The Bookseller

I remember our elation when we opened the store. At last, we were doing what we wanted to do with our lives. We would have a thriving business that we co-owned; we would make our own choices and determine our own fates. From here on out, no one—parents, bosses, not to mention a horde of contrary ten-year-olds and their mothers—would have a hand in determining who Frieda and I were going to be. Nobody would decide that for us, nobody save for each other.

We’d both come through our twenties without marrying, something that no other girl we’d known in high school or college had done. Neither of us is perturbed by singlehood. The goal I once had to marry Kevin—that seems irrelevant now. It was the desire of a young woman—a girl, really. A girl I no longer am.

Over the years, I’ve come to realize that being unmarried gives me—and Frieda, too—an element of freedom and quirkiness that other women our age do not have. It’s like being a singular necklace that might catch one’s eye in the jewelry section of a department store, the one strung with colorful, random beads, rather than the monotonous, expected strand of pearls.

Who needs men? Frieda and I ask each other. Who needs children? We smirk at our station-wagon-driving counterparts, feeling relief that we never fell into that trap.

It is not a life that either of us has wanted for a long, long time.


Our day is challenging, Frieda’s and mine. We have only two customers in the morning, each of whom purchases a copy of that new Bradbury novel—a rising star in our humble little line-up, that book. In the afternoon a few folks come in to browse, and several people ask if we have Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring—the book, about the hazards of pesticides, was presented as a series of essays in the New Yorker earlier this year and will be published as an anthology later this month. Silent Spring is much anticipated in local literary circles, but unfortunately, we won’t receive copies from our distributor until the last week of September.

All day long, Frieda is edgy, irritable. Her mood rubs off on me, and I notice that my hands shake a lot, even though I’ve only had two cups of coffee today. Perhaps it is just the memory of the dream, which lingers in my mind.

“I need to get out of here,” Frieda tells me at four thirty. “I’ve had enough for one day. Will you close up?”

I nod and watch her leave. Outside the shop, she furiously lights a cigarette and stomps down the street.

“Sister, I’m so sorry,” I whisper, although she is long gone and cannot hear me. “I’m so sorry for the way things are going for us.”

And then, after I close the front shades, as I am gathering the meager amount of cash in our register so I can store it in the safe out back, it comes to me.

I know where I’ve heard that name before. Lars.

The recollection dates back some eight years. It was just before Frieda and I launched Sisters’, during the phase when I began calling myself Katharyn. Back then I read with great interest the personal ads section in the Denver Post. And finally I ran an ad myself. It was something to do, I suppose, another brave something that went along with my new job, my new name, my desire to make myself over into someone different.

Lars was one of the fellows who responded to my ad. In fact, now that I think of it, Lars was the fellow.

What I mean is that, out of the twenty or so men who wrote, the eight or ten that made the first cut and to whom I talked on the telephone, and the few that I went on a date with (none of them to be repeated, generally not to my disappointment)—out of all those men, Lars was the only one with whom I truly thought there might be potential.

Like all of the men, Lars wrote me a letter to introduce himself. But unlike many of the notes I received, Lars’s letter was more than a few lines scribbled on a piece of paper and stuffed in an envelope, with little thought of the outcome. I could tell, just by what he’d written, that Lars had put a great deal of time and consideration into his letter.


I am a saver. I have an enormous file cabinet at home, and I save every piece of paper that ever had meaning to me. I have letters, recipes, travel itineraries, magazine articles—you name it, and it’s in that cabinet

So it is no surprise, when I rush home from work and go through my files, to find a manila folder marked, simply, “Ad Respondents.” And in this folder are a smattering of letters and pieces of paper with first names and telephone numbers scribbled on them. There is also a yellowing copy, cut from the newspaper, of my personal advertisement:


Single Female, age 30, Denver. Optimist with faith in self, family, friends, abilities. Honest, forthright, loyal. Seeks gentleman who is playful but not silly. A man with interests (outdoors, music, books). Man should desire a family and secure home life, yet also enjoy adventures, travel, and fun. If this is you, please write.



I think about that, what I wrote in that ad. How I presented myself to the world. Looking back, I see how the years have changed me. In those days, marriage still was on my mind. Kevin had disappeared from my life a few years prior, but the idea of finding someone just right with whom I could settle down and start a family—plainly, that idea still held appeal for me back in ’54.

What I have now—running the store, my independence, the life of a single working woman . . . well. I may have wanted to start a business with Frieda. After the disaster my teaching career turned out to be, I may have wanted to surround myself with books all day, to spend my days on my terms.

Evidently, however, I did not expect the years to pass in the manner in which they have.

I ruffle through the rest of the papers in the file, until I find Lars’s letter:


Dear Miss,

I know you don’t know me, and I know that most people say that this is a foolish way to go about meeting someone. I have heard that it never works. For the most part, I have believed that, because I have not seen too many people succeed at it. But I read your advertisement (actually, I have read it about a dozen times now), and from your description, I think that I might be someone you would be compatible with.

You said you were looking for someone who is playful, but not silly. Here are some things I like to do. One is to visit my nephew and niece and have football games in the street. Don’t worry, we use a soft ball and have yet to break an automobile windshield—and the kids are 12 and 8, so they are pretty good about watching out for oncoming traffic. I also like to build things for other people. When my niece and nephew were little, I built a swing set for my sister’s backyard. I built a doghouse for a friend’s dog that was spending its nights in the cold. Perhaps those are not playful things, but they are things that make others happy, and that makes me smile.

You mentioned travel. I have not had the opportunity to do as much traveling as I’d like. I immigrated to the United States from Sweden with my family when I was a teenager. I’ve had to work hard to make my way in this country, but things are better now and I have the means to live a more comfortable life. I am hoping that will include more travel in the future, both within the country and internationally. Have you been to Europe? I have not been back, but I would like to go someday, especially if I were accompanied by a travel companion who might appreciate the Old World for all its beauty and history.

Another of my interests, which you did not mention, is American sports, particularly baseball. Perhaps you are not a fan. I hope that if we were to meet and get to know one another, you would forgive me this indulgence. They say baseball is America’s pastime, and as an American myself now, I find that it has become mine as well.

I’m glad you were not afraid to say you are looking for a man who wants a family. A lot of ladies seem afraid to admit that, as if they think it makes men desire them less. I guess they might be justified, because a lot of fellows (especially past a certain age) are either on the fence or adamantly say no to the idea of children. I don’t feel that way. I’ve always wanted a family and I hope it’s not too late! (I’m only 34, so I suppose there is time.)

So you see, miss, why your advertisement appealed to me. I hope you’ll respond. I would love to get to know you.

Sincerely,

Lars



I sit there, rereading the letter. I stare at the telephone number he wrote in a postscript. And then I read the letter through a few more times. True, he is not Shakespeare. But it’s clear why I wanted to contact him. There is something there; I can’t deny a connection, just through those few pages of written words.


Later, while cutting up vegetables for my dinner, I telephone Frieda. Although I am worried that she’ll still be in a mood, I need to talk to her. Perhaps, I think as I dial, her brisk walk will have cleared her head.

She answers on the third ring; her voice, when she hears mine, is friendly. “Miss me?” she asks. “I know it’s been almost two hours since you saw me.”

I laugh. “Of course,” I say. “But that’s not the only reason I’m calling.” I plunge in and ask her, “Do you remember a fellow named Lars? From the personals?” There is no response, so I ask again.

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