Here's an early draft of a chapter that all my friends told me I'd better not publish! But, what's the internet for?? This is a picture of me at age 42 channelling me at age 25.
Despite the outward success, Chris and I were increasingly isolated personally. While we were surrounded by new customers and new employees, we had lost our privacy. We’d both had very small circles of long-time friends, and we had no time to see them. Instead we spent all our time keeping up a front.
Our first newspaper interview was with Sarah Zesmer, who wrote about us for the Chicago Reader. We were completely honest with her about the way we’d stumbled into children’s bookselling – and when she reported what we’d said in print, it looked awful. We shaped up fast, and started telling people a story that went something like: “Take one tablespoon of Chris’s bookstore experience and one tablespoon of Andy’s children’s theatre background, and poof, The Children’s Bookstore appeared.” Everyone loved this fairy tale. It matched the apparent existence of the store as an entity.
I never really perceived the store as an entity. When I looked around the space, all I saw was a million independent decisions, many of them somewhat erroneous, all of them arbitrary. But customers were constantly asking, “Is this a chain? Where are the other stores?” If I said, “My wife and I own this store.” They’d say, “You OWN this? Did you buy it?” If I said, “We opened it,” they’d say, “You OPENED it? Is it a franchise?”
Every few weeks someone would ask us to tell them how to open their own children’s bookstore. Again, we had to learn how to answer this question, since it made so much less sense that the questioners could possibly understand. Typically, such a query came from someone who’d never even worked in a bookstore. When we started saying, “First thing, get a job in a bookstore to see if you like working in a bookstore,” they’d say, “Oh, I don’t want to WORK in a bookstore. I want to OWN a bookstore.” If we’d ask why they were thinking about opening a children’s bookstore, they’d say, “I just love children’s books and I’d like to have my own store so I can just read the books all day.”
In fact, there was no time to read, once we’d opened. The number of piddling little tasks was astonishing. People were slobs. You could make a swell display, and it would be a wreck in ten minutes. You could alphabetize a section, and in a day the titles would all be subtly re-arranged.
And the PAPERWORK! I spent the first Fall on the sales floor non-stop, while Chris and Sharon Martin, a former assistant manager of Chris’s from our B. Dalton days, worked downstairs – Chris managing staffing and systems and business operations, and Sharon recording invoices in a manual book-keeping register. On December 31 we had over $50,000 in the bank – pretty exciting! Somehow we imagined it was profit.
In January I happened to open a desk drawer filled with invoices. Neatly filed. All unpaid. $39,000 of them.
Then we discovered that WOOPS we hadn’t filed any Sales Tax forms – and when we went back to calculate we discovered we had $12,000 in back Sales taxes.
Creditors were calling non-stop demanding money.
We brought in a professional inventory team and they discovered that WOOPS a lot of books just weren’t there. When we started doing our own book-by-book inventory we realized that there had been THEFT. A lot of those wonderful customers had been helping themselves while I had been recommending books to their friends. Cassettes, science toys, baby books, stuffed animals had just walked out the door, hidden in peoples’ coats.
Of course we’d been worried about theft – but there’s only so much you can get done when you’re overwhelmed with customers. You’ve got to sell, sell, sell, right? Who would have thought that so MUCH would be stolen?! It was disgusting and depressing.
(I STILL believe that Property Is Theft – mind you. I’ve never stopped believing it. I told you -- I’m a philosophical anarchist. But in a store, those books don’t belong to the store operator. They’re just a figment of the world’s economic imagination. If I can’t pay my debt to the company that sent me those books, using the transfer of those books from my hands to yours to enact this fancy numerical footwork, I have to close the store – and then YOU LOSE A BOOKSTORE IN YOUR WORLD. If you do not want this bookstore to exist, then fine, steal from it. If you WANT this bookstore to exist, don’t steal from it. You decide.)
Our plan had been for Chris and me to launch the store together, and then for me to gradually pull back out and go into children’s theatre again, or possible pursue an inter-disciplinary degree in History of Jazz and History of Religion. I would work part-time at the store.
This clearly would not be happening. Things were way over the top.
There was no time to reflect. Every minute the phone was ringing. Customers – demanding, demanding, demanding. Look up this book to see if it’s in print. Thanks, good bye. How can I get in contact with an author for my school? How much should I pay? Oh, thanks – bye.
