In the early 80s, I decided to try broadcasting. Small market radio to be specific, meaning not much money but plenty of opportunity to either screw up without repercussion or, perhaps, to do something worth listening to.
My own self imposed poverty in this situation might have shielded me from the recession in which most of the country was engaged, but the obviousness of it in rural Skagit County, where I did my morning show five days a week, was unavoidable. For years, the region thrived on agriculture in the fertile Skagit River delta, commercial fishing in Puget Sound and logging in the seemingly endless stands of Cascade Mountain conifer forests. By the early 80s, all that had changed.
The fish and the logs were no longer endless, produce in the stores no longer local. Many residents of the area were feeling it. The large logging equipment company bearing the name of the county was shuttered. Log trucks sat idle beside their owner’s upriver homes. Mooring lines on the fishing boats in Anacortes remained secured to the piers. Growers changed to raising flowers.
At the radio station, the task was getting enough advertising revenue from struggling businesses to keep the signal on the air.
After throwing the switches on the 5000 watt transmitter each morning, plugging in the coffee, ripping the newswire and delivering my morning show to the listeners, I would often venture out to our advertisers, to learn of their products and services, all the better to deliver their commercial messages between the music, news and sports. In the process, I learned about the people themselves. Not faceless corporations, these, but men and women I would see in town, wave to from the open window of my car, stop and talk to on the retail business street.
It was in this climate that I learned the human quality of small business, local business. I began frequenting their stores, came to view the national chain stores and the malls with distain. It was because of these good, local people that I was able to play at being a DJ; it was their advertising dollars that allowed me to have that experience.
This ethic carried over, past my time in Skagit County and past my radio days. One of the places I practiced what I’d learned was at independent bookstores, particularly used bookstores. Seattle, in those days, was Valhalla for them. Couldn’t swing a dead cat without hitting a small owner-operated bookstore, each unique, each with its own appeal. Some had a specific focus (Cinema Books), others, none at all (The Couth Buzzard). They fed my book habit and I was a willing junky.
It all began to change in the 90s. Operating costs increased; traffic slowed. Barns and Silo came to Seattle. Increasingly, small bookstores went online. I learned that whatever I could find at Mercer Street Books or Twice Sold Tales was available online in orders of magnitude no brick and mortar store could hope to achieve. As local bookstores have disappeared, I’ve migrated to their internet versions and their brethren across this land.
And there are some gems.
I’ve recently been interested in vintage paperbacks, books I once owned and wished to possess again, as well as others I missed, back when they were new. And I’ve made some wonderful discoveries. Not just the books, but the sellers as well.
The most recent of these great finds is Way Station Books, which I found via Abebooks, http://www.abebooks.com/way-station-books-lansing-mi-u.s.a/2457016/sf , but you can also inquire directly by writing to waystationbooks [at] 1spot1.com.
More satisfying than the brilliant copy of John Howard Griffin’s Black Like Me was the exchange via email one morning with the owner, a delightful gentleman and like-minded disciple of the printed word. Upon completing my online order, I received his first dispatch:
RG: “I will send you a request for the payment in a few minutes through PayPal. Thanks so much for the order.”
RG, moments later: “Actually, give me an hour or so. It is pretty early and below zero and the books are elsewhere. I want to confirm that it is in my hands before I send a request for money. thanks again, rg”
Me: “No hurry at all. I’m quite content to await your invoice. Alas, I won’t be back to the keyboard for 8 or 9 hours; working stiff here. Please feel free to process at your convenience. And thx for your kind reply.”
RG: “I should have it in my below-zero hands by noon. That book was required reading in high school in the early 1960’s. I think you will find it a very good and enlightening read. Back with you soon.”
Me: “Thx, sir. This is another acquisition to feed my admiration for vintage paperbacks, but also reclaim a part of my own past; I owned and read this little book in the sixties. It was indeed required reading for school. As intended, it opened a door, had a profound effect upon me then and, like other influences at that impressionable age, stuck. For a lifetime, as it has turned out. There is a line I think I remember verbatim. I’ll be interested to see if it is truly on the page, or if it is merely a blurring of reality, memory and time. I came to select this specific volume from all of those available on Abe because it is the same edition I had then. And because I valued your thoughtful description of its condition. Anyone who puts that much effort into a description of a book gets my vote. Thanks again.”
RG: “Thanks. Books are my thing. Had a brick and mortar but after Bankruptcy and a fire claimed 60 per cent of my stock I am huddled in the basement selling a few books on line. I love it but it is labor intensive and time intensive for less that minimum wage – much less. I am from a generation that was fed honesty, respect, and courtesy and I suspect you were too. Thanks again, rg”
My book arrived three days later, far sooner than expected, and in even better condition than his thoughtful description. It is exactly as I had hoped, virtually the same as the copy I had so long ago. I won’t be letting this one get away. It now has a permanent place on my shelf.
If you read, if, like me, you believe books contain the collective experience of being human, if you find no substitute in life for the fragrance of words on paper, you should meet this guy, if only virtually, as I did.
Find a book from his store. Send an order. I commend Way Station Books to you, with my highest endorsement.
Anyone who signs their email thus, is ok with me:
“I have always imagined that paradise will be a kind of library. – Jorge Luis Borges”