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Tess Monaghan wanted to love the funky little children's bookshop that had opened just two years ago among the used bookstores that lined Twenty-Fifth Street in North Baltimore. There was so much to admire about it—the brightly painted miniature rockers and chairs on the converted sun porch, the mynah bird who said "Hi, Hon!" and "Hark, who goes there!" and—best of all—"Nevermore."
She coveted the huge Arnold Lobel poster opposite the front door, the one that showed a bearded man-beast happily ensconced in a tiny cottage that was being overtaken by ramshackle towers of books. She appreciated the fact that ancillary merchandise was truly a sideline here; this shop's business was books, with only a few stuffed animals and Fancy Nancy boas thrown into the mix. Tess was grateful that gift-wrapping was free year-round and that the store did out-of-print book searches. She couldn't wait until her own two-year-old daughter, Carla Scout, was old enough to sit quietly through the Saturday story hour, although Tess was beginning to fear that might not be until Carla Scout was a freshman in college. Most of all, she admired the counterintuitive decision to open a bookstore when so many people seemed to assume that books were doomed.
She just thought it would be nice if the owner of The Children's Bookstore actually liked children.
"Be careful," the raven-haired owner growled on this unseasonably chilly October day as Carla Scout did her Frankenstein stagger toward a low shelf of picture books. To be fair, Carla Scout's hands weren't exactly clean, as mother and daughter had just indulged in one of mother's favorite vices, dark chocolate peanut clusters from Eddie's grocery. Tess swooped in with a napkin and smiled apologetically at the owner.
"Sorry," she said. "She loves books to pieces. Literally, sometimes."
"Do you need help?" the owner asked, as if she had never seen Tess before. Tess's credit card begged to differ.
"Oh ... no, we're looking for a birthday gift, but I have some ideas. My aunt was a children's librarian with the city school system."
Tess did not add that her aunt ran her own bookstore in another part of town and would happily order any book that Tess needed—at cost. But Tess wanted this bookstore, so much closer to her own neighborhood, to thrive. She wanted all local businesses to thrive, but it was a tricky principle to live by, as most principles were. At night, her daughter asleep, the house quiet, she couldn't help it if her mouse clicked its way to online sellers who made everything so easy. Could she?
"You're one of those, I suppose," the woman said.
The owner pointed to the iPad sticking out of Tess's tote. "Oh ... no. I mean, sure, I buy some digital books, mainly things I don't care about owning, but I use the reading app on this primarily for big documents. My work involves a lot of paper and it's great to be able to import the documents and carry them with me—"
The owner rolled her eyes. "Sure." She pushed through the flowery chintz curtains that screened her work area from the store and retreated as if she found Tess too tiresome to talk to.
Sorry, mouthed the store's only employee, a young woman with bright red hair, multiple piercings and a tattoo of what appeared to be Jemima Puddleduck on her upper left arm.
The owner swished back through the curtains, purse under her arm. "I'm going for coffee, Mona, then to the bank." Tess waited to see if she boarded a bicycle, possibly one with a basket for errant nipping dogs. But she walked down Twenty-Fifth Street, head down against the gusty wind.
"She's having a rough time," said the girl with the duck tattoo. Mona, the owner had called her. "You can imagine. And the thing that drives her mad are the people who come in with digital readers—no offense—just to pick her brain and then download the electronic versions or buy cheaper ones online."
"I wouldn't think that people wanted children's books in digital."
"You'd be surprised. There are some interactive Dr. Seuss books—they're actually quite good. But I'm not sure about the read-to-yourself functions. I think it's still important for parents to read to their kids."
Tess blushed guiltily. She did have Hop on Pop on her iPad, along with several games, although Carla Scout so far seemed to prefer opening—and then deleting—her mother's e-mail.
"Anyway," Mona continued, "it's the sudden shrinkage that's making her cranky. Because it's the most expensive, most beautiful books. Hugo, things like that. A lot of the Caldecott books, but never the Newberys, and we keep them in the same section. Someone's clearly targeting the illustrated books. Yet not the truly rare ones, which are kept under lock-and-key." She indicated the case that ran along the front of the counter, filled with old books in mint condition: Elouise Goes to Moscow, various Maurice Sendak titles, Emily of Deep Valley, Eleanor Estes's 100 Dresses, a book unknown to Tess, Epaminondas and His Auntie, whose cover illustration was deeply un-PC.
Tess found herself switching personas, from harried mom to a professional private investigator who provided security consultations. She studied her surroundings. "All these little rooms—it's cozy, but a shoplifter's paradise. An alarm, and a bell on the door to alert you to the door's movement, but no cameras. Have you thought about making people check totes and knapsacks?"
"We tried, but Octavia got the numbers confused and when she gets harried—let's just say, it doesn't bring out her best."
