An Essay By Amy Stewart
About ten years ago, I wrote a book called Flower Confidential about the global flower business. Research for that book required me to hang out in a lot of flower shops. Around that time, my husband and I bought a bookstore, Eureka Books. I realized that florists and booksellers have something in common: We both become our customers’ confidants.
People buy flowers at the best and worst moments of their lives. We want flowers around us at weddings and funerals, graduations and birthdays, and when we’re in the hospital or just grappling with a difficult time.
This turns out to be true of booksellers, as well. On my first day behind the counter at Eureka Books, a man walked into the store, marched right up to me, and said, “I’m trying to bring my son to the Lord. Do you have a book that will help me do that?”
I had to swallow hard and admit that I had no idea how to find such a book among the 40,000 titles that we’d just bought from the store’s previous owner. I knew where the Bibles were shelved, but I was pretty sure he knew where those were, too, and wanting something more.
Fortunately, one of the shop’s longtime employees was working alongside me, and she jumped up and took him back into the stacks to help him.
A few minutes later, a woman I’d known for years (Eureka is a small town) walked in and sheepishly asked if we had a legal guide to divorce, and requested a paper bag so nobody in town would see her walking down the street with that book.
I thought about that again recently when I spent a week in Rhode Island with my aunt, who was dying of cancer. I got to know the oncology ward pretty well, after spending five straight days there. Guess what I noticed, as I walked the halls and watched the other families who were going through the same tragedy I was?
Everyone had a book. In the midst of all this suffering, on the very worst days of their lives, everyone was reading. And they weren’t reading about cancer, I can promise you that. I saw plenty of escapist fiction, along with history, biography, and memoir.
Even my aunt, in the last month of her life, asked me to download some audiobooks for her to listen to (she was nearly blind by then), during the long hours she spent alone, after we went home every night. She wanted an essay collection from Anne Lamott. “Not the one with all the cancer,” she said. If you’ve read Anne Lamott, you know that’s not easy to find. She also wanted Alexander McCall Smith, and she wanted to hear Reese Witherspoon read Go Set a Watchman. She wanted to be comforted, nurtured, and transported to another world.
My point is this: Everyone on that oncology wing needed something to read. They wanted an escape, sure, but they also wanted a connection. They wanted reassurance, hope, enlightenment, and understanding. That’s a lot to ask of a bookseller, but they’re up for the job. When people ask me for advice about buying flowers, I now give them the same advice I’d give them about buying books: Don’t worry about asking for a specific flower, or a particular book. Tell the person behind the counter about the occasion, about the recipient, about what you’re looking for and why. You’ll be amazed at what they can do for you.