Category Archives: The Other Day at Portrait…

Little-Big Thoughtful Man

Lucas is one of our regulars.  At the tender age of 4, he’s developed a little comedy routine involving our alarmingly real fake spilled-coffee cup.  It usually lies in wait for the unsuspecting on the floor near the pass-through between the bookstore and the dining room, and he’s seen it a million times.  His act is to declare with loud and adult disdain “I’m never falling for that coffee thing again!”

He is not, however, beyond needing a bit of parental guidance to get past all the other kid-ambushing goodies on offer.  The other day as he and mom entered from the back garden, mom kept going but he veered sideways into the tiny children’s section.  She turned and patiently gave him a moment.   Then: Bubba! Silence.  “That’s not the bathroom. The police are going to be here in a minute.  Give you a ticket.”  Humor seemed to be an attractant; he emerged and they headed out towards the restrooms.  I was surprised by his easy capitulation, but they were going to pass through again on their way back to their lunch in the garden and I wondered if a second transit might be too much for his powers of resistance.

I’m never falling for that coffee thing again!” heralds their return.  Across from the fake-coffee-spill, handbags are on offer on hooks cascading down the doorjamb.  Mom ponders a whimsical bag in caramel-colored button-tufted Italian leather that could remind you of 1950’s coffee-shop booth seating.  “That would be fun for an upholsterer.”, she says.  “What’s an upholsterer?“, asks Lucas.  He pronounces it perfectly, not stumbling over the unfamiliar multiple syllables.  “Someone who puts padding and covering on furniture.” He takes this in for a moment, then turns and heads for the kids’ corner as mom begins to peruse the gift shelves.  He returns with two large creepily soft plastic flies:  “Which color do you like?”  She regards them thoughtfully but makes no reply.  He takes them back and returns in time for her to show him some adorably tiny ceramic baskets.  “Look at these cute little bowls!” He regards them thoughtfully but makes no reply.  Turning, he finds a book: “I’ve never seen that book before!”   “Not now.” she says. We’ll. come back when we have more time.” He looks at her: “We never have more time.” She:”Yes we will.”  He, emphatically: “I think we won’t!”  He’s not sulking….he’s….joking!

Triumphant, he turns and they head out into the garden to finish lunch.

-Jane

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Don’t Touch Anything. Keep Going.

There are many parental strategies for passing small children through the dazzling eye-candy of our books and gifts, the final great obstacle being the actual children’s section just at the lip of the door out into the back garden.  Heard yesterday, starting faintly in the foyer and gathering in volume as they entered our Class IV rapids of temptation: “Don’ttoucheanythingkeepgoingdon’ttouchanythingkeepgoing

don’ttouchanythingkeepgoingdon’ttouchanythingkeepgoing…

Young mother with her barely-out-of-toddlerhood son buoyed on the cresting wave of her determination.  Amazingly, though his head swiveled from one siren sight to the next, he did indeed keep going, swept forward by the firm encouragement of her hand against his back, and her ceaseless mantra.  As he wobbled across the threshold to the garden, she bent to caress him with reinforcing praise. “That’s very good!  You didn’t touch anything!”  Fine young champion!

-Jane

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Sighing Over Simple Things

What with its small size and the frequent cake/coffee-toting through-traffic to the cafe’s back garden, the bookstore seldom has a library hush.  Nonetheless, there are customers whose desire for quiet, undisturbed browsing is such that they manage to make themselves nearly invisible to the passing show.  Having crossed into a serene and silent parallel universe, they become hard to focus on.  The still deer whose small movement momentarily reveals it among the dappled leaves/books.

One of those was in the other day. Slipped in under cover of a happily chattering group of girls trying on rings from the Bling Boxes on the counter.  Didn’t notice him at first, of course. White shirt in background. Paperback fiction section? Girls flock out. Dark slacks…I think that was poetry. A regular stocks up on Birthday cards.  Slender, dark hair.  Hardcover fiction.  Harmonica-buying mom leaves with delighted child and the floor clears now.  His back is to me in Non-fiction.  It comes to me that he has been methodically working all the shelves. He reaches up to a top shelf to put a book back, and as his arm comes down he lets out a profound sigh.  “Give him privacy.” I think, even as the force of his sigh pulls the words out of me…”What was that?”  He turns to face me.  I’m relieved that he doesn’t seem burdened by my question.  “What..that sigh?”  He puts his elbows on the counter, then surprises me by dropping his face into his hands for a moment…but when he looks back up his expression is musing rather than shadowed.  “I used to read a lot, but haven’t for years now”, he says.  He looks back at the shelves: “So much has passed by.  I feel so behind.”  Well, I say….you don’t have to catch up.  Just jump into the stream.  He thinks about that for a moment and then out comes the Universal Obstacle…”There’s so little time!”  His aura was of commitment to something consuming, and so this slow dance with our stock was his stolen moment to rendezvous with a set-aside part of himself.

