About Us

Contact Us

Friday, August 23, 2002


If people were made of paper, this just might work

By Scott Harrison




Mission Book Shop

I own a little used bookstore in San Francisco. It doesn't matter which one. On those slow gray days when there is little or no business, I sit with my two cats and wonder what happened. Where did everybody go? Did television win? Is the war entirely over? Have people given up reading books?

One cat I have looks like a small mountain lion that's been crossed with a squirrel. The other is a light silver striped gray and he has big blue eyes. He likes to sleep. The brown one likes to sit in the window and watch birds. They're the advertising branch of my business.

I wish they could get people to bring their old books in. That, it turns out, is the hardest part of the used book business. When someone asks me, "Do you buy books?" I feel like saying, "Do fish like water?" But I guess that would be rude.

The two cats lie on their pillows or they sleep side by side under the warm blue lamp. I could write a lot about them, but this isn't about them. It's about one of the people they brought in. For that matter, lots of people come to visit them. Solitary, scraggly guys come in and start petting them and telling them things in whispery gentle voices. Elderly people step near them, smile, and open their eyes like they haven't seen a live cat in a dozen years. Kids love them the ,most, especially small kids. They like to bang on the window in hopes of getting their attention. One child came in to visit the cats with her mother, and when her mother told her it was time to go she started hollering at the top of her voice. "NO! Mommy NO!!" She screamed. I thought her mother was pulling off an arm, the child was yelling so loud!

One day a little girl with frizzy hair and dark brown eyes came in. She went straight for the cat named Kafka, which looks like a little lion. She had a big smile on her face. She picked him up by his shoulders. They stared at each other as she walked with him matter-of-factly across the room over to the small black couch. I didn't want to look! She started telling Kafka, "Sit, Kafka. Sit, Kafka, sit!" I feared if she kept treating Kafka like a dog she was going to get clawed, but when I looked over Kafka was rubbing his face up against hers and giving her chin a friendly lick. I can't figure these things out. Kafka usually doesn't let people handle him this way.

A man came in recently. A withered man. A tired looking man. I noticed the plastic band on his wrist that a jail or hospital would have issued. He asked if I'd take five dollars for a book I'd marked at seven. He said, "That's what I'm going to do when I get ahead a little. I'm going to get a room at the hotel, sit with my book, and get a cat to sit on my lap while I read. That's all that I need."

It looked to me like they'd find him face down in some cold alley if life or the corner liquor store hooked him just a few more times. Empty bottles near by.

I gave it to him for five.

The little girl with the frizzy hair came back to visit the cats a few times. One time I saw her carrying Hank half upside down like a sack of groceries that had gotten out of her control. Then she walked across the room to the black couch. Hank's big blue eyes just peered up helplessly, wondering what it was all about. She put Hank on her lap and started lavishing him with affection, but it looked more like a car wash to me. Hank meowed and leaped away.

Then she went back to Kafka once again. Then ran out the door and left. A day or two later she returned.

One day she found a tall, thin children's book and brought it up to the front desk, over by the blue lamp, and started to read. It was difficult. She struggled with each word like a car trying to get traction on slick ice. When she came to a word she couldn't pronounce, she'd look up at me .

I had work to do. I had to price, do paperwork, and make some important phone calls. She was reading loud enough for the whole store to hear her. I thought, "Hey, I'm busy, kid. Go away." But I found myself giving her hints and helping her sound out the difficult words instead.

She'd sound out each part of the word. Struggling, stumbling, going slowly on. She told me her name was Victoria or I could call her Vicky. Either way.

"What name do you like best?"


She was eight, in the third grade. Her birthday was coming in up in a few weeks.

I noticed that when I gave Victoria my whole, undivided attention, she'd work away at the words on the page in earnest. When I was distracted, she quickly got discouraged and fell silent. She wilted like a plant without water.

After twenty minutes, which must have seemed far longer to someone her age, Victoria went off to pick up Kafka again. Soon afterward she pulled the front door open and departed.

On subsequent visits, Victoria gradually said a few brief things about herself. Her mother was from El Salvador. She lived with her brother and mother three blocks away, behind the new police station. Victoria started regularly coming back. She'd push the door open about three in the afternoon. She frequently stayed till six after phoning her mother. She'd say into the phone, "Mommy, I'm at the bookstore. Can I stay here till six?"

Then after a pause she'd say, "Four? No. Let me stay till six!"

"Please. Six."

"Mommy I want to stay till six. Let me stay!"



"Can I?"

Then, without a good-bye, she'd carefully hang up the phone and tell me, "She said I can stay till six."

I soon discovered that it's a big job to fill up four hours for an active eight year old. Every five minutes it was something else. She'd go after Kafka (who only seemed to like her more and more). Then she'd go after Hank, who was more leery. Then she'd read. Then draw a picture. Then she'd volunteer to help a customer. Then run back to my desk and ask me a dozen quick questions which felt like bees buzzing around my head, but she'd reward me with smiles before running away. She'd run over and play the piano. She even asked if she could help clean. I said, "Sure." So she carefully cleaned the front counter. She swept. She stood on the pillows and washed the big front windows. When I told her one time that business slow, she said, "I'll help. I'll make you a sign!" So in pencil on a post-it note she wrote, "We have great books!" and taped it to the glass of the front door, where everyone would see it as they came in.

