Reading against the clock.
I still marvel over the joy of it all; these people trust me with the knowledge of what they read, what there interests are, what they believe in, what they aspire to. Your closest friend would probably not come up to you and say something like "I am thinking of leaving Catholicism and am looking at several of the animalistic religions." Yet, I have had similar conversations more than once with customers. Or the hot girl, who you think about asking out, until, that is, you see the stack of recovery books she buys and decide that anyone who buys 5 books with titles like living with your heroin addiction and DEALING with the aftermath of sexually transmitted disease does not need a complication like a bookseller (or at least this one) in her life.
My customers honor me by letting me have a glimpse of their personal lives, and I value that trust. Sometimes, however, it goes way beyond that.
Tom Walter came in the store last spring. For those of you in the nether parts of the world, Tom was (from 1984 to 2005) the Memphis Commercial Appeal's television reporter. As such, he had an eagle eye view on pop culture, for better or worse. It was always a joy when he came in, because he had a unique view on society that you may not (or may) agree with, but you loved him for the conversation and the thoughts.
Tom, as I said, came in to the store last spring. After the customary chit chat, he said he might need a job soon, and would I consider hiring him. It seems he was leaving the paper.
"What the hell for?" I ask.
It turned out Tom had cancer. Bad cancer. The sort from which you don't get better. He told me that if he only had so many days left, he was not going to spend them writing about Britney Spears. He had things to do, books to read, and he wanted to spend some time with his family. When I asked when he was leaving the paper, he said he hoped before August, because he never, ever wanted to write another word about Elvis. When he left, he was upbeat, cheerful, and had that smile that would make your whole day.
Over the next year or so, Tom would come in, bringing huge amounts of his discards, as he called them, and told me if I could use any of them, to make a credit on his account. I looked over Tom's account today, and he took many books out of the store, whittling away at his credit line, but then bringing more back so it never got even close to even. I would bet he took over 50 books out of the store in the last year, and has never paid a cent. Tom read good things, but not pretentious things. He felt no reason to read something like Flaubert just so he could look "intellectual". You see, Tom was reading against the clock.
Tom has the distinction of having the largest line of credit ever at Midtown Books, with it once approaching $400. I once joked with him that if he brought any more books in, he was going to have to start paying some of the rent.
I was thinking about it today, and I guess the last time I saw Tom was about 3 months ago. He had lost weight, but not horribly so. He still had that smile, and when asked (but not until), he said he was doing "OK". He was excited about our opening the store Downtown, and he said he could not wait to see it. I think he had been in since, but not when I was there.
Tom died Saturday morning.