After he left, I glanced up to see which book had finally prompted the sigh.  Thoreau’s Walden.

Well, of course.  The greatest of all American dissertations on a simple life in direct communion with nature.

Worth sighing over.

Posted by Jane

Fishermen at Walden Pond (photo by Catherine Hall)

Note: No, most of us are not color blind.

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A Funny Thing Happened on the Way Out of Blockbuster

My husband and I are standing in line at Blockbuster in a city very far from where the bookstore is located (yes, we do occasionally support chains when it’s necessary, as in this case, where we just had to watch a film we couldn’t find anywhere else, )* when an elderly woman approaches me from behind, carrying a tattered copy of Joyce Tenneson: A Life in Photography 1968-2008 (sold at Blockbuster for $9.99, I might add. Explain that to me.) She stops only a few inches behind me, extends the book to me and says, to me, “You should carry this.”

Slightly put off by the “should” in the sentence, I nonetheless take the book, assuming it’s too heavy for her and she needs me to carry it while in line, which, of course, I’m happy to do. I smile, take the book, say something really eloquent, like, “Sure,” and continue standing there without another word. My husband pokes me in the arm because, well, because she’s looking at me funny. Frustrated, actually.

She figures out I’m confused. “I mean you should get it for the bookstore!”

I had never before spoken to or seen this woman, who, it turns out, is a regular customer at Portrait and has spotted me on several occasions without my noticing. With no greeting and no introduction, standing in a place which is pretty close to the exact polar opposite of our store in every way, she expected me to just know what she meant and was herself confused when she found I did not. We laughed. It seemed funny at the time.

But I keep replaying the scene in my head. Was it just a passing, odd event or something more complex as well? She clearly wasn’t trying to be provocative or obtuse in any way. She came up to me as if we were at the bookstore, I in my official capacity as book alphabetizer, she in hers as browser. She had seen me a handful of times, running in and out of the store, so that I suspect to her my entire existence — what I look, sound, move like — were inextricably linked with the bookstore. Seeing me subconsciously erased her real environment, momentarily sending her to the only environment I could possibly be found in, the bookstore.

I wonder how many other things, which we aren’t awake to, our perception distorts in so substantial a way. One example for me is that a great many things I read about in novels end up in my memory bank, impostors parading around pretending to be my own memories. I’m able to recognize these after some analysis, but that isn’t always the case. What are some of the ways your mind makes you want to buy it a leash?

*The film was “Bronson” and it was exceptionally good.

Posted by Aida

***

Tenneson’s collection is actually a book we’ve carried and really love. Here are a few other coffee table books currently awaiting your coffee tables at Portrait:

Click on book covers for more information.

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This one? This one, too? How about this one?

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.

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Spencer

The other day at Portrait a little boy came in, trailed by the dirtiest blankie I’ve ever had the honor of being presented with. That’s what he did, he came in, stuck his hand out to me, the only person in the store, and gave me his blanket. He spoke with an unnaturally thick Boston accent.

 

 “You sad.”

“Hi. Where’s your mama?”

“Mommy gone.  Dad and, um, Lara outside. You look sad inside window. You want my bookie to kiss?”

“What’s your name?”

“Spencer. Why you sad?”

“I’m not sad. I’m serious. See?” I demonstrate knitted brows and frown for “sad,” knitted brows and no frown for “serious.”

“Oh. My mom serus.” He pushes the blanket toward me one last time.

“You take before cows come home?”

“Okay. Thank you. My goodness. Your bookie is sooo soft. You’re a good friend, Spencer.”

“Books good friends. Lara give me books. But bookie not book. Bookie BEST friend.”

 

Spencer spends the next fifteen minutes on my lap, on the floor of our children’s nook, telling me about where he thinks his mother might be. Very cheerfully, I might add.

 

Posted by Aida

 

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Life is Hard. Books Make it Better.

Beginning today we’ll be offering something that’s making us very, very happy.

You answer a few questions, make some of your preferences known, and a loved one who resides anywhere in the world will receive a book a month, for as many months as you like. We are so pleased and proud that some of our customers trust us so completely that they’ve only described the recipients’ tastes and left it to us to choose the months’ books. The possibilities are endless. You can choose a theme for us to tailor our selections to, or even request a specific book each month. You even have the option of including a message inside one of our famous greeting cards to include with each book.

How amazing is that? To receive a surprise in the mail every single month and for that surprise to be a book– a book you can read and re-read for the rest of your life? We think it’s pretty amazing.

There’s no easier, more meaningful way to constantly remain in a loved one’s life and give joy, while miles or just a block apart. Just imagine how this could change a life:

 “It’s June 1st. 

Rent is due. 

Bills have piled up.

The world is ending.

But, wait… I get my book today!”

 

 

Please email or call us for details and to sign up.

