On Thursday afternoon a young woman came into the book store. She stood and looked at the Sale table for a few moments, then wandered into the section that holds Metaphysics, Religion, Self-Help and Psychology. She stood there. I was sitting at the second computer station cleaning books so I was looking straight at her. She looked intent, as if she were searching for something, and at the same time like she didn’t know what she was looking for. That sounds contradictory, but it’s a look I’m sure I carry often so I felt a bit of kinship with her.
She came up to the counter. It looked like it took some guts to do that. She said she had a stupid question; she’d never been in a bookstore before. Libraries, yes, she said, but not a store. Was it all right to look at the books? Could she even read part of the book? Was that okay?
Yes, we said, that was okay. I pointed out where we had some chairs. You can read parts of the book. (Some mothers with young children come into the Kids’ Section, sit on the comfy new carpet, and read entire books to their youngsters.) She nodded and turned away. We’re open until seven, we said. Take as long as you want.
Less than a minute later she was back. Okay, now we would think she was really stupid, but… she wanted a book to read, for pleasure, and she didn’t know any authors or any books. She had a list of characteristics, though; she wanted something made up, not real; it could be short stories or all one story, she didn’t care; it had to have dry humor.
She had never chosen, on her own, a book to read for pleasure before.
I went into the Fiction Room with her and we looked around. I quizzed her a little more about what she liked. Ghosts and vampires were okay, but she thought what she would prefer was something more chick-lit and soapy. Unfortunately, that’s not a genre I’m very familiar with, but she knew Chelsea Handler (which got us into humor) and she knew who Neil Gaiman was because she had read Sandman. Her sister read mysteries, she said, but she didn’t want to start with a mystery.
I knew there was more to this story.
She asked me how you pick out a book that you like. I had to think. I told her about reading the back cover because it told you a little bit about what the book was about. I said I usually read the first few pages, and then flipped to somewhere in the middle and read a page (not too close to the end, I said, because of spoilers) to see if it was still interesting.
Can I always tell if a book was going to be good?
No, I cannot.
I left her to browse and went back to cleaning books, but we ended up talking some more a few minutes later. She said she wanted to write a story or a screenplay. She loves movies; she’d love to write a screenplay but she doesn’t know how. I took her over to the reference section. At this moment, we are out of screenplay books, but I told her about a couple I knew of. “I think if I’m going to write, I have to read a lot first,” she said, displaying more wisdom in one sentence than a half-dozen wannabe writers I’ve met.
She’d been in foster care, she said. She had teachers who helped her write when she was in school, and she wrote stories and poems, but since she’d graduated from high school she’d been too busy trying to get by. She had tried the Junior College and dropped out, but now, she said, she had a plan, and was going back in January. She had a story she wanted to tell, she said, but she had a story; she wasn’t just her story. I told her I thought she had many stories and I hoped to read them someday.
Later Brandy told me she bought one book, a Sarah Silverman collection. She told Brandy she wanted to see if she could make it through one book before she bought a whole bunch. She thanked Brandy and me for, she said, not making her feel stupid.
I realized how much I take bookstores for granted; how much I take books for granted. And I don’t think her life is a tragedy; lots of people don’t read books for pleasure. They read magazines and watch TV and movies. I do think, though, that in her case, her life was impoverished just a bit because she was in a system that met her needs, but didn’t think about taking her to a bookstore after school one day. Some foster parent probably would have, if she had asked, but how do you ask about bookstores if you don’t know about bookstores?
She’s probably twenty or a little older; she’s taking steps to take care of herself. I hope she liked Sarah Silverman. I hope she comes back, and I hope she starts to write. And later that day while I was putting books on shelves, I started imagining what a one-hour-a-week writing group at a foster youth support program like VOICES might look like.