Personal Stories of America at Work

The Book Dork

Independent bookstore owner Kathleen Caldwell writes a sequel for a small store that’s rich with relationships

"I’m never going to be rich, but I get to do amazing things and meet amazing people."

“Kathleen does not immediately strike me as an independent bookstore owner. No artsy reading glasses. No thin scholar’s physique. Instead, I get the feeling, as she gazes intently at me, that she does not suffer fools. Interviewed outside a cafe in the hillside community of Montclair, in Oakland, California, Kathleen was interrupted multiple times by passersby who asked about a book, a reading or how business had been that weekend. Kathleen is a real fixture in the neighborhood.”

- Chronicler and Managing Editor Molly Rosen

How it all started

After having spent twenty years in the book business, as a buyer, editor, publicity agent and events coordinator, I was fired for the first time in my life. I had started the job one year before and soon realized that I’d made a big mistake. I went to work at a bookstore for someone that I thought I knew; I trusted him like I would a friend. But then I started catching him in lies, like about his education. He spied on me and went through my emails. At one staff meeting, he told all of us that we should “work in fear mode,” scared to lose our jobs at any moment. It was also the year that I let my ego get the best of me. I went into that job thinking I could book any author. The combination of his attitude plus my arrogance did not work out. I have never let my ego get the best of me since.

I was fired two days after my fortieth birthday. I was depressed for the first time in my life—this was not where I had planned to be at forty: unbearably unhappy and kicked out on my butt from an industry I loved. That summer (2004), I had some time to reflect on what I really wanted. I realized that while I desperately wanted to stay in the book business, I knew I’d be OK no matter what happened. I ended that summer feeling more secure than I ever had in my life. I was out of a terrible situation.

At the end of the summer, I needed to find a job. I went to the Northern California Independent Booksellers Association and met Debi Checkland, who owned A Great Good Place for Books. She had overheard me telling someone that if I didn’t find a job that weekend, I was going to have to look for a job outside the book industry, something I really didn’t want to have to do.

Debi asked me for my resume and hired me two days later.

I’ve never met anyone I clicked with that quickly. I introduced her to all my friends and she even started dating one of them, my good friend Mitchell. Six months after working for her, she took me out for my birthday and said, “If something happens to me, I am going to give you the store.” I said, “Oh, yeah, right.” She continued, “I want to make sure there’s someone who is going to take it where I want it to go.” I was amazed but had no expectation that it would ever come to pass since Debi was healthy and full of life. She drew up the papers. I put it in the proverbial “What if” file, and just forgot all about it.

One morning, seven months later, the day after Thanksgiving, Debi didn’t show up for work. I thought it was possible she was out with Mitchell, having a wonderful time. But my intuition told me something was wrong the minute she didn’t show up; I had a really eerie feeling because it was totally out of character for her to be incommunicado for twenty-four hours. The next morning Mitchell called me and said, “Where’s my girl?”

I drove around the local canyons to see if there was a recent car accident. I came back to work and started calling people. Someone who used to take care of her dog still had keys to the house. About 3 p.m. he went over there and I left to meet him. As I walked up to the door, he came out, shaking his head, saying, “She’s gone.”

Debi had extremely high blood pressure, and she died of heart complications. Her mother died the exact same way at the same age. Debi always lived her life like she knew she wasn’t going to be here a long time.

She was only fifty-two.

The police came, then the fire department, and then the coroner. I waited until the coroner took her away.

I came back to the store that night. We were all in shock. We didn’t announce it until Monday morning and just put a sign on the door on that Sunday after Thanksgiving saying there was a family emergency. When we opened up Monday morning, we had a single red candle with her photo and flowers in the window.

That afternoon someone looked at me and said, “What’s going to happen to the store?” And I said, “Well, actually, she left it to me.”

I was in shock. Within days I went from doing my own thing to running a business. I knew everything would be OK. But I didn’t know how it was going to be OK. I had absolute faith that it would all work out. Debi and I seemed to be on this copacetic rollercoaster together. I had the feeling that Debi wouldn’t let anything go wrong. We were heading into the holiday season, and she had entrusted me to make the store a success.

It was scary at first. The money was tied up. Her family froze the bank accounts while the will was worked out. We were cut off from all our suppliers, except for a few of the publishers like Random House, Baker Taylor and Penguin, because the accounts were all in Debi’s name.

We made it through that holiday season with a lot of support from the community. The response was amazing. I still have all the emails. People wanted the store to stay, so they were really supportive.

Debi’s best friend, Nancy, gave me her credit card to use. She also came in to do inventory with us. That whole year she was amazing. Nancy’s husband still does all my computer stuff.

I learned then that I was part of the bigger picture. I always thought I wasn’t going to have much of my own community because I don’t have kids. But that Christmas, I realized that I have more community than a lot of people with kids. I feel like I’m one of the luckiest people you’ll meet.

Relationships with authors are key

I think, in any business, if you’re going to be successful, it’s completely based on relationships. Relationships with authors are key in this business, both big-name authors and less-known ones. Let me give you the example of Amy Bloom. She wrote Come To Me in ’93. Nobody knew who she was then, but I loved the book. It was the year of huge rainstorms and floods here in the Bay Area. So at the reading it was me and Amy and two drunk homeless guys. The four of us spent forty-five minutes going around sharing our favorite books. Now Amy has become well-known, but she still comes to read at the store whenever she’s in town.

