Rakestraw Books – my first job & Alfred the cat

It does my heart all kinds of good to know that the small bookstore where I grew up is still in business. I say “where I grew up” advisedly, as it is the independent shop in the small town where my family lived when I was young, and it is the place where I grew to love books and writing; i.e., the place in which I grew up most.

Sunday mornings, open

Sunday mornings, I’d open the shop early. The delivery guy left stacks of New York Times and Wall Street Journals just inside the door. He had a key too. I’d throw one NYT onto the counter as I passed, set the remaining NYTs and WSJs on the spinning rack near the front desk, and prop open both sets of double doors on either side of the store. I’d put the handmade, grumpy-old-man life-sized doll into the director’s chair out front, with the slate tablet sign in his lap that read: “Please don’t pet the cat. Thank you.” Put the matching, kindly-old-lady life-sized doll, with similar slate tablet, in a director's chair outback. Flip on the light over the coffee table near the small wall-mounted sign that read: “A clean, well-lighted place, for books.” Review new arrivals, so I could answer questions; people always asked after the new arrivals on Sundays. Flip the Bang & Olufsen on low, tuned to classical. Kick on the registers. Read through notes from Brian and/or Mary, the owners. Scan special orders to fill. Walk the aisles quickly to find where the beast was lurking and then settle in behind the counter with the New York Times. The goal was to get thus ensconced for a moment before the customers began coming in.

The truly enlightening crowds (for even their questions were edifying) would descend with a just a few folks at first; eventually scores of delighted people were roaming the aisles. The owners would join for the active hours, and I’d watch them work the store, saying Hi to new and old friends, dispensing advice on all fronts, until the afternoon shift arrived. Then I was off for the day.

Try harder

Brian Harvey had a thriving law practice in the financial district of San Francisco which he sold to open a bookstore in the East Bay suburbs. He was clearly insane in the best possible way.

He and his wife Mary were the nicest people I’ve ever known, and I think everyone who knew them could say the same. Their shop was the mythic stuff of films and legend, like most every independent bookstore founded on a love of literature. Everyone came and went with a “Hi, Mary” and “Bye, Brian.” Families bought gifts and joined reading groups. They sought Mary and Brian’s and other staff’s advice on books, films and theater; It was alive with people sharing culture.

Mary was an archetypal Berkeley grad, down to Birkenstocks with socks and bangs clipped to one side with a simple barrette. Brian was Mark Twain-esque in his laughter, wit and delivery; the embodiment of a wicked-smart jocular curmudgeon: starkly opinionated about what constituted a worthy book and author and quite free with recommendations for and against anyone on his shelves or throughout history. Mary would just shake her head.

My mother found the Harveys and Rakestraw Books shortly after we moved to town. She dragged me through on weekends, after visiting the health food store next door, for hours. Eventually, I’d leave the nuts and vitamins early to roam the aisles in the bookstore and wait for her. Natural perhaps, too, that when time came for me to get a part-time job, if I ever wanted to pay for gas or have a car, it was in the bookstore.

Brian and Mary were brilliant to work for. Brian handled staff. Mary handled Alfred. Besides endless insight into the book business, good writing, good film, theater, and literature, Brian taught me several important things for an awkward teenager and future lit-major to learn: “Don’t lean,” and “Keep your hands out of your pockets.” He was a man of few words in this arena (all of them above) and relentless: I was cured of slouching, at least in the shop, within a week. …I have to say, books and literature were easy; these lessons were the toughest for me at the time (I also grew taller by several inches while working for the Harveys.) If I am ever mindful of good posture now, I owe it to working for Brian Harvey.

Two other things stick out about Brian's handling of staff

One day I mistyped something on a special order or a return airway bill (yes, mistyped; yes, airway bill). I think I swapped the shop’s street address for that of Little, Brown and Company—a curse of inattentiveness has plagued me throughout my life. Brian pointed out the mistake. I began to explain what led to it, and Brian raised a hand to stop me. He said simply, “Try harder,” with a laugh and we moved on.