When she put her book by the blue lamp and practiced her reading, I was worried at how she had to wrestle with most words. She'd start pronouncing a word, then hold the sound while looking up at me to help. Her eyes were so sincere and she was so determined she melted my heart. I told her, "Reading is very important. It's just hard at first, but if you practice every day, you'll learn to read. Then you'll grow up and be really smart. You just have to keep practicing."

Then she would struggle to finish the page before putting it down and running off to do something else.

One day Victoria was doing something up near my desk and a friend of mine whom I hadn't seen in some time came in.

"This is Victoria, my assistant." I told my friend.

"How do you do, Victoria?"

"Fine." My friend asked what I'd been up to. I said, "Not much." Adding,

“Oh, I wrote this," I reached into my desk and pulled out the novel that I'd spent all last summer writing.

"A whole novel! You wrote this! Congratulations!"

"Thanks. It sure was a lot of work."

"I'll bet. I'm so impressed."

"Nobody's read it yet to tell me if it's any good." I told her.

"I'd love to read it! You know, later, when you get a copy made." She handed it back, "Congratulations again."

"This is a copy," I said, but I guess she didn't hear me, so I set the novel back on my desk. In a few minutes she left.

Victoria, who'd been watching all this, came up close. "You wrote all that?" she asked.


"Could I write a book? I'd like to write a book too."


I got interrupted by the phone and someone coming into sell some used books, but Victoria began to staple together small notebook pages and carefully write out a title page for her book. She erased each word about three times before it was the way she wanted it. Instead of her own name, she wrote, “By Mary Jones.”

"I don't want anyone to know who wrote it," she announced. Then she opened to the first page and started composing her story.

She spent the better part of an hour carefully writing. Quite a lot for a kid who runs on a five-minute clock. She checked with me once or twice after she finished each sentence. Eventually she filled the entire page. It was complete. When her older sister came to pick her up, Victoria said, "Look! I wrote a book."

"That's very good!" her sister said. Then they both left, Victoria taking her book home to show her mom.

I thought about it and decided it was the sweetest compliment on my writing I'd ever received.

When Victoria came in the next day, she said, "My sister is going to be having a baby." Her older sister was eighteen and lived with her boyfriend.

One day I was asking Victoria if she could remember her first day of school. She said, "That's easy."

"It is?"

"Yes. They made fun of me."


"The other kids."


"I don't know."

She didn't linger on this and brood like an adult naturally would. She just picked up and went on.

Recently, a girl at her school told her, "Your mother is ugly!"

It made her mad. She didn't want anyone to say anything bad about her mother, so Victoria replied, "Your mother is stupid and ugly!"

One time I asked Victoria who her very best friend was and she said, "The building!"

"That's not an answer. Who's your best friend?"

She just repeated herself, "The building!" with a smile and a laugh.

What did that mean? I wondered.

The more afternoons Victoria came by the bookstore and carried the cats and played the piano and ran about and read, the more respect I had for her mother.

One day Victoria said she was bored. Then, like a missile going off, she just

exploded into activity. She'd look at me, make a face or act silly, then burst into laughter. She was laughing so hard she could barely breathe. (I know I look funny but ...) She worked herself into hysterics, leaped up, ran over by the front window, and started doing jumping jacks, FAST. Then she ran around the store, doing figure eights around the posts. I wondered how I could get her to calm down. She ran over to the piano and started to play and dance at the same time. She shrieked with delight and decided to play a game with me while I was attempting to answer the phone and deal with customers. She filled a great big bag with books, then insisted on paying for them with book marks. As many times as I tried to tell her, "No, these aren't any good," she got in the way of everyone, talking louder and louder. And when I didn't think I couldn't stand any more, she cranked her noise and commotion up more!

I wanted to grab her. Set her down in a chair and say, "STAY! Don't MOVE! Please, Victoria, shut up!"

But I couldn't bear becoming a parent or policeman to her. I just wanted to find a nice way to calm her down before she drove me nuts. I couldn't figure out how.

Eventually she did calm down. I survived! I guess even a bad storm will blow over. She even ran over and diligently washed the big front windows with the Windex and handfuls of paper towels.

I was gaining more and more respect for her mother all the time. How does she

do it?

After Victoria got her coat and left that afternoon, I realized she wasn't misbehaving or being bad with all her commotion. It was just pure youthful exuberance. Crackling energy. She was so full of laughter and happiness, brimming with the charm of being a kid. Was it a child or a cyclone?

Soon afterward, Victoria came in again. She marched over to Kafka. Then to Hank, who gave a meow of protest. I saw Hank being carried askew again, across the room to the black couch A big grin on her face. The cats ran for cover after a few minutes. Then Victoria came over to my desk and pulled out an old tattered children's book she'd been reading. She paused from her book somewhere along the way and said to me, "You don't shout at people I've noticed. Not even kids." Then went ahead wrestling and stumbling with the words she was trying to pronounce.

One time we were reading a book of questions for kids. One of the questions asked, "What's the luckiest thing that has happened to you in your life?"

She turned her head shyly and said to me, "The day I met you."

I guess some things are better than money.