I walk to our bookshop on Pearl Street. It’s only a few blocks. Frieda walks from her home, too, and sometimes we meet on the way. Today, however, I am alone as I turn the corner onto Pearl. For a moment I stand still, taking in the quiet, the desolation. There is not another soul about. No automobiles pass my way. The drugstore is open; I can see their neon sign lit up in the left-hand window. The sandwich shop, too. I know from experience that throughout the course of the morning, perhaps a handful of passersby will stop in there for coffee or a salami on rye to go. But only a handful.
It was not always this way.
When Frieda and I first opened Sisters’ Bookshop in the fall of 1954, we thought this the perfect location. Back then, we got the streetcar traffic from the Broadway line, which veered onto Pearl. We’re just down the block from the Vogue Theater, and we made sure to stay open in the evenings when a feature was playing, to cater to the before-and-after movie crowd. We saw a lot of evening customers in those days; people loved to browse our bookstore at night, no doubt hoping to meet a mysterious beauty or handsome stranger among the stacks.
Things are much more iffy now. The Broadway line has been shut down—all of the streetcar lines have been shut down, replaced with buses. The new bus line does not run down Pearl Street, so we don’t get that traffic anymore. The Vogue still shows films, but they don’t draw the crowds that they did years ago. People simply don’t shop and amuse themselves on our block and in other small commercial areas like ours, not the way they used to in bygone years. They get in their cars and drive to the new shopping centers on the outskirts of town.
We’ve been talking about that, Frieda and I. What to do about it. Ought we to close down, get out of this business entirely? Ought we to—as Frieda suggested years ago, and I held back—close down this location and open in one of the shopping centers? Or ought we to just maintain the status quo, believing that if we stick with it, why then, things will surely turn around? I don’t know, and neither does Frieda. It’s a daily topic of conversation.
What I’ve learned, what we’ve both learned over the years, is that nothing is as permanent as it appears at the start.
Before we opened our store, I’d worked as a fifth-grade teacher, a job that I told myself I was crazy for. I love my job, I love my job, I love my job, I would silently chant to myself each morning as I bicycled from my parents’ home, where I still lived, to my school a few miles away.
How could I not love it? I’d ask myself. After all, I adored children, and I adored books and learning. What sort of person would I be, then, if I did not, logically, also love to teach?
But standing at the chalkboard in front of a large class of ten-year-olds made me as nervous as a novice musician who had somehow faked her way into performing in an overflowing concert hall. Small and alone, seated at the grand piano under the spotlight, that phony musician would realize too late that the moment she struck a key, she wasn’t going to hoodwink anybody.
That is how I felt, standing there in my classroom. My palms would sweat, and my voice would become too quick and high-pitched; often a student would ask me to repeat something. “Miss Miller, I didn’t catch that,” one would say, and then they all would take it up: Me, neither. Nor did I, Miss Miller. What did you say, Miss Miller? I felt that I was a joke to them. But not a good joke, not one that I was in on, too.
Every year I had a few standouts—thank goodness for the standouts—those students who could learn in any environment, students who were smart and adaptable and quick to grasp concepts all on their own, without much help from me. But such pupils were few and far between.
And then there were the parents. Oh, the parents.
I remember one particularly awful morning toward the end of my teaching career. Mrs. Vincent, whose daughter Sheila had just received a D in history on her midterm report card, stormed into my classroom before the first bell. She waved Sheila’s report card angrily. Sheila trailed behind her mother.
“What is the meaning of this grade, Miss Miller?” Mrs. Vincent demanded. “Sheila tells me that you don’t even study history in your class!”
“Of course we do,” I replied, trying to keep my voice steady. Crossly, I bit my lip; why should I have to defend something so obvious? “We’ve been learning about the Civil War all term.”
“The Civil War? The Civil War? What possible use does a young girl have for something as prehistoric as the Civil War?”
The question was so absurd, I could not even come up with an answer. Sheila stood smugly next to her mother, dark eyes challenging mine. I wanted to slap her. I knew I never would, but the impulse was so strong, I had to put my hands firmly at my sides to control myself.
“That is the curriculum,” I said. “That is what I am asked to cover, ma’am.” I walked to the classroom doorway as the bell rang, ready to greet my other students. “I am just following the curriculum.”
Mrs. Vincent smirked. “Well, that’s creative, isn’t it?” she asked. Without waiting for an answer, she whirled around and left the room.
I was a wreck; honestly, it took me weeks to get over that one. Over time, I began to blame myself. Yes, I was just doing my job. But if my students couldn’t, or wouldn’t, learn—why then, I was at fault. Learning had come so easily to me over the years; I assumed therefore that it would be easy to teach others. I didn’t know how to fix things when that turned out to be untrue.
During those same years Frieda, who had been my best friend since high school, worked in an advertising firm. It was demanding but glamorous work, and she was good at it. Her firm’s accounts were mostly local businesses, but many of them were sizable companies—the Gates Corporation, Russell Stover Candies, Joslins Department Store. She went to parties and grand opening events. She wore gorgeous evening gowns, which she would model for me beforehand, to see what I thought. I always thought they were fabulous.
On the surface, Frieda seemed to be having a fine time. But when she and I were alone, comfortable on the weekend in dungarees, low-heeled shoes, and sweaters, she’d confess that it was all too much, it was all a sham. It made her feel, she said, as if she were acting in a play. “Acting is fun once in a while,” she said. “But it’s tiresome to do it all day, every day.”
Frieda and I talked a lot about our situations. How much she hated the phoniness of her work. My fear that I was failing at the one thing I had thought I’d be good at.
“What would a different life be like?” she asked me one Sunday afternoon toward the end of March 1954, as we took a walk in my new neighborhood. I had moved out of my parents’ house the month before—approaching my thirties, I’d felt that it was time for me to be out on my own, so I had leased an apartment in Platt Park. My new place was not far from the school where I taught; it was also less than a ten-minute walk to the small house that Frieda had purchased two years earlier. It was a typical Denver spring—as usual, we’d had more snowstorms in March than in any other month. That year, as in most years, the storms were generally followed by several warm, sunny days, during which the snow melted into puddles and new grass poked up in muddy yards. The day before, we’d had one of these characteristic late-season snowfalls—but that Sunday, as Frieda and I took our stroll, it was clear and bright, with temperatures in the fifties.
Frieda watched heavy droplets of melting snow fall from a nearby house’s eaves. She turned back to me and asked, “What if the work we did was gratifying?”
“What if I didn’t end most days in tears?” My mind felt open, alive, as I considered the possibilities.
Frieda nodded slowly. “Indeed, sister,” she replied. “Indeed.”
Finally we decided that it was time to stop dreaming and start living our dreams. We raided our savings accounts, borrowed from our parents, and got a business loan. As single women, we had to have a man cosign our loan; fortunately, Frieda’s father was agreeable. Thus Sisters’ was born.