The Smell of Books and Coffee

BY VALERIE BELDEN WILDER
Columbia County, NY
Wednesday, 23 December 2020

[REPOST OF AN AUTHOR FAVORITE]
Originally published from West Valley City, Utah, on Thursday, 29 September 2016.

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I’m nestled into my favorite corner of the cafe at Barnes & Noble, sipping a pumpkin spice steamer.

It’s not just any Barnes & Noble, it’s MY Barnes & Noble, the one I’ve worked at for over 12 years.

And it’s not just any corner of the cafe, it’s MY corner. The corner with the little round table with the burnt-orange top, with my back to the wall, a tucked-away spot where most people won’t even see me, where I can sit and write and think, all without interruption.

In one short week, it will all come to an end, and I will have my last day working for BN. Today I had a teary-eyed moment. Three of my regular customers came in and I realized I wasn’t going to see them any more: Vincent, Jason, and Antonio. I had to walk away and look out the window to regain my composure.

And then, then a woman showed me her leg. I work near the downtown shelter and she was thin, dentured, and homeless. She had a hole in her leg. She had gangrene and her ankle was very swollen and grey, discolored.

I was feeling very emotional after all this, so I sat down after work in my little corner to do what I like to do, something which brings me peace and recenters me. Writing.

I’ve seen it all here.

I watched a man with a black American Express card drop $1,000 on books like it was no big deal. I’ve seen professional women with sparkling fingernails and the longest of eyelashes, wearing beautiful suits and shining shoes, carrying luscious leather totes which cost more than I make in a week.

I’ve seen distinguished-looking men with blinding white shirts, fresh from the dry cleaner, wearing expensive gold rings from prestigious universities and sports teams, whisking around to important meetings.

And I’ve seen the other end of the spectrum, too: the heroin addicts, the people who steal travel blankets and booklights to use as flashlights, because they sleep on the streets. I’ve seen people with meth-pocked faces and women with dirty fingernails and cancerously dark shoulders bared from tank tops, the kind of brown you get from the heat of too many homeless hours under the harsh sun.

I’ve seen people with brown and decayed teeth, and people with the whitest of veneers. I never knew there were so many kinds of people in one small city.

And speaking of the city, I used to shy away from it. I used to not apply for jobs if they were downtown, because I’m a country girl, and I was afraid.

But now I’ve conquered this fear, and take pride in knowing I take a train to work, march confidently around city streets at all hours, and am afraid of no one and nothing.

But back to my beautiful store. There are so many things I’m going to miss.

The children and teen departments. Truly, those books were loved and cared for, in the five years I was department lead. It broke my heart when my manager transferred me to a different area.

The store’s shadows. The way the sun hits the chairs by the magazine area in the morning, the slats of those old wooden library chairs in shadow on the seats.

The way the sun slants into my cashwrap window in the afternoon, casting the shadow of window frames in brilliant squares, or the pattern of the balcony’s wrought-iron table on the padded green carpet behind my cashwrap.

The magazine stand. I will miss browsing dozens of gorgeously glossy cooking, house and home, current events, and travel magazines each month, without having to spend a penny. But trust me, I do. Some of them are so pretty I have to take them home. So. Many. Mags.

The gift department. I will miss seeing new and lustworthy stationery come in, cards made of colorful cotton that soaks up the ink of my black felt tip pen. 

I’ve had a thing for stationery ever since I was a teenager, buying it by the boxful at the Greenport Hallmark.

The journal wall. I will miss it. What writer doesn’t love the promise of blank books? Leatherbound, smelling like a tack shop. My favorite elastic-closure journals which lay flat. Peter Pauper journals with secret pockets in the back. Bombay journals with leather straps to tie them shut.

Tote bags. I will miss the temptingness of totebags. Whenever I purchase a new one, I’m convinced. Convinced, THIS is the tote bag which will finally organize my chaos into some semblance of order.

I will miss the excitement of seeing summer tote bags come in every spring, with comfy rope handles and nautical stripes, and then, end of summer, the fall totes, charcoal grey and squash-orange felt totes.

The books, oh the books! I will miss leatherbound Barnes & Noble editions with titles stamped in gold and silver, heavy to lift, gold leafed edges.

Trade cloths with dust jackets and embossed and foiled lettering. Trade papers with thick stock covers, cool covers designed by Penguin.

And yes, even mass markets. I will miss mass market paperbacks by Signet, with thoughtfully designed covers.

Bargain books. I will miss the unexpected thrill of seeing a book I coveted at full price be reissued at bargain price. Like Barbra Streisand’s My Passion for Design, total and complete satisfaction, in knowing I got a book which was originally $60 for the low, low, Litko discount of $7.

The cafe. I will miss the anticipation of each August, knowing Pumpkin Spice is coming, and with it the unmistakable following of fall. And then, eggnog arrives!

I will miss going to the ice chest in the counter of the cafe each morning, pulling back that stainless steel cover, and filling a cup with ice water, so I can make it through a day of required questions and chatty conversations with customers.

I will miss the burnt-orange of these cafe tables, scraped up against the scuffed mahogany brown walls, and the familiar clunk, clunk, clunk of the opening barista putting chairs down to the black-and-grey tile floor for the day. I will miss the smell of maple-walnut scones baking, and the distinctive whir and whine of the espresso machine.