As if her name conjured her up, she appeared just like that, slamming back through the door, coffee in hand. "I always forget that the bank closes at three every day but Friday. Oh well. It's not like I had that much to deposit."
She glanced at Mona, her face softer, kinder. She was younger than Tess had realized, not even forty. It was her stern manner and dyed black hair that aged her. "I can write you a check today, but if you could wait until Friday ..."
"Sure, Octavia. And it's almost Halloween. People will be doing holiday shopping before you know it."
Octavia sighed. "More people in the store. More distractions. More opportunity." She glanced at Carla Scout, who was sitting on the floor with a Mo Willems book, "reading" it to herself. Tess thought Octavia would have to be charmed in spite of herself. What could be more adorable than a little girl reading, especially this little girl, who had the good sense to favor her father, with fair skin and thick dark hair that was already down to her shoulders. Plus, she was wearing a miniature leather bomber jacket from the Gap, red jeans and a Clash T-shirt. Tess had heard "She's so adorable" at least forty times today. She waited for the forty-first such pronouncement.
Octavia said: "She got chocolate on the book."
So she had. And they already owned Don't Let the Pigeon Drive the Bus, but Tess would just have to eat this damaged copy. "I'll add it to my other purchases when I check out," Tess said, knowing it was folly to try to separate Carla Scout from any object that was keeping her quiet and contented.
"I understand you've been having some problems with theft?"
"Mona!" Owner glared at employee. Tess would have cowered under such a glance, but the younger woman shrugged it off.
"It's not shameful, Octavia. People don't steal from us because we're bad people. Or even because we're bad at what we do. They do it because they're opportunistic."
"A camera would go far in solving your problems," Tess offered.
Octavia sniffed. "I don't do gadgets." She shot another baleful look at Tess's iPad, then added, with slightly less edge: "Besides, I can't afford the outlay just now."
Her honesty softened Tess. "Understood. Have you noticed a pattern?"
"It's not like I can do inventory every week," Octavia began, even as Mona said: "It's Saturdays. I'm almost certain it's Saturdays. It gets busy here, what with the story time and more browsers than usual—often divorced dads, picking up a last-minute gift or just trying desperately to entertain their kids."
"I might be able to help—"
Octavia held up a hand: "I don't have money for that, either."
"I'd do it for free," Tess said, surprising herself.
"Why?" Octavia's voice was edged with suspicion. She wasn't used to kindness, Tess realized, except, perhaps, from Mona, the kind of employee who would sit on a check for a few days.
"Because I think your store is good for North Baltimore and I want my daughter to grow up coming here. To be a true city kid, to ride her bike or take the bus here, pick out books on her own. Betsy-Tacy, Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle, The Witch of Blackbird Pond. Edward Eager and E. Nesbit. All the books I loved."
"Everyone wants to pass their childhood favorites on to their children," Octavia said. "But if I've learned anything in this business, it's that kids have to make their own discoveries if you want them to be true readers."
"Okay, fine. But if I want her to discover books, there's nothing like browsing in a store or a library. There are moments of serendipity that you can't equal." She turned to her daughter just in time to see—but not stop—Carla Scout reaching for another book with her dirty hands. "We'll take that one, too."
Back on Twenty-Fifth Street, Carla Scout strapped in her stroller, Tess was trying to steer with one hand while she held her phone with another, checking emails. Inevitably, she ran up on the heels of a man well-known to her, at least by sight.
She and Crow, Carla Scout's father, called him the Walking Man and often wondered about his life, why he had the time and means to walk miles across North Baltimore every day, in every kind of weather, as if on some kind of mission. He might have been handsome if he smiled and stood up straight, but he never smiled and there was a curve to his body that suggested he couldn't stand up straight. When Tess bumped him, he swung sharply away from her, catching Tess with the knapsack he always wore and it was like being hit with a rock. Tess wondered if he weighed it down to help correct his unfortunate posture.
"Sorry," Tess said, but the walking man didn't even acknowledge their collision. He just kept walking with his distinctive, flat-footed style, his body curving forward like a C. There was no bounce, no spring, in Walking Man's stride, only a grim need to put one foot in front of the other, over and over again. He was, Tess thought, like someone under a curse in a fairy tale or myth, sentenced to walk until a spell was broken.
Before her first Saturday shift at the bookstore, Tess consulted her aunt, figuring that she must also see a lot of "shrinkage" at her store.
"Not really," Kitty said. "Books are hard to shoplift, harder to resell. It happens, of course, but I've never seen a systemic ongoing plan, with certain books targeted the way you're describing. This sounds almost like a vendetta against the owner."
Tess thought about Octavia's brusque ways, Mona's stories about how cranky she could get. Still, it was hard to imagine a disgruntled customer going to these lengths. Most people would satisfy themselves by writing a mean review on Yelp.
