What is a time of joy for many women was my darkest hour.
The cost of a book has never been a mystery to me. I can’t remember learning to read and write without learning to add, learning to budget. My knowledge of numbers came with a careful awareness of their scarce allocation.
For the first part of my life, my mom was on welfare, my dad was a busker, and my stepmom a writer. They were all wildly creative, loving, and fun, but no one had much extra money. I never felt deprived, but the limits of what I could access were also very clear.
When I’d ask my mom if we could do something that involved money, she’d never give me an unqualified no. She’d pull out her green-lined ledger book, and show me what we had allocated for entertainment for the month, and how she planned to spend it.
These conversations shaped the way I made sense of the world. Things cost money, we didn’t have very much of that, so getting things and doing things were careful, labored decisions. That was simply a fact, and most of the time, it was okay.
We lived close to a beautiful old library that was well-stocked. I often lost my library card, but memorized the 14-digit barcode number. I took out as many books as I possibly could and felt like literary royalty dragging my heavy tote bag home.
But a week was never enough to read them all, and the late fines added up until my memorized barcode was no good anymore. My mom started slipping library receipts into my birthday cards. It was a sign that I was in good standing again, that the door to the library was open to me (until I had more fines, at least).
I wanted to buy my own books, so I could read quickly or slowly without deadlines or fines. I loved the library, but it was a fickle friend.
Once, I bought an entire 1940s encyclopedia set at a yard sale. I thought that if I read it all, I’d know everything there was to know. Halfway through A, my mom kindly pointed out that I’d still have another 50 years of knowledge to catch up on once I was done. I gave up the project, but kept the books.
Then, when I was 10 years old, I found Greenfield Books, a used bookstore only a few blocks from my dad’s house. The first time I walked in, I was absolutely smitten. There were some current books, but most were older, antique-like, beautiful romantic books.
I saw the penciled-in prices -- $10, $15, $20 -- unobtainable numbers to little me. I could spend a whole month’s allowance on one precious old book, but that would mean no candy, only one book, and no chance of paying any library fines.
Never one to go without candy or a plan, I walked up to the shopkeeper, and offered my proposal.
A lot of books had been replaced out of order, and I was very good with my alphabet, I explained. I could help clean up their shelves, and they didn’t need to pay me any money -- I just wanted the books.
Surprisingly, the shopkeeper didn’t dismiss this 10-year-old proposition -- but only as long as my mom agreed too.
I told my mom about my plan, that I was going to work in a bookstore for these old, beautiful, gold-edged books with ribbons pressed between their pages, and then we went back to Greenfield Books together. I showed her where the books were out of order, and I showed her all the books that I wanted, opening the front covers to their little penciled-in prices.
Mom approved of the shop and its keeper, and vouched for my alphabetizing skills. The three of us made a verbal contract for my first job.
I’d only work Saturday mornings, but I’d call in on Thursday to see if there was work for me that weekend. Mom would drop me off, and I’d walk over to my dad’s after. My wage was $5.35 an hour -- $5 for minimum wage, and $0.35 to cover the tax on the books.
I’d start the next week, at 10 a.m.
I felt like I’d stepped into the adult world that, until then, was only happening around me. My name was in a green-lined ledger book, and I would be making my own numbers happen.
Weekends were often spent at my dad’s, and since I’d now promised that time to work, I had to change my schedule a bit. This was a grown-up matter, so I decided to handle it in a way that mirrored the grown-ups’ actions, and invited my stepmom out for coffee.
Technically, my stepmom had all the coffee; I had a very fancy adult-style pear juice, wearing pants that were too short for me (to which I was oblivious), a T-shirt, and my grandfather’s tie, which just made sense to add onto the outfit. I was an official Person With a Job now.
I broke the news: I had a job at the bookstore, keeping the shelves in order, so I might not always be there on Saturday mornings, but I’d come over right after work. She was proud, or happy, or whatever the appropriate response was towards a 10-year-old who now had a job and wanted to be taken seriously.
My stepmom -- and all the other adults in my life -- never laughed or brushed me off. No one said that I had to work, and no one said I was silly for thinking that I should, even if my tie was a little lopsided.
When I started my first shift, I knew I was working for a set of four books -- turquoise covers, velvety brown ribbons, and golden embossed spines, the most divine books I’d ever seen. They were about ancient Egyptian mythology, the Pyramids, hieroglyphics -- all of my favorite topics at the time.
So I set up at the back of the store, and started scanning spines, catching misfiles, and tidying up the shelves. After a few hours, the shopkeeper called me over to the counter and asked if I wanted to take a book today or save up for next week.
I pulled the first Egypt book off the shelf, and felt both pride and fear. What if the other three sold before I could work enough for them? I knew I’d be heartbroken if I came back next week and they were gone, so I offered up my second proposal.
If I knew which books I wanted to work for, could they be put aside? The shopkeeper compromised: the books would stay on the shelf, but no one else would be allowed to buy them for a month.
It was a hybrid first-dibs/layaway system, and considering it was a small store, and I was 10 and had only officially worked a day in my life, it was more than fair.
Week by week, I worked my way from the back of the store to the front, tidying every shelf. Being among the books was never boring. I learned that not all beautiful old books are fascinating; beyond their gilded covers, many were quite dry. Some were terribly expensive for reasons I couldn’t quite understand. Some were kept under glass. And some of them, secretly, had my name on them.
I much preferred working with books over forgetting dates and being fined. Even then, managing debt was an unpleasant task.
After I had earned all four of my Egypt books, the shopkeeper told me that though I’d done a great job with the shelves, they didn’t really have a lot of customers messing up the store. I had work for that day, but probably wouldn’t need to come back.
Before I was done, I found another special book to add to my collection: The Return of Sherlock Holmes. At 304 pages, it would keep me from craving a new book for at least a few weeks.
At the end of my short bookstore career, I had five new gorgeous spines prominently displayed on my bookshelf, and a lot of reading ahead of me. Even better, I got my Saturday mornings back for regular 10-year-old activities, like playing baseball and going for Slurpees. It was great, all of a sudden, to have all that time to do whatever I wanted.
Maybe, I thought, I wouldn’t get another job just yet.