We had become a fantastic community resource, and we were losing a huge amount of money. How were we supposed to make it all work? The American Booksellers Association materials had told us what a stable bookstore was like, during normal operating circumstances. But we were riding a runaway train. Zena Sutherland was right – there were a lot of people who wanted the services we were offering them, and no-one wanted to PAY for those services. They took everything they could get for free. And even though we were selling a ton of books, the cost of processing those books, of staffing the store, and of absorbing the cost of theft, meant there was very little margin for error.
And, evidently, we were making plenty of errors. In 1985, from September through December, we did $150,000 in business, and when we finally got our bookkeeping done for that year we figured out that our wholesale cost – including in-bound freight costs and theft, was $121,000. That left only $29,000 for all other expenses – and we’d had a lot of staff, and then there was the cost of Chris and me, living our lives. Shopping bags, printed bookmarks, newsletters plus postage, newspaper ads, rent, yellow pages, heat….
Terrible. We booked a big loss.
These kinds of “business problems” or “start-up expenses” are standard, right? Everyone has them, right?
Wrong – not us. We weren’t business majors. We hadn’t made this life decision in order to be wrapped up in cash flow management and budgetary fine-tuning.
That’s why people loved our store! Because Who We Were was written all over it. Not business people – rather, arts and culture people, with a full-scale social agenda.
I got mad at Chris. Chris got mad at me. We traded places. Chris started supervising management, operations, staff, merchandising, and the sales floor. I moved downstairs and became the business manager. I’d gone through calculus in high school. I hadn’t taken a math course in 8 years – but I knew I’d have an easier time swimming in the numbers than Chris had. After all I’d been the one who’d been studying the ABA financial materials anyway, and I’d been the one who’d constructed the original financial plans two years before.
The other plus for me of moving downstairs was that I’d developed a loathing for our customers. They didn’t know this of course. They thought I loved them. I was courteous, upbeat, knowledgeable, friendly, witty, on my toes, eager to please. My Customers Were Always Right, I always Gave The Lady What She Wanted.
But I couldn’t stand it. Why? Consider, here I am, a guy who loved working with children, and I’m stuck working with their parents! These people were of absolutely no interest to me. Where were their kids? They came to The Children’s Bookstore and left their kids at home! Then they’d ask, “What can you recommend for a three-year-old?” Give me a break. There were literally thousands of terrific books for three-year-olds in that store. Why couldn’t people make their own decisions?
I was just shocked at how poorly read people were. And these were people who THOUGHT to enter a children’s bookstore! Imagine all those people in the world who wouldn’t even consider stepping into such a place. I’d read the statistics of course – each year, only 27% of Americans bought at least ONE BOOK. So, 73% of Americans did not buy even one book in a year. But what I didn’t know was that of the 27%, so many were so totally clueless. And I was stuck helping them. They had no powers of judgment. They honestly didn’t know whether a book was appropriate for their very own child.
I used to tell people that they didn’t need to buy Goodnight Moon – all they had to do was pick up the telephone book, and read out the names and numbers in a rhythmic, reassuring, musical way, and their baby would love it. It took me a while to learn not to say stuff like that.
Books were completely unnecessary -- so you could buy ANY book! Besides, why didn’t people make up their own stories?! Why didn’t they read aloud from the newspaper? Or the labels on cans? Babies loved to hear their parents declaim any old thing! What was the big deal with dumb old Mother Goose? That was just a bunch of raggedy leftovers – fodder for cultural historians, sure, but for 6-month-olds it was only as beautiful as any other nonsensical text.
Read the Bible! Read the Koran! Sing tunes from old television commercials!
Just SHARE YOUR VOICE WITH THE KID! MAKE YOURSELF THEIRS! GIVE YOURSELF AWAY, LOCK, STOCK AND BARREL!
No. The customers at The Children’s Bookstore were fixated on purchasing The Correct Children’s Book, with The Most Beautiful Art, that had won The Fanciest Award, with The Nicest Gold Sticker. They were buying from us because we were the highly publicized, newly touted, well-praised, endorsed-by-the-fashionable-neighbor The Children’s Bookstore. We had classy bookcases, a pretty awning, Full Service.
How could I respect adults who hadn’t made the kinds of insistent demands of themselves I’d made of myself?
At that point in my life – aged 25 -- I could list, and I mean this, LIST several hundred bookstores I had personally visited and browsed in. I had read thousands of books – of all sorts.
And here I was talking with parents who couldn’t decide between Goodnight Moon and Runaway Bunny for their baby.
Everything had to pass the one big test in order to be purchased: Was It CUTE?
The exclamations: “It’s SOO CUUUUTE!” Over and over and over – revolving among customers as they showed each other some ordinary object.
