Friday, January 24, 2014

The Last Time I Saw Carol Shields

The proximity to prominence — Hey, isn’t that Uma Thurman over there? Look out, Lagerfield just walked in — and the baroque décor helped to compensate for the poor pay, the short lunch breaks, and the occasional verbal abuse from those we served. 

Jon Michaud’s recollection of working at Manhattan’s Rizzoli Books in the ‘90s could just as easily pass for my own experience, working at Toronto’s Albert Britnell Book Shop during the self-same era.* **

The business that currently resides in the old bookstore.

I never served Bowie, but I did point Jack Palance toward an office supplies store just to the north of us, where he was more likely to find an unlined journal for his sketching.

In the mid-90s, Roger Ebert dropped by between TIFF showings. I was too overwhelmed to say anything sentient; he left, and I cursed my cowardice. He was kind enough to return a year later, when I’d finally accumulated a little experience around prominent types. I’m sure the little chat that followed was utterly forgettable to him, but he was generous, and it’s a lovely memory for me.

James Spader flummoxed me by asking whether I could recommend “any fiction that’s not depressing.” I stared blankly at the shelves, wracking my brains for an answer. Just a few years earlier, I’d asked my high school English teacher, Mr. Knelsen, the same question. Taking Mr. K’s generous lead I went ahead and introduced Spader to Robertson Davies.

Literary celebs made appearances too, of course, but I’ll be damned if I can remember any of them without some residual trace of anxiety. “Do you have my book?” was the dreaded, inevitable question, to which there was no satisfactory answer. “Yes,” led to, “Why so few/so many copies?” “No,” led to, “Why not?” The best answer to an empty shelf was, “It’s selling so well, we’re having a terrible time keeping it in stock.” Wise authors refrained from asking just how many copies we’d sold.

I didn’t encounter too many wise authors.

In that environment, Margaret Atwood proved to be an exception. She asked no questions, autographed what we had (hardcovers only), and bought what she wanted. Then she and her posse went on their way. She was confident of her place in the firmament, I suppose — and why not?

Robert Stone was similarly gracious, and Farley Mowat did a meet-and-greet that must have been the limit, though you’d never have known from his demeanour.

But otherwise? Please. Spare the bookstore a visit from the author.

I had no such anxieties when I saw Carol Shields walk in, with her husband Don. I smiled and greeted them, and let them browse while I dusted shelves at a discreet distance. After an appropriate interval, I approached, congratulated her on her Pulitzer, and asked if there was anything she was looking for. “Not really,” she said. “But is there any chance you have . . . ?”

We had a few dozen copies of The Stone Diaries, of course, but she was asking after a play*** she’d co-written with a daughter. We’d had two copies, sold one and sent the other back to the publishers after a few months of it languishing on our shelves. She said she understood, and gamely autographed the books she’d authored.

“You know,” I said, “I was a student at the University of Winnipeg back when you were a Writer in Residence. I passed along a couple of short stories I’d written, and your editorial remarks were the best I’d had up to that point. You even encouraged me to enter a story into the University’s fiction competition.”

“How’d you do?” asked her husband.

“I won,” I said, feeling as surprised as I had back in the day.

Everyone seemed to be glowing, and that is where I’d like to leave this anecdote, but I simply cannot, because after this, something happened — Carol made a request, and I responded, and when I told my boss of it some weeks later, she (quite rightly) shrieked, “You what?!” (followed by, “Oh, Darrell . . .  ”) But in fairness to myself, it had only been a week or two since we’d all sat down for a staff meeting and been told we hadn’t the insurance, so whatever you do, etc. etc.

“You won,” said Carol. “How wonderful!

The three of us stood, smiling.

Carol said . . .

“Would it be alright if I used your bathroom?”

Go ahead and judge me — it’s been almost twenty years, and the flames of Hell would be a mercy.

All I can say is, the washrooms at Toronto’s Metro Reference Library (two doors north of the office supplies store where Jack Palance bought three hardbound, unlined journals) were fastidiously kept. So much so, that I used them myself, from time to time.

When I explained, and suggested the alternative, Carol Shields said, “Oh, of course. That’s a good suggestion.” Then she and Don thanked me, and left — still smiling.

I wish I’d made that memory a little differently, of course, but so it goes. As it is, it exists as an ever-present reminder that stoicism, graciousness and good cheer are qualities that needn’t be exclusive of each other, no matter how accomplished and celebrated one is in one’s chosen field.

*We had an hour for lunch, though, and were paid slightly more than was the norm in bookstore circles — not that that kept us exactly flush with funds.

**Mr. Michaud comforts himself with ``the migration of book selling to Brooklyn, uptown, and Jersey City.`` There seems to be some evidence of a slight flourishing in the US indie bookstore scene. But at present Toronto is experiencing no such migration. Bookstores are slipping into the tar-pits, and disappearing. 

***Fashion, Power, Guilt And The Charity Of Families, with Catherine Shields.

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