I've written so many of these essays now that I honestly can't remember if I've talked about this before. Probably so, but I don't care, surely it's worth another shot. Anyway, I want to speak about what we do at Readers' Books, and what I mean by that is not the lofty, civilizing tasks we engage in, like saving the planet and, with the help of literature, lifting our dispirited selves out of the primordial muck; that's all fine and good, and no one in his right mind could argue against it. No, the work I'm talking about, the real work, is far more mundane. What we do, day in and day out at Readers' Books, quite frankly, is schlep. To "schlep" is a Yiddish word. It means to tote or drag or haul, and if you know anything at all about the book trade, you know that, next to bricks, books are perhaps the heaviest things in the world; also, that we schlep them relentlessly.
My dad was a master schlepper. During his time here he dutifully unpacked the books, checked them in, processed the returns, and hauled them in boxes-twenty, thirty, forty pounds each, to the post office. He did this for years and never took a penny in wages. That kind of worker is hard to find, let me tell you. We were impressed, so impressed in fact, that we once bought him an honorific sweat shirt with the words, FIELD MARSHALL IN CHARGE OF SHIPPING & RECEIVING, which is really just a fancy way of saying CHIEF SCHLEPPER. It didn't fit (too tight around the chest) but my dad was a sport and wore it anyway.
Today I schlepped some twelve boxes of books to the post office. A few of them were books that people had ordered and needed sent. One was to someone in prison. Sending books to folks in prison can be problematic: on the one hand you're dealing with a captive audience; they have to pay for the book in advance and they're unlikely to be dissatisfied, no matter what you send them. On the other hand, the wardens at prisons sometimes act like Roman emperors. We've had books refused at prisons for no ostensible reason. And I once got a call from some clearly deranged cop in a high security lock up in Oklahoma who threatened to have me arrested for sending an inmate a book on Buddhist meditation. Did I know that books could contain knives or drugs? What were you thinking, boy? But that's another story. Most of the books I hauled up to the counter were returns, titles we'd taken a chance on, titles that no one in Sonoma had bought, worthy products whose authors had labored over for umpteen years, only to have them gather dust and eventually schlepped into oblivion.
I used to fret over this process. The hopeful receiving which inevitably leads, after a few short months, to the gloom of return. In between we are supposed to sell these things, to talk them up, give them the gift of life, to make them seem essential to your well-being. Some of them are, of course, but only if you take the time and trouble to read them. And time is what no one has much of anymore.
Before we settled on Readers' Books as the store name my favorite choice was Schleppers. I thought that kind of summed up what we do, but my wife, who is wiser than I will ever be, just shook her head. No one will understand, she said. I guess she's right. Big ideas are not my long suit. Give me a thirty pound box any day.