10,000 Books in the Basement

Not my basement. My mom’s basement. My basement was full of boxes of stuff that we hadn’t unpacked since New Mexico. And more boxes that we hadn’t unpacked since Virginia. And a futon that Greg slept on, because I was 7 months pregnant, and I sure as hell wasn’t going to share the queen bed with him.

I was, in fact, having a nice sleep-in on that queen bed while Greg played an early weekend round of whatever monsters and blood & guts video game he had on the PlayStation. My phone rang and I saw that it was, not surprisingly, my mother. We talked pretty frequently on the phone, and as I was carrying her very first grandchild, I was expecting the typical “are you feeling ok?” conversation.

“Hi mom.”

“Hiii… So you’re feeling ok?”

“Yeah, you know, I wish I could get more sleep and everything. And I have this big paper due on Tuesday and a final in International Political Economy, so I suppose I should be working on that stuff instead of sleeping in, right?” I knew she liked to make sure I was keeping up with my homework.

“Yeah I guess you should! Well I have a question. How would you like to own a bookstore?”

My mom has a unique way of introducing topics. My sister and I call it the “momtrain” – she kind of blasts through a conversation like a freight train, and if you aren’t ready for it, you can get a bit confused.

“What?”

“Well I called Pat to order some books from her and I ended up having a long conversation with her about the store. She’s thinking of getting out of the business, and I think it would be a real shame for all of those books to go to someone who doesn’t specialize in Jane Austen like she does, you know?”

“Um….” …and so it began.

My mom and I did a lot of the business planning and financial stuff in the next few weeks. We went up to Chicago to see the books and talk over the details of the transition with the previous owner, me carting around my big pregnant belly and trying very hard not to let Chicago traffic cause me to go into labor. I was luckily a little too busy creating life to help move 10,000 books from Chicago to Cleveland – in July. But I sure didn’t escape the work of cataloging, categorizing, labelling, pricing, and more that went on over the next few months.

Our “coming out” was at the JASNA AGM in Chicago – fitting, as the previous home of the bookstore. We would be bringing not only the books, but the new baby. At 10 weeks, my little Colin was still just figuring out all of that eating and pooping stuff that they do, but boy did he look adorable as a mini Mr Darcy.  We were totally taken aback by the swarm of shoppers – there were several points at which I was delicately nestling my dear boy in the crook of my left elbow, while my right hand was in a frenzy, scribbling receipts like a mad woman. It was intense, bizarre, overwhelming, and just about the most fun I’ve ever had.

Colin as Mr Darcy in 2008…
…and again in 2009

Of course, we should have known that we’d get swarmed. Not only is Chicago a book town, but this was a conference full of people JUST LIKE US. The only difference between us and them is that while they love books so much that they just can’t walk past a bookshop without buying one, we love books so much that we couldn’t walk past without buying the whole darn store.

Which brings me back to the basement. Over the next few months we finally settled in, got everything alphebetized, got Colin a real shirt, and spread further and further into every last available nook and cranny of my parents’ basement. Any hopes of a future pool table were dashed! Space for band practice disappeared! Amplifiers and exercise equipment, old bedroom furniture, books about things other than Jane Austen were banished upstairs! The books spread like locusts, their innocently charming subject matter doing nothing to obscure the menacing rapidity of their growth!

Or something like that.

Of course, there is a simple solution – we could just sell all of the books, and run off to the East Indies with boatloads of cash and an empty basement! That’s totally how it works. Just ask any bookseller “How can I make a million dollars selling books?” and they’ll tell you the secret!

No, seriously, it’s pretty cool having a mom with a basement full of books. In fact, the hardest part about running the bookstore is parting with some of the amazing things we have, especially if they’re sold before any of us gets to read them. Maybe book lovers shouldn’t be in the business selling books, I don’t know, but every now and then we get a really nice used copy of something that someone else has already gone to the trouble of beating up a little, so we don’t feel so bad about sneaking a read.

So now I’ve let the cat out of the bag – there are truly some great perks to running this little bookstore. One of the best is that we get to take “business trips” to some really awesome places. We were already members of JASNA for years before we got into the Jane Austen Books business, but we very rarely had the pleasure of attending an AGM. Now we have to go, and even though we spend the whole time working crazy long hours, carrying literally tons of books around a hotel in our grownup clothes, carting babies back and forth across the country, dressing said babies in costumes they will hate us for, and working ourselves into little worn out, frazzled husks of our former selves, we also get to sneak away to breakout sessions, chat with our friends in Austen-speak, and meet authors we look up to like movie stars! We got an order from David Gilson in our first week! Juliet McMaster says hi to us and asks us about our kids! Joan Ray sent me an email!!!!

Frenzied!
Costumed!
Overworked!

It’s just a bit too much to take in, isn’t it. We are incredibly lucky to have the opportunity to do the things we do, and pass on some of the fantastic books and merchandise we have, much of which would be out of reach for many of our customers, since much of it still comes from overseas. Because as bustling and crowded and busy as the Austen world seems to those of us pre-Firth-shirt fans, it is still largely driven by a small core of passionate fans – of course, many of whom are members of JASNA – but we are the crazy ones who, having once dipped our toes into the mysterious pool of Jane’s genius, were swept away beyond the shore into lands of fantasy re-writes, Bollywood adaptations, and the in-est of in-joke t-shirts. We are the ones who flock to a screening of a new movie just so we can complain about the things they left out. We are the ones who drive our spouses crazy by saying things like “don’t even joke, you are so not clever enough to be Mr Palmer!”

And for the forseeable future, we, – my mother, my sister and I – are the ones who are pulling that book you really want off the shelf for you, flipping through it as we pretend to gather packing material, knowing that we’re never going to see this book again because it’s rare, as so many of our books are, and sending it out to you, out of the basement and into the world, ready to enlighten or entertain. We are a humble little bunch of people, and we are still learning how to do this whole bookstore thing, but it is as much a part of our lives now as our children.

Lucky for the kids though, they weren’t alive before we had the bookstore, so they’ll never know about all the cool stuff they missed in that pre-bookstore basement. I mean seriously, Dad’s band was pretty good.

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