Category Archives: The Other Day at Portrait…

I know what “a cappella” means.

Their parents must have been savoring a long post-meal linger in the cafe’s back garden, because two young teen gal-pals wandered into the children’s section in search of amusement.  Their clothing fascinated me.  Conventionally unconventional in that teen-uniform sort of way – a mix of Madonna, grunge, and Goth.  Sneakers, red & black plaid net mini skirt over shorts on one, denim mini over leggings on the other, tank tops, cropped jackets with necklaces, leather buckled bracelets, tousled hair with turquoise streak, etc.  My generation, at their age, was still dressed by their mothers in girly frocks an inconceivable universe away from such street-smarts. They idly perused past a few teen titles: the goth tale The Replacement, and from the Twilight series The Short Second Life of Bree Tanner.  Then to my surprise one of them caught sight of a fairy-themed play tea set and fell in love.

Oh, enchanting moment, to see the Miley Cyrus carapace crack open and reveal the sweet youth still imagining within.  Soon enough the luminous lofting soap-bubble between-worlds fairy delicacy will thud to earth, perhaps in vampire leather and heavy eye-liner or hip-hop army boots with hot-pants and knit beanie.  But this moment still held a wrestle between a fairy tea-party and an allowance just shy of enough to pay for it.  After intense debate with her pal about whether this particular purchase merited her entire cash reserve, the decision was finally made in the negative.

Summit concluded, her financial adviser turned and picked up the vintage classic moo-in-a-can toy.  I remember this toy from my childhood. Its simple goofiness seems to be persistently attractive – there’s even an i-phone ap that brings it into the cy-world.  Of course part of its charm is that the cow (or lamb, or goat, or whatever) never sounds very real…more the slightly strangled groan/croak of some indeterminate species.  The girls convulsed into giggles and began an a cappella chorus for cow, sheep and two voices. The possibilities were too rich, and by the time I was done with my enthusiastic instigation they had escalated into full beat-box farm rap opera with all the sound effects. I was in school choir.  I know what a cappella means.  But I would never have had the nerve to leap into the kind of wild scratches, buzzes, moans, and pops these little divas were throwing out. They took a bow, then bopped off to check on their parents, and my eyes fell upon two books nearby.  Air Guitar by Dave Hickey is a terriffc collection of jazz club-honky tonk-art gallery-hot rod-surf shop essays on creativity and art and our big, messy Democracy.  He likes to take seemingly unrelatable things and remark on how they tango together to make Art.  Like, possibly, baby’s moo-cow toy and beat box riffing.  Perfect segue to the next book over:  Becoming Jimi Hendrix by Steven Roby and Brad Schreiber, the thorough and thoroughly riveting biography of the shy, spacey, apparently chronically untogether young guitarist whose wild sonic experiments got him rejected as an ugly duckling at home, who journeyed away to foreign lands (well, England) where his strangeness took the rock scene by storm, who returned home a glorious Swan God of Music.  Hail! all ye eccentrics riffing the sounds in your heads, who can still see fairies, possibly adorning yourself in plaid netting and/or a worked-over tee – we at the bookstore are happy to egg you on!

-Jane

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Mattie

Mattie had such soulful eyes that you could almost read her thoughts. And Mattie’s thoughts were always welcoming and cheerful.  She was in many ways the neighborhood mascot. Our small neighborhood, sometimes referred to as Tujunga Village, is much more than a lovely place to shop and eat– it is a caring community of shopkeepers, neighborhood coffee-istas, book lovers and folks who just like to hang out and chat.

We all knew Mattie and thought she was an exemplary dog, so well-behaved.  She must have learned her manners from her very caring and always polite owner, Joe.  None of that barking, yipping, slobbering, jumping and yes, even snarling, that other dogs sometimes exhibit when visiting the neighborhood shops.  No, Mattie was friendly but calm and reserved, a model of good behavior.  One look into her eyes and you knew you were in the presence of a very old soul who knew what was what and acted accordingly.

Unlike Tulip, the German Shepherd of the renowned book, and J. R. Ackerley, her owner, Mattie and Joe were bonded at first sight when a co-worker brought the 10-month old puppy to work, stood at Joe’s office door and said, “Joe, this is your new dog.”  Whereupon the pup jumped out of her arms, ran around the desk, jumped onto Joe’s lap, curled up and promptly went to sleep.  That was the beginning of their 13-year love affair.

Joe’s Mattie passed away recently, at home, in her sleep.  She was his constant companion for all those years and everyone became accustomed to seeing her by his side for walks in the neighborhood and visits to the shops, restaurants and coffee houses. We will miss her greatly and remember her fondly.

 

Fondly,

Donna

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Terrorism: The Extremely Faint Silver Lining

The World does pass through the bookstore, and last week Africa made an appearance.  A young man came browsing, so fresh and sunny that I was compelled to ask him his story.  Turns out that at 22 (fresh indeed!), Seth Maxwell is President of The Thirst Project (a title that he still finds faintly startling).  A billion people worldwide try to survive without clean water: in its 2-1/2 short years of life The Thirst Project has raised over $300,000 to complete 5 well-water projects in Ethiopia, 3 in Uganda, 1 in Niger, and Seth was just back from their latest effort in Swaziland.  That’s 34,000 rural lives dramatically improved.

Let’s see…uh…22, 21, 20…he was 19 1/2 when he and 8 buddies started this? You can hardly help thinking…what was I doing at that age?   I was in college too, but my spare time was spent at Love-ins and Janis Joplin concerts.  It’s true I joined the crowds at the Berkeley Free Speech protests and the civil rights sit-in at the San Francisco Sheraton Palace Hotel, but the current of the 60’s that caught me swirled towards Rishikesh, India rather than Selma, Alabama.  Who knows where Seth thought he might be pointed those few years ago, but standing on a street corner handing out bottles of water to raise money for what he thought was a one-off good work, he got grabbed up in a wave that swirled him to Swaziland instead.  See what that looks like here (click to download pdf).

A few days later, another shiny spirit stopped at our counter. Irresistible smile, glorious halo of curls, eyes that sent out sparks of light. Again, I simply had to know. My question turned her from snooping the New Nonfiction section and she replied, “Well, I came in to see if maybe you were carrying my book, A Princess Found “.  As it turned out, we didn’t have it (our jewel box size is enchanting, but it is the size of a jewel box).  And so I had the pleasure of Sarah Culberson’s charm as she explained the surprise of where she started and where she has found herself.  Adopted, raised by a loving family in West Virginia – when she finally came to be curious about her birth roots she found herself stepping through the looking glass into the very other world of war-savaged Sierra Leone.  She carries royal blood, and is returning an unexpected harvest from the wild oats of her father’s youth, sown so far afield. Her Kposowa Foundation is building a school and digging wells for fresh, clean water for the chiefdom of Bumpe.

The only extremely faint silver lining to the terrorism situation is that now  some might actually have a slightly better grasp of where Niger, Swaziland or Sierra Leone are than perhaps Selma, Alabama or Morgantown, West Virginia.  The currents swirl and you never know where you’ll end up…including here, talking to us in the bookstore, who are so interested to find out what’s your story.

P.S.  Water, water! These stories have got me haunted by Joni Mitchell’s sidereal version of “Cool Water”.

-Jane

[Ed: It has been brought to my attention that the title of this post may be misleading. I ask you how it is that people came to be so thirsty.

-Aida]

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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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