 

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The Telephone

“If anyone should think he has solved the problem of life and feel like telling himself that everything is quite easy now, he can see that he is wrong just by recalling that there was a time when this “solution” had not been discovered; but it must have been possible to live then too and the solution which has now been discovered seems fortuitous in relation to how things were then. And it is the same in the study of logic. If there were a “solution” to the problems of logic (philosophy) we should only need to caution ourselves that there was a time when they had not been solved (and even at that time people must have known how to live and think).”  

 —Ludwig Wittgenstein

One of only a handful of men whose inner and outer worlds were, as surely as anyone can be sure of anything from the past, never at odds, Wittgenstein came to me in a dream last night. He didn’t say or do anything– he was just there– perhaps a bit more confused than I about his sudden appearance. I was sorry to have to leave him behind, as it was a positively empty, happy dream. So, when I awoke I went searching for him in the next best place to my subconscious: the internet. Andrei Codrescu, as he has on a couple of occasions before, gave me just what I needed. A disjointed, totally sentimental compilation of random quotes taken from “Problems of Life,” accompanied by some exquisite photos of equally disjointed subject matters. Here, serendipitously, I found the thought at the top of this post. It’s one I’ve often borrowed when entrenched in discussions which threaten to delve a little more deeply into philosophy than I normally see it fit to tread.

Of course, what he’s talking about is much larger than the trains of thought I followed, but I couldn’t help thinking about how the psychology of mankind changed with the invention of the telephone.

  There was a time when your husband got on the horse and rode out of town, promising to return within seven days. On the sixth night you’d probably begin experiencing some anxiety? On the seventh, worry? And what about the eighth? How would you feel on the eighth night, with no neighing within earshot? Or perhaps you’d know enough to prepare yourself the first day for the possibility that he won’t return? Would hope carry you through? Or would you be desensitized by life enough to not be moved by it at all? I wonder. I wonder about the first man who called his wife’s cell phone five minutes after she left the house for work. The first one. I wonder what we gained or what we lost when we suddenly were given the tool, the gift, the opportunity to always know where our loved ones are. This must have changed us! One day you’re on your knees for a safe return and the moon and sun revolve around separations of all forms, the next, an entire piece of who you are and an aspect of what makes your life your life is plucked away– did not the collective heart of man sigh one very loud, weary sigh? And what came to take the place of this age-old weight? For, surely, something occupies it now!

It was a quiet day at the bookstore today. 

 

 

 

Posted by Aida

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Hello world!

What wakes me up early on Monday mornings and gets me out of bed, dressed and into my car all in fifteen minutes, is the simple thought of unlocking the back door at the bookstore while it’s still dark outside, going in and turning on the lights, the classical radio station, doing a quick, wee jig, and then setting to work taking everything off every baker’s rack and table top, scrubbing down the shelves ’till they are shiny-clean, then setting out all the new antiquarian books, the new antiques, the new gifts, arranging them all into wonderful little scenes before Aida and BJ, followed later by Jane, come in and scream with pleasure. “Oh-my-goodness-everything-looks-so- magnificent!”

We open at 9:30 am six days a week (10am on Sundays,) so on Mondays, seconds before that momentous occasion, Jane quickly boxes up any stray things left on the floor that won’t fit on the shelves and Aida, Jane and BJ dash them out to the stock room while I do a finishing sweep. Then, with great excitement bubbling up in all of us, we fling open the front double doors and, beaming, in unison, say to one another, “It’s Show Time!”

You have to know this: it is out of pure and unadulterated love that we are here every Monday morning and every other day of the week. We are as proud as we could be of our splendid, little place tucked in carefully behind the superb and bustling Aroma Café. We are also as thankful as we could be for our amazing customers, who keep us open year after year—24 of them, in fact.

Oh yes, owning, running and working at Portrait of a Bookstore is indeed everything anyone ever walking through it dreams it is. But it is not just the sheer joy of being surrounded every day by shelves and shelves of ever-changing books– it is more than that. It is also about the camaraderie between us, the staff, and the friendships that we’ve built between ourselves and our customers. Some customers are famous, some are infamous, some are crazy as loons and some are eccentric. We have house husbands, house wives, nannies and mannies, heads of film studios, doctors, lawyers, actors, agents and artists and people with only a few dollars to spend because, for the moment, they are down and out. People meet and fall in love in our store. People get married and have babies, and bring those babies to our store and the babies learn to talk and walk and read in our store.  People write in our store; they write poetry, plays and screenplays. Even a hit Broadway musical was written at Portrait of a Bookstore. People even write about us. A very popular television series, written by one of our favorite

customers, takes place in a bookstore just like ours.  But most of our customers are really everyday people looking for a good book or an interesting gift and they come to us because they know we will help them find what they need or die trying (well, die a little emotional death, that is.)

Posted by Julie

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