Perhaps you think I was alone in this sort of total irritation with the people in a store. Not at all. Every retailer, every restauranteur, every salesperson HATES THE CUSTOMER. That’s why there are signs posted in every back-room that say things like: “Remember – Without Our Customers, We’re Out Of Business, And You’re Out Of A Job.” Or some such gobbledygook. It’s brutally difficult to be nice to those god-damned customers. So stupid. So simpering. So ecstatic. So proud of themselves for having found This Store. So whiny to have missed That Special Sale by just one day. So flaunting of Their Famous Acquaintance.
Now – mind you, after work, each night, closing at 10pm, exhausted after a roaring day of business, Chris and I would head off down the street to the fabulous restaurant Fricano’s, and eat, and drink wine, and have dessert – and I didn’t give a hoot what the waiter or the cook or the hostess or the bus-boy or the guy who cleaned the toilets or Mr. Fricano Himself secretly thought of ME! All I wanted was the great food and the great atmosphere and the great service.
To paraphrase Pogo – “We have met the Customer, and he is Us.”
But what I hadn’t understood in advance of opening the bookstore was exactly what it would feel like to have a Private Self of the kind that emerged inside me, and how far divorced that version of me would be from the Public Self I’d be enacting for the Customers.
I was lucky in one aspect of my preparation, though. I was a theatre person. I knew how to act. I knew how to improvise. I knew how to construct a character. I knew the difference between the character you play for an audience, and the actor, underneath, constructing the character.
Being the owner of The Children’s Bookstore, though, was a matter of playing this character I came up with for ten to twelve hours every day.
At night, it was hard to come down. Every night, I would smoke cigarettes, drink beer, get stoned. I couldn’t get to sleep before 1am. I didn’t want to get up in the morning.
Chris and I would argue in the car going to work. Fierce arguments, mostly about our employees. Then – Boom – there they were -- our employees. How we hated them. But we couldn’t run the place without them.
And then, the phone. Customers through the door. Suddenly, we’re Cheerful Me and Cheerful You and Let’s All Be Happy Here.
Chris and I each took steps to salvage our precarious sanity: Chris escaped into creating systems, designing beautiful displays, supervising operations. I fled into programming, publicity and performance. We dealt with the day-to-day customers by hiring that great staff. We spent little enough time actually working with customers that by the end of 1986 lots of people didn’t know we were the owners – they thought Kathy Larkin was. Chris and I were hiding out in the basement.
And, even there we hadn’t really escaped, because we had employees down there with us, helping with operations – opening boxes, recording data in computers – and gossiping, chatting, complaining, needing, needing, needing.
So we still didn’t have our hour-to-hour privacy once we’d found a strong sales staff -- but being able to escape from the sales floor did allow us to feel a bit more in control.
Since the store was open 12 hours a day, seven days a week, the truth was we were each on the sales floor about 30 hours every week – evenings and weekends.
At least we had daytimes away from the most annoying customers, though – the unaccompanied mothers whose kids were in school, the ones who would go on and on about how Gifted their child was, and how far above grade level they were reading.
I do apologize my dear lady. I read “The Autobiography Of Malcolm X” when I was 10.
You put your child in the Best Private Preschool so they could get into the Best Private Elementary School so they could get into the Best Private High School so they could go to Yale? Well I went to a public school, K-12, and I went to Yale, and I DROPPED OUT, SO THERE WITH YOUR GOD-DAMNED IVY LEAGUE FUTURE FOR YOUR KID!
SET YOUR CAPTIVE FREE!!!
No men on weekday afternoons. No African-Americans on weekday afternoons. Just upper-middle-class unemployed White Women.
And the complaints. My husband blah, blah, blah. My son’s teacher blah, blah, blah…
I needed her money though, I tell you. When she actually spent $100 for a stack of hardcover books, I was glad she’d done it. She’d call me by name – she KNEW my name. And I could never for the life of me remember hers. Thousands of such customers, and I couldn’t remember a single name.
Because it wasn’t ME they were talking to. Their relationship wasn’t with ME. They were so convinced they knew who they were chatting with. They were so comfortable. Couldn’t they see through the house of cards Chris and I had so elaborately constructed? Couldn’t they grasp how increasingly exposed to disaster we were as each day went by? Couldn’t they understand what it feels like to know that every tenth person you talk with is in the active process of taking books from you, stuffed in their coat?
No, they couldn’t. Their lives were dreams, as mine had been when I was a Yale student – lives built of lies. We must have been ciphers to them. Did they envy us our freedom?
