies and skinny jeans circled around two similar aged dudes playing guitars and singing. I didn’t recognize the song. I stood outside the threshold, wanting to check out the books, but feeling as though I should stay outside. The song ended and I was still standing there when a soft voice said, “You can go in if you want to.”
I turned to find a short white dude with rastafarian hair looking up at me. I had no idea who this guy was, but he looked calm as though he either just had the most pleasant thought in the world or had just partaken of the ganja.
“If you want to,” he repeats.
He says it like he’s a monk. If you want to. What is it that I want? Why am I here? I thank him and wait until the next song ends before entering the store. It’s packed with people who obviously know each other, and yet I find myself talking to someone about doing readings, overhearing a conversation about Derrida, telling someone else why I like, but don’t love, McCarthy. More songs are played and people sing along. I stand among them in my Polo shirt and Cole Haan shoes and Michael Kors watch, thinking that maybe I am not only capital, maybe I’m something else. Someone else. Maybe I actually belong here.
I skim through the poetry books when another woman appears from the back. This one is younger and more slender than the woman I saw when I first arrived. She’s maybe in her late twenties or early thirties. Dark blonde, lightly reddish hair barely touches her shoulders. A bright, plaid, long-sleeved shirt hugs her arms. When she sees me she smiles and says hello, though much like the other woman, her eyes betray the preoccupation of her mind. She’s physically here, but she’s also somewhere else. I know, even though I don’t know, that she must be the owner.
She passes me and calls out to a man who stands in the other room with a wooden 4x4 over his shoulder.
“Do you need help, Dad?” she asks.
He shakes his head and says something I can’t hear, though the woman follows him out of the store. On the other side of the bookshelf at my side, the woman with the child reads to her son. She giggles when he giggles, which makes me giggle, too. I can’t remember the last time I giggled and it feels good.
For weeks, Beatnik has advertised their closing on Facebook. Sponsored ads. It’s odd to know that they paid for ads that will only benefit them for the short term. And plus, their books are down to 50 cents each. But the story is a familiar one. Even in a slightly rundown place like Old Town Roseville, with spaces vacant all around, the rent is being raised to untenable levels. You’d think the landlords could’ve done something, especially for a place that added value and traffic to the area. On one post, they mention that the store and everything in it is on sale for just a few thousand bucks. I call out to Patty, who's brushing her teeth in the bathroom.
"I have a hypothetical for you," I say.
"Okay," she answers.
"If I could buy a bookstore for just a few thousand dollars, what would you say?"
"What would your business plan be?"
"Well obviously I'd keep my job," I say, "but we could keep it open, have some kids who love books run it."
"Then I'd say yes, if you really wanted to, you should do it."
But do I? It's not a serious thought. It's not a serious question. I'm not going to buy this bookstore. But I feel sad. I feel sad because if you walked into Beatnik Books, you knew the owner was in it for the love of books and not just for profit. They sold their books cheaper than any other bookstore, pictures of Tom Petty in cool frames for $3, vintage clothes and records and book ends and other cool stuff. They held open mic nights for aspiring poets and writers and musicians. You read the comments on their Facebook ads and there are sad faces galore. The store was a big part of those in the area who loved books. And with Beatnik closing, that’s what we’re losing, a part of the community that offered acceptance, a place that had something for everyone, even me.
I find a book to buy. It's by Sandra Cisneros and called Have You Seen Marie?. It's a book about loss. In it, she writes, "We didn't say much to each other, but that said everything." That’s how I feel as I approach the owner. I want her to know, but I can't say it. She stands behind the cash register, having just sold a dollar’s worth of books to another customer. I want her to know that I understand the struggle between art and business, between doing what you love and doing what you have to. And I want her to know that Beatnik Books, this dream of hers, did a lot for the community, did a lot for me. She tries to smile as I approach, and the words business and books and capital and art converge in my head. She tilts her head a little, as though maybe she can read my thoughts, but then she snaps out of it and says:
“50 cents, please.”
I pull out my wallet and realize I don’t have any cash, and I know no retailer will run a debit card for such a small amount. I pat my pockets in the hope of hearing the clink of coins. I glance up apologetically.
“I don’t have any cash on me,” I say.
“Don’t worry about it,” she answers. “Just have it.”
“Really?” I say, but she’s already around the counter, heading for the front door. “I’m sorry.”
“It’s okay,” she says.
But it’s not okay. I walk to my car, where I know I have coins in the cupholder. Lucky enough, there are exactly two quarters. I grab the coins and glance out the window to see where she is. She’s standing beside a black truck, saying something to her dad. Wood and shelving from the store is piled in the truck bed. And that’s when I realize the first woman I saw might've been her mother. Her parents have come to help clean the place out. I sit there, watching this soundless conversation between father and daughter. I think of those words I saw in the book, where the father tells his daughter how much he loves her.
Maybe I’m still too capital, or maybe I just know what real value is: dreams, magic, soul. Things I received, the community received, that I can’t repay. I place the coins back in the cupholder and, with one last glance back at Beatnik Books, drive on home to place my new book on the shelf.