There is only one time I have been tongue-tied, and that’s when I had to introduce Anna Quindlen. She was my hero in college. She was who all of us who had studied journalism wanted to be. She was the mother ship. I was young, in my twenties, and when she sat beside me, I started to stutter. She grabbed my hand and said, “Don’t be nervous. I read People Magazine too.” I realized that even though she was my hero, she was a person just like me.

I met J.K. Rowling, “Jo,” at a small pre-publishing dinner for the first Harry Potter book. I was invited by my friend, Roz, who is the Scholastic rep. Few people in the U.S. knew who Jo was then. There were only about twenty-five people at the restaurant in San Francisco. Roz introduced me to Jo as the “book bitch.” It was a nickname I had been given by a guy at a tradeshow when I stopped him from stealing another book from the Scholastic booth.

Jo and I just clicked. Later, on tour for the fourth book, her publisher required booksellers to submit proposals to book her for an event. I was working at a Sonoma bookseller at the time and told Roz my idea of doing a joint event with another local bookstore. We got the booking, and 2,300 showed up. When Jo left the event, she whispered in my ear, “Everyone needs a book bitch.”

Another author I adored was Frank McCourt. I stalked him at a conference to get him to come read at the store. And he did. Frank and his brother would sing to me whenever we’d run into each other. I was at a trade show in Chicago, and I heard someone singing I’ll Take You Home Again Kathleen down one of the aisles. It’s an old Irish song. It turned out to be Frank and Malachy singing to me. They reminded me of my Dad and his brother. They all had these black Irish senses of humor. Like, “ah, a’ire life sooks. But we’re gonna have a goot time anyway!”

Frank couldn’t believe all his good fortune. He was always generous. When he died, the world lost a really amazing creature. He was one of the kindest and funniest human beings I knew.

I’m also a firm believer in supporting our local authors. I think they know that I love the work, that I’m going to be honest with them. That I’m going to hold their confidence and talk to them during the writing process. I see early drafts and give feedback. It’s so awesome to be a part of it, to say I saw it from the very beginning.

A safe place for dorks

Anyone who works for me has to be a book dork. Books have to be a really important part of their life. I don’t want someone who just wants a part-time job. They have to love books.

Some of the kids who work at the store are kind of dorky. I was kind of dorky too. I went through a cool phase, but then I decided that cool really wasn’t who I was. So I went back to dork. I don’t want my store to be the place for popular kids to work. I want the dorks to come work for me. I want a safe place for dorks.

I have a dress code that I had to institute because of one employee. She looked pretty normal when she interviewed, but she showed up on her first day of work in chains, a pentagram connected to a piercing somewhere, and her hair dyed pink.  I told her, “Honey, this just isn’t appropriate attire for a bookstore in Montclair.”

I instituted a policy that you needed a hair color that is found in nature. Next she showed up with leopard print hair! I had to fine-tune the hair policy to say the hair color has to be found on humans in nature. I loved that she pushed me. She pushed me all the time.

A clean toilet and cookies for the kids

The small bookstores that consider themselves part of the community are the ones that are going to make it. I think you have to ingratiate yourself into the community, so I never say no to someone who comes in for a gift certificate for their school auction. I let kids do internships. I let the kids review books. Cookies for the kids is a key marketing tool.

Kids are allowed to do whatever they want in the store as long as they don’t hurt themselves. I even have special scissors for the kids now because one of them was doing an art project at the store. When her parents turned around, she gave herself a little haircut.

I also let people use my bathroom. I know that sounds lame, but there are so many merchants in this area where the bathroom is off-limits. I figured it costs me an extra twenty bucks per week to have someone come in to clean the toilet an extra day. But I figure the money I invest in that has made a twofold return in my business.

I get to do what makes me happy

I’m never going to be rich, but I get to do amazing things and meet amazing people. I work six days a week, sometimes ten to twelve hours a day. I take one day off a week: Tuesdays. And this Tuesday they called me three times.

I have chosen a different life. I have made sacrifices, and I don’t regret it. I haven’t had kids, though I do have a lot of kids in my life. I haven’t been able to travel as much as I’d like. I don’t have a steady relationship. I would need someone who either doesn’t mind that I work six days a week, or wants to be part of it all without being bossy.

But I’m lucky because I really love my work. I love the people. I love everybody who comes in. I get to do what I want most every day. I get to do what makes me happy.

I love the growth in our community. I love the fact that kids come in and want to work behind the counter. I love the fact that parents come in and say, “My kid never read before, and they’re now reading because of you.” To me, that’s my job. To be a steward to the next generation.

The names of the original bookstore owner and her best friend have been changed to protect her family’s privacy.

thumb_mollyrosen2 Molly Rosen | November 23, 2010 | Publishing, Small business, Women | 3

3 Responses to The Book Dork

  1. elisa says:

    Love how you tell it all , and from the heart, Kathleen! Happy Anniversary, and many more.

  2. Debbie says:

    My almost daily stops in Montclair wouldn’t be complete without a visit to browse, buy a book or just say hi to Kathleen and her wonderful staff! I feel welcome and at home every time I walk in the door. Thank you for sharing your story, Kathleen! And, Happy Anniversary.

  3. Lisa and Gordon says:

    What a great story, and we LOVE independent bookstores! We’ll have to check you out next time we drive up to visit our son at Cal.
    Lisa and Gordon, San Jose

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