"I will tell you this," Kitty said. "Years ago—and it was on Twenty-Fifth Street, when it had even more used bookstores—there was a rash of thefts. The owners couldn't believe how much inventory they were losing, and how random it was. But then it stopped, just like that."
"What happened then? I mean, why did it stop? Did they arrest someone?"
"Not to my knowledge."
"I should probably check with the other sellers on the street, see if they're noticing anything," Tess said. "But I wonder why it's happening now."
"Maybe someone's worried that there won't be books much longer, that they're going to be extinct."
It was clearly a joke on Kitty's part, but Tess couldn't help asking: "Are they?"
The pause on the other end of the phone line was so long that Tess began to wonder if her cell had dropped the call. When Kitty spoke again, her voice was low, without its usual mirth.
"I don't dare predict the future. After all, I didn't think newspapers could go away. Still, I believe that there will be a market for physical books; I just don't know how large it will be. All I know is that I'm okay—for now. I own my building, I have a strong core of loyal customers, and I have a good walk-in trade from tourists. In the end, it comes down to what people value. Do they value bookstores? Do they value books? I don't know, Tess. Books have been free in libraries for years and that didn't devalue them. The Book Thing here in Baltimore gives books away to anyone who wants them. Free, no strings. Doesn't hurt me at all. For decades, people have bought used books from everywhere—from flea markets to the Smith College Book Sale. But there's something about pressing a button on your computer and buying something so ephemeral for 99 cents, having it whooshed instantly to you. Remember Charlie and the Chocolate Factory?"
"Of course." Tess, like most children, had been drawn to Roald Dahl's dark stories. He was another one on her list of writers she wanted Carla Scout to read.
"Well, what if you could do what Willie Wonka did—as Dahl fantasized—reach into your television and pull out a candy bar? What if everything you wanted was always available to you, all the time, on a 24/7 basis? It damn near is. Life has become so a la carte. We get what we want when we want it. But if you ask me, that means it's that much harder to identify what we really want."
"That's not a problem in Baltimore," Tess said. "All I can get delivered is pizza and Chinese—and not even my favorite pizza or Chinese."
"You're joking to get me off this morbid school of thought."
"Not exactly." She wasn't joking. The state of food delivery in Baltimore was depressing. But she also wasn't used to hearing her ebullient aunt in such a somber mood and she was trying to distract her, as she might play switcheroo with Carla Scout. And it worked. It turned out that dealing with a toddler, day in and day out, was actually good practice for dealing with the world at large.
The Children's Bookstore was hectic on Saturdays as promised, although Tess quickly realized that there was a disproportionate relationship between the bustle in the aisles and the activity at the cash register.
She also noticed the phenomenon that Mona had described, people using the store as a real-life shopping center for their virtual needs. She couldn't decide which was more obnoxious—the people who pulled out their various devices and made purchases while standing in the store, or those who waited until they were on the sidewalk again, who hunched over their phones and eReaders almost furtively as if committing a kind of crime. They were and they weren't, Tess decided. It was legal, but they were ripping off Mona's space and time, using her as a curator of sorts.
At the height of the hubbub, a delivery man arrived with boxes of books, wheeling his hand truck through the narrow aisles, losing the top box at one point. He was exceedingly handsome in a preppy way—and exceedingly clumsy. As he tried to work his way to the back of the store, his boxes fell off one, two, three times. Once, the top box burst open, spilling a few books onto the floor.
"Sorry," he said with a bright smile as he knelt to collect them. Except—did Tess see him sweep several books off a shelf and into a box? Why would he do that? After all, the boxes were being delivered; it's not as if he could take them with him.
"Tate is the clumsiest guy in the world," Mona said with affection after he left. "A sweetheart, but just a mess."
"You mean, he drops stuff all the time?"
"Drops things, mixes up orders, you name it. But Octavia dotes on him. Those dimples ..."
Tess had not picked up on the dimples, but she had a chance to see how they affected Octavia when the delivery man returned fifteen minutes later, looking sheepish.
"Tate!" Octavia said with genuine delight.
"I feel so stupid. One of those boxes I left—it's for Royal Books up the block."
"No problem," Octavia said. "You know I never get around to unpacking the Saturday deliveries until the store clears out late in the day."
He looked through the stack of boxes he had left, showed Octavia that one was addressed to Royal Books and hoisted it on his shoulder. Tess couldn't help noticing that there wasn't any tape on the box; the top had been folded with the overlapping flaps that people used when boxing their own possessions for a move. She ambled out in the street behind him, saw him put the box on his truck—then drive away, west and then north on Howard Street, completely bypassing Royal Books.
He looks like someone, Tess thought. Someone I know, yet don't know. Someone famous? He probably just resembled some actor on television.
Excerpted from The Book Thing by Laura Lippman. Copyright © 2012 Laura Lippman. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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