I recall on my first day, Brian had announced my training schedule similarly; he raised a hand to prevent me from stepping behind the counter and pointed out into the store: “Walk the aisles; commit every book to memory.” That was it; for two weeks, I was paid to come to the store, after school, and inspect every book in inventory, from one end of the shop to the other. His reasoning was simple, “I can teach how to use the cash register in fifteen minutes; …how else are you going to learn about the books?” Apparently I was ahead-of-the-curve; he'd had other new hires roam the aisles for a month. It was a good of couple weeks.

Several nights a week, early evening, to close

I’d arrive at the tail end of the last rush. For this bedroom community, dinner time on was a fairly quite time in all the shops. I’d help with the last evening customers, say goodbye to the afternoon staff (often Brian or Mary) and manage the store until close.

Having already heard news (mostly on MTV), newspapers held less interest in the evening than they did on Sunday. Brian and Mary had devoted a short wall, below the counter, to works by a syndicated cartoonist featuring a family of bunny rabbits and a pair of fez-wearing twins. I did read all of those, start to finish. They were and are hilarious. (I presume everyone has read them all; if by some chance you have not, stop and do so. Your life and the life of those around you will be better for it.) The artist went on to have some success on TV. His name was and is Matt Groening (like complaining).

I was through those pretty quickly, and the shop was usually nearly silent; one or two customers at a time. So, I read. I picked up books that I’d heard Brian and Mary and customers talking about. Classics, I’d heard everyone talking about. Books that were clearly college-aged material. I read, several nights a week, early evening, to close.

Alfred the cat

Brian and Mary eventually retired (again) and sold the shop to some folks from the next town over. New owners had worked for a major chain and had a notion of employing a “personal computing machine” or maybe two to track inventory. Brian was a bit old fashioned, refused to let a computer in the store, and still had all books inventoried on a series of index cards that filled a recessed space and ran the length and breadth of the iron-black counters—just out of sight of the customers and in easy reach of staff. Some folks say the switch to computers with the new ownership helped gird the shop for the battles ahead (plummeting national sales and closings of small shops everywhere); however, I know it was Alfred the cat.

Alfred the cat’s actual name: Alfredo Arthur William Horatio Ralph Edgar Cicero Nathaniel Cappuccino William (different William) Henry Ernest Boccaccio Samuel…the cat (you get the idea), a beautiful black, long-haired feline with thick fur and greenish golden eyes. The flat-iron-black modern floor-to-ceiling shelving units held all books at angles for easy viewing and had flat shelves at just better than waist height for lay-flat displays. Alfred lounged on the shelves throughout the shop, mostly on the lay-flat space.

A few tough coincidences here: Children loved Alfred. The lay-flat display space was roughly at kid-head-(or face)-height. Alfred didn’t like children.

So, you know where this goes. After working there a while, you could feel the rhythms even from across the shop: children run in…(beat)…scan shelves, find their section, and run around the corner (beat) “There’s a cat, Mom!” (beat) (sometimes another beat) and unfortunate sounds and tears followed.

I asked Brian if he ever thought of taking Alfred home. “I value my face too much!" he'd say. "No, Mary loves Alfred, so he stays; but he stays in the shop.” I’d like to say Alfred stayed on when they sold the shop, but I’m sure they did take him home then ...or drove slowly while he followed the car.

The survival of the shop

The shop was in the beginning of decline when they sold, but its fortunes did turnaround somewhat and level off (I believe) even through the toughest of years. No doubt the computerized inventory tracking and new management systems helped guard profits. Clearly the goodwill that Mary and Brian built up over the years with the larger Rakestraw community helped sustain it.

But, in the deeper analysis, behind the scenes and statistics, I think it was the generation of kids like me that were mauled by the dwarf, long-haired puma they kept in the shop that made it last. We grew tough. If customers can have significant, repeated facial lacerations (some of us are slow to learn) and keep coming back to your store, you know you have them for life!

In all seriousness, sticking with literature and the arts has always been tough, and in the toughest times it is toughest among us who dig in and find new ways to hold the fort. So I am glad that when Brian and Mary wanted to retire, and as bookstore fortunes were clearly uncertain, noble souls chose to invest in such an enterprise, others followed, and a community never stopped frequenting it, keeping it alive with people sharing culture.

I always think of Rakestraw Books around the Holidays. I hope everyone thinks about visiting their ‘Rakestraw Books’ this season, and I invite all who do to reflect on the simple lessons of my first job: Try harder, commit every book to memory, and please don’t pet the cat.