The music department. I will miss rummaging in the discount bin section of the music department, finding classic CDs for $4.99. I will miss learning about artists I might never have discovered, like Sharon Jones & the Dap-Kings, Gnarls Barkley, Lukas Graham, and Keane.

I will miss the familiar phrases, the ones I probably mumble in my sleep:

“The bathroom? Head to the polka-dotted wall.”
“The Rite Aid is on Main Street, right by City Center TRAX stop.”
“We don’t carry Bic pens.”
“We don’t sell Sharpies.”
“They have gum and mints at Rocket Fizz.”
“We don’t carry postage stamps.”
“The food court is at the south end of the mall, down near the movie theatre.”
“I dunno when they’re gonna put some more stores in this mall.”
“Thaifoon has been gone for a few years now. I miss it too.”
“The souvenir shop moved nearer to the convention center.”
“See the Gone With the Wind poster on the wall back there? Travel is in the little room to the right.”

I will miss the crazes. Harry Potter, Sudoku, adult coloring books, manga, Pop figures, blind boxes. I wonder, what will be next?

I will miss the customers. My favorites.

Craig, the distinguished, silver-haired estate attorney, who loves children’s books like I do. One Christmas season, after purchasing his books, he, face flushed, dropped money over the counter to me, then almost ran out of the store.

Dianna, the financial advisor, with her long black wavy hair and pink lipstick, who bought her grandson’s groceries while he attended college downtown.

Bree, the energy plant owner, with her short blonde hair, she ate a whole watermelon every day, and had the prettiest complexion.

Mike, the grey-haired, retired musician and cement truck driver, who came in the morning for his USA Today, after he got his coffee at McDonald’s in the food court.

On my last day, I kissed him on the cheek. He turned his face and kissed me on the mouth, hard. He loved me, I knew it all along…

Randall, the grey-haired Vietnam vet, who rode his bike to the bookstore for years after his cancer diagnosis, and bought history books. I wonder where he is now. Is he still alive?

Vincent, the African American UTA bus driver, who once sung Motown to me. He was the first man to notice me after I left my husband. I kissed him on the lips for the first time on my last day, and he bought me Ashes, by Laurie Halse Anderson.

Antonio, the burly Indian who wears plaid shirts the size of picnic blankets, loves manga, and has a strong, beautiful, regal face like a brave chief…

Jason, the photographer and Fidelity guy, who’s seen BOSTON as many times as I have. I kissed him on the cheek my last day, and he ran from my store, blushing. I know, my coworker saw him on his way back to work…

Sharon, the white-haired older lady who buys Architectural Digest and Vanity Fair, wears the cutest brimmed hats, and calls me Vicky. I don’t have the heart to correct her. I think her husband emotionally abuses her…

And dozens and dozens of others.

I will miss the tourists. The giggling Japanese girls who invariably buy calligraphy pens and ink. The Europeans who buy maps of Montana and Wyoming and Idaho, as they’re headed off to Yellowstone Park.

The people on the way to the airport, who want to pick up a quick paperback to dull the pain of flying in cramped quarters, seated by strangers.

The conference attendees who come from all over the world, seem flummoxed by our American money, and want to know:
Where’s a good place for lunch?
How do they get to the train?
Where can they buy medicine?

I will miss the familiar, resounding thunk of the break room door. The employees here, they’ve kept me young(er). Each one different like a snowflake, dozens and dozens of employees. I cannot go there right now, or I will surely cry again.

I will miss the Nook counter. I stood behind it once with someone I deeply loved and admired. There was just enough room for the two of us…

Maybe, just maybe, when I walk into a Barnes & Noble in the future, I will be able to smell the books and coffee. Sometimes, customers come in and stop suddenly, just after the front doors, and breathe in deeply, exclaiming, “I love that smell! Books! And coffee!”

And I’m sad and a bit jealous, because I haven’t been able to smell it for a very long time. I come home and my children tell me they can smell it when they hug me…

I’m looking forward to so many things, one of them being the smell of books and coffee. Again. When I visit Barnes & Noble, I will be able to smell the books and coffee, again…

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[RECOMMENDED LISTENING]
Hopes and Fears, Keane, 2004.
St. Elsewhere, Gnarls Barkley, 2006.
Sharon Jones & The Dap-Kings, 100 Days, 100 Nights, 2007.
Lukas Graham, self-titled debut album, 2012.

[RECOMMENDED DRINKS
FROM THE BN CAFE
FOR THE NON-COFFEE DRINKER]

Passion iced tea.
Not with lemonade, and with no added sugar. This is an herbal tea and served over ice, so it’s a great low-calorie alternative and really refreshing when it’s hot out. (You can buy a tin of large Tazo tea packets from some grocery stores and make a pitcher of this at home.)

Pumpkin spice steamer.
A steamer is warm milk with flavoring. Most people drink their pumpkin spice as a latte, but I take mine as a steamer. A steamer can be made with any flavoring the cafe has on hand. (If you want to make one of these at home, pour a little sweetened condensed milk into a mug and dust in some pumpkin pie spice. Microwave until it’s liquidy, fill your mug with milk, microwave again, and stir.)

[REFERENCES]
“The low, low Litko discount” is a line taken from the movie About Last Night, 1986, TriStar.