A Last Birthday

This is what I wrote on our 24th birthday:

The other day at Portrait I was asked about how it is that we seem to know every single book on our shelves. Some people have offered that we don’t actually read all of them, that we just read reviews and synopses and manufacture opinions about the book based on our interpretation of these, then present these opinions as if they were formed after days and days of being buried in the pages of the book in question. Not so. We do read them. Our store is very small and compared to the big boxes, or even other independent bookstores, our stock is also limited. Limited or not, we have a lot of books– I once had to take all of them down for renovations and it took me one whole day. One whole 12-hour day. So how is it that you can point to any book and at least one of our eight-person staff will have read it? Even if the book was released just yesterday? The obvious answer is that we all love to read and the only prerequisite for employment at Portrait (besides being at least functionally insane or better) is being an avid reader.

The less obvious answer, and the one which is more or less romantic depending on your point of view, is that it is part of the job description. Really. This is why each of us takes so much pride in our work– we aren’t just store clerks charged with successfully completing transactions. We’re required to read and have opinions about every single book we sell. In a sense, besides working during the hours of our shifts, we also work from home. I happen to think that’s quite extraordinary and being someone loath to brag, I say that with a great deal of care.

I suppose I’m feeling pretty sentimental to be writing this for the world to see. Twenty four years for a small bookstore is no small feat. Julie and Frank and every one who has called this place home throughout the years have all lovingly and unabashedly poured pieces of themselves into these walls.  I suspect that, with the guidance of the kind, knowledge-seeking and solace-providing spirits that reside here, it will exist for many many years to come. Because it’s important to have a place to find refuge in where your hosts know their home inside out, where guided tours through unknown realms are the norm, where you know they care– not because it’s good company policy to appear like they do, but because they just do.

Happy Birthday, Julie. Happy Birthday, Portrait of a Bookstore, the little bookstore that could.

This is what I wrote on our 25th birthday:

25 is the number of years I’ve been alive. When I was born, Portrait of a Bookstore was about to celebrate one month of being in business. So, you see how grandiose statements about time and wisdom may seem laughable coming out of me.

Here’s the question: How do you celebrate a life lived across two and a half decades,  in one day? I’m already worried about what we’ll do for our 50th Anniversary. A bigger party? More people we love will show up and toast us? Of course. That has its place. It’s why I’ll blow out my own candles this year and next. But that act is only symbolism born out of tradition. Whether or not I celebrate my life is decided each and every day between birthdays. More often than not, I don’t. Some days I do, most days I don’t.

And that’s how this bookstore is different from me. That’s why yesterday’s celebration was sweet and cozy and small and felt like a special day but not much different than any other. That’s what makes this bookstore extraordinary. Every day we celebrate somehow. Even when we don’t think we’re celebrating, we are. There are no bad days here… and it’s nothing like Oz.

I was asked recently what the secret to our survival has been and my answer was an unromantic, honest and practical one: “Love.” We just love each other. We love what we do. We love books. We love talking to people about books. This love is so genuine and strong, that people recognize it and through this we connect with our community, one person at a time. It’s so simple.

Thank you for the first 25 years…

Today is our 26th birthday. All that can conceivably be said has already been said. In fact, I have been silent most of the day. As, I know, many of our staff have and many of you. We will miss you. We will miss each other. We will miss…desperately miss these walls. These walls, within which we met and fell in love, where we fought and reconciled, wept and laughed, learned and grew. This was always a place, often deemed a haven, where all who thirsted for beauty could be sated. There are so many kinds of beauty and we always had a little of each kind. How lucky we are that it will forever live inside us as just such a place.

“Yes, she thought, laying down her brush in extreme fatigue, I have had my vision.”

–Virginia Woolf, To the Lighthouse

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3 Comments

Filed under Bits and Bobs

3 responses to “A Last Birthday

  1. Julie von Zerneck

    How splendidly you write, Aida. What beautiful feelings you leave us with.

  2. Laura San Giacomo

    I was so sad to find you gone today! I will miss you so much!!! Thank you for all the beautiful years! It was always a pleasure to be in your store!! xoox

    • Julie von Zerneck

      Dear Laura, How kind of you to write. I miss you too. My staff and I loved the pleasure of you company for so many years. Paulanna, the owner of a wonderful little shop on Riverside Drive in Toluca Lake, called Pergolina, (I am sure you know it) has invited me to mingle some of my antiques and antiquarian books with her elegant and unique gifts. If you have a hankering to stop by sometime, I hope I am there. I am headed to Paris next month to see what wonderful old goodies I can find to bring back. Other then that I am here. So if there is anything special I can get or do for you, please ask. Hope all is going well for you. All my best, Julie von Zerneck

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