And those sad, sad employees. I dreamt of a collectivist work-life, like the Yale Children’s Theatre. But the people we hired were so ruined already – gossipy, whiny, chirpy one minute and growling the next. WITH EXCEPTIONS I must say here, with some real honest exceptions. A few sturdy, marvelous individuals came into our lives, who enacted their roles as employees in The Children’s Bookstore with wry humor, while remaining their own, committed individual, artistic, socially-critical selves. Not enough of them.
Out of the 300 or so employees we had over the 11 years – what, 60 people fell into that category? 80% of the people who worked for us at The Children’s Bookstore were pinned inside of Smaller Selves.
Did we pin them there? Were we bad employers? Sure. Terrible. We didn’t give people job descriptions. We had no employee handbook. We didn’t tell them what to do every second. They didn’t have official titles. They were on their own. Most couldn’t handle this. They flipped out.
It seems like I met everyone in Chicago and lots of people from around the country -- from all walks of life. My absolute knowledge that there will be no beautiful, sharing and caring, imaginatively ecstatic anarchist transformation for our society was certainly confirmed by meeting those frightfully deadly repetitively same millions. Only thousands of possible people among millions of bodies. Why don’t people try to invent their own special lives? Why is everyone so desperately trying to be the same as everyone else?
I became positively misanthropic.
In private. In private.
In public, I was a Boy Wonder, a Whirlwind. I was Famous. I was On Top.
People used to say, “You must be making So Much Money!” No – LOSING So Much Money you FOOL.
People used to say, “You must just love working in such a wonderful place.” Yes – that’s true – but it would be a lot better without any grown-ups like you to be weirdly jealous of what you don’t know, saying stuff like this that is so dumb.
Because I didn’t Love Working There the way they thought.
First -- I wasn’t Working. I was doing it because it was Real. It had Happenned. It was Fate. It was My Path.
All I had it in my power to do was make art out of whatever Self Sacrifice I was capable of enacting -- and it just happened that I had, collaboratively with Chris, created THIS particular Pyre Of Art, which we were moment by moment keeping lit feeding flammable books to flaming children.
Sound sick? All art is Sick – to those who don’t live to make art. Do you live to make Art? Then you know how absurd it is to Give Yourself Up Completely for those total imbeciles who can only Clap and Clap and say “How Wonderful” when they don’t have a CLUE what the cost is and how all you want is to escape the confines of reality and even that desire subverts the dream.
Second – the subject of this Art Act, and its object too, was Anarchist Direct Action for Social Transformation and Personal Liberation.
My inspiration was William Godwin the utopian anarchist bookseller and novelist, husband of Mary Woolstonecraft who wrote “A Vindication Of The Rights Of Women” -- father of Mary Woolstonecraft Shelley who wrote “Frankenstein.”
William Godwin, the brilliant philosophical theorist who ran an important and popular bookstore, and, of course, as a necessary corollary, was chronically in debt, even dying with creditors at the door. As Rembrandt died a pauper. As Daniel Defoe died in a back alley fleeing creditors. As open-handed Alexandre Dumas died mired in debt.
You can take your Lifestyles Of The Rich And Famous. I say the exceeding wealth our society worships is a signal of lives lived uselessly, lives of decay, lives debauched, lives of destruction.
Humanity gains in creative freedom from generation to generation only through the lives and actions of those who despise the accumulation of wealth.
But no-one who sacrifices his or her life for society’s transformation escapes their society’s most characteristic punishment – and in the Modern West, this is financial castration to ensure impotence.
To maintain indefinite suppression of their creative acts, society reserves even worse treatment for These Spirited Lives after physical death, when Horrible Hagiography is used to freeze the seed.
Sainthood -- a more deviously hypocritical punishment even than life’s Debtor’s Prison.
Sainthood for the Noble Dead Artist, attracting Disciples of Death, chasing away the Free Spirited, hopelessly encrypting That Life’s meaning.
Except for those who live to pierce these Social Veils and see, still energetically active and smiling, completely intact and steadily at work (although definitely physically dead), the Absolute, Everyday, Person of the Past, patiently weighed down beneath the crushingly iconic weight of Honor, Fame, and History, but nevertheless, projecting for all who visit them, through all human time, a straightforward welcoming, open-hearted Wish that All Humanity Join The Enterprise Of Becoming Fully, Creatively, Imaginatively, Collaboratively, Individually Human.
