Tuesday, June 2, 2015

The Dawn Treader Book Shop

I once again have the keys to The Dawn Treader Book Shop.  After a fourteen year hiatus, I have returned to work at the best used book shop I have ever known.  The name, of course, comes from C.S. Lewis's The Voyage of the Dawn Treader in the Narnia series.  One room is dedicated to speculative fiction alone.  It is a maze, with 70,000 books to its name.  Smelling of crackling old book paper and dust, it is the scent of my dreams.  I have been frequenting The Dawn Treader Book Shop since I was too young to look over the counter.

The first time I applied there I was given a dauntingly long book test, which I failed in humiliation.  The owner, Bill Gilmore, called out my mistakes--books I should know the authors to, authors who I should know what they had written, only for the other employees to fire back correct answers without stopping working.  I just laughed and shook my head at my mistakes, and at the end of it, Bill told me that if I could get through that grilling still laughing, I had a job.

My main job them was to stock the floor.  I shelved new arrivals, restocked the books we had sold, and organized most of the time, though I also worked the front desk.  The back stock room that holds popular books we buy more than one copy of so we will have them at the ready when one is sold is more of a labyrinth than the store itself.  Sliding sideways through a cornucopia of books, it has the entrancing effect that you expect at any time to come to a magic grimore or a portal to another world around the next corner.

By the time I left, I could reel off authors and books with the best of them.  As one of the main floor workers, I not only knew titles and authors, I often knew what shelf I had put them on.

There I am among my own kind--book people.  The other workers stay for the love of books, often having other jobs, but unable to give up this one as a second home.  Of course, part of that is the undeniable lure of having an employee discount, though that makes it even more likely you spend your paycheck before ever leaving the store.

When I came back to Ann Arbor, I craved working there again.  I stopped by on a regular basis to bug Corby Gilmore (His name means "crow".  How cool is that?) for a job.  Finally a few hours opened up.  And while I will need a second job to fill my time card, I won't be able to leave this one.

I have moved from organizing and culling the children's and young adult section back to spending the time at the front desk.  Yesterday I earned my key to open and close again.

In the rare book room's glassed in, locked cases, you find everything from hand illuminated texts to uncorrected trade paperbacks by Stephen King.  There customers run their fingers over books reverently, and speak of them as "pieces".

There are never enough shelves, and books line the isles and stack the floors.  Leading lost customers to the section they seek is one of the employees' main jobs.

To contribute to the other worldliness, Bill buys a variety of items besides books when going to people's houses to look at their collections.  In the process of walking through the store, you are confronted with pictures of ships and nineteen twenty damsels on the walls, never leaving a space bare.  You may turn the corner to meet an African wooden statue as tall as you are.  The Millennium Falcon flies overhead the speculative fiction section.  Corby lovingly sets a stout leather pig in a new isle every morning.  In theory, everything in the store is for sale, but I don't think anyone will ever offer enough for that pig.

Corby is Bill's son, and I envy him the experience of having grown up in a world of books.

In the Internet age, the store lists books on line.  Manning the phone, I encounter breathless customers asking if the book is really there.  Of course, we have to go check and get it off the shelf before promising to ship it to them.  The grad school students have their own type of desperation, often asking if the book is there over and over again as you promise you are looking for it on the shelf.

Customers arrive to ask if you have that one book--you know.  The one where the cat talks and there is a magical Bed and Breakfast.  I find a magic in itself when I am able to answer, "Summon the Keeper by Tayna Huff?  Let me show you where we keep it."  And, always, the customer who asks if we by any chance stock C.S. Lewis.

Bill is an ex jar head who spent time in Viet Nam and grad school as well.

I marvel at the fact Corby has settled in to being a manager, and I can now hear him when he speaks.  The last time I worked there, he had only been a manager for a short time.  My training consisted of following him around as he mumbled ahead of me.  "What?"  I would ask, trying to sound competent.  After the third or fourth "What?" I would feel I sounded stupid, and answer "Yeah, I get it," only to flee and ask another employee what I was supposed to be doing.

Last time I worked there I met some of the best friends I have had in my life--Lauren Herckis and Rebbecca Biber.  Lauren lured me into their world of trivia nights at the local Irish pub Conner O'Niell's and long lunches at the Raja Rani's buffet.

Bill is irascibly inappropriate at times--to many people's minds.  To me his off the wall and sometimes off color comments feel like home.  Corby is a puzzle that I can never quite figure out.  In other words, they are archetypes of used bookstore owners.

The intoxicating word of The Dawn Treader Book Shop leaves me hungry to go home and write a book that one day, I pray, may grace it's shelves.


  1. Many agree that The Strand in NYC and Powells in Portland are the country's greatest bookshops. All I can say is they have never been to the Dawn Treader where the staff cares about what you think and what you are interested in and not in just what they can sell you. Congratulations on hooking up to the best bookshop in America.

  2. The Dawn Treader is definitely my favorite bookstore. Wandering through its labyrinth is like being in a little weird museum. It has marvelous books, old and "new" (new but someone else owned them briefly) on natural history, history, and, often, poetry. additionally, cool children's books (new children's books are soo expensive), good ypl for summer reading and, of course great sci fi and fantasy. Good Ann Arbor restaurants withing walking distance too if you want to sit down and comeback.

  3. I love being there. I went in today to write a note on whether or not I should come in on Saturday and found myself wanting to stay, unpaid, just to be there.