Come One, Come All, Past, Present, Future, Now Certifiably Living, Putatively Dead, And With A Special Invitation To The Potentially Incipient, Uncontrollably Unconditioned, Dodeca-dodeca-dodeca-decillions Of Possible Babies-To-Be.
That is -- I had discovered, that of all professions, this one -- unsanctioned, uncertified, unavailable only to those who did not freely claim it – the Profession of Bookseller -- most leant itself to the collectivist ethos – since in this alone of all the world’s free and fetid mulching marketplaces – the bookstore -- could be nurtured and dispersed the emergent, organic turmoil of arts and ideas escaping uncontrollably from bodies of books to minds and lives of readers who themselves helplessly passed these forward to root, regenerate, and decay, enriching forever the social soil for future Realizing Selves.
But I also knew -- significantly, powerfully, secretly -- that children – those most uninhibited, uninhibitable members of society -- were the true chokepoints for social transformation, generation to generation.
I knew there was no position of greater influence than that of Children’s Culture Worker -- I had discovered this as an undergraduate at Yale, immersed in wildly imaginative free-form drama workshops for 8-year-olds inside decrepit New Haven housing projects.
Once in the middle of a drama game with a group of children at Quinnapiac Valley Housing Project, in 1978, an 8-year-old unexpectedly pulled a large knife from his pocket. Another boy countered with his own – the two began circling rapidly. I leapt between them and, continuing the drama game, nudged their characters toward a resolution they improvised – a plotline that credibly permitted them to put knives away and shake hands. Then I shifted the group smoothly to another game (I did insist they hand me their knives before continuing, which they both did voluntarily).
As a self-proclaimed Professional Children’s Bookseller, I knew every time I sold a copy of Goodnight Moon – written by Margaret Wise Brown whose mother was a Theosophical follower of Hermeticism -- I was handing that book’s one-year-old reader a Power-Packed Manual Of Magical Spells empowering this Baby Hermes Trismegistus to Take Command of the Cosmos – Going Not Gentle Into That Good Night.
Crying Out: “Goodnight Moon!!!!” Asserting Power over the World’s Night Light – the Face of the Universe – the Center of the Sky – Oh Moon O’ Mine.
“Goodnight Room!!!” Relaxing back the walls of the Great Green Room to reveal the Truly Roomy Universe.
“Goodnight Bears and Goodnight Chairs!!!” Exorcising the Ownership-Power of those hoarding Three Bears, asserting the Goldilocks-squatter’s Fair Use claim over unused Chairs.
“Goodnight Comb and Goodnight Brush!!!” Discarding concern for Social Nicety, Ending presentation of self to world, attaining Invisibility.
“Goodnight Nobody!!!” Emptying the restless subconscious of unformed images that otherwise might rise to embody obsessive fears, compulsive guilts, addictive shames.
“Goodnight Mush!!!” Disdaining external nourishment, Freeing self-nourishing Mind from external dependency and the false constriction of Physical Embodiment.
“Goodnight to the Old Lady Whispering Hush!!!!” Banishing the all-controlling Mother, smashing her Power by rendering her unconscious, deflecting the Witch’s Spell of Hushing to strengthen the outward Rushing of Hyperbolically expansive macrocosmic Baby Mind.
“Goodnight Stars!!!” Eyes tight shut spark infinite stars in dark – the Universe taken in no longer existing without – “The Brain Is Wider Than The Sky.”
“Goodnight Air!!!” Rhythmically Inhaling/Exhaling Night, transmuting the Texture of Spacetime to a substance engulfed and extruded by Creator Baby’s Body.
“Goodnight Noises Everywhere!!!” Extending Ultimate Authority over All Event, All Sensation, All Action, All Consequence. “The Brain is just the weight of God/For heft them, pound by pound/And they will differ, if they do/As syllable from sound.”
You see, though repelled by those all-consuming customers-cum-parents, I did take enormous pleasure and pride acting the Agent of that Secret Society of revolutionaries – the authors and illustrators of our era’s incendiary children’s literature – propagandizing subversion of pea-brained parental authority by deceptively shipping those unwitting “grown-ups” back to their children’s nurseries nursing the very Fuel I knew would burn bright to incite the macrocosmic minds of those recklessly romantic babies to rip-roaring rebellion. Which fuel was: “Where The Wild Things Are,” “Madeline,” “Alice Through The Looking Glass,” “Peter Rabbit,” “Yertle The Turtle,” “The Phantom Tollbooth,” “Curious George,” “Charlotte’s Web,” “The Very Hungry Caterpillar.”