Bidding Bibelot an uneasy farewell

April 01, 2001|By Matthew Olshan

A going-out-of-business sale brings out the vulture in all of us, even if we happen to love the poor, moribund business in question. Case in point: the Bibelot bookstore at Woodholme.

That Bibelot was perhaps my favorite bookstore in the city, the place I brought my daughter to romp on the padded steps in the children's area, the most reliable source of research material for my own fiction, the place I chose -- and which chose me -- for the very first reading and book signing of my debut novel.

They say you never forget your first reading. Thanks to Bibelot, mine was wonderful, well attended but not crowded, in a special nook set aside for such things, complete with a podium, a microphone, a complimentary bottle of water and a friendly, book-loving audience. Heaven.

I'd heard that Bibelot was discounting everything in the store 25 percent. It was the kind of rumor that drives a writer to distraction. I had to check it out.

I'm ashamed to say my pulse quickened when I saw the huge banner, stuck like a Band-Aid to the poor faM-gade of the Woodholme store, announcing "Going out of Business." It was just past noon and the parking lot was jammed. The bargain-hunters were out in force. I impatiently scanned the glass front doors, which were plastered with gloomy notices about honoring gift certificates and Donna's hours of business. Casualties of war, I thought.

The change in the store was unmistakable. It wasn't just the huge boxes of books piled by the front door -- a breach of decorum unthinkable in the store's heyday -- or the empty, crooked-back bookcases waiting silently for the gavel. The usual music was gone, with its strains of coffeehouse chit-chat, amorous banter and shrieking children, hidden from embarrassed parents by a labyrinth of aisles.

It was at once more quiet and shrill. Customers, once so relaxed and friendly, had unfamiliar, stealthy expressions, as if they suspected you of trying to steal the last Harry Potter calendar from under their noses.

The sale wasn't quite as magnificent as I'd heard, but the discounts were still hefty. I went over to the fiction area first, to check on my own novel. All of the copies but one had been sold. The survivor lay on its side, in a half-empty shelf of paperbacks, neglected. Abandoned. My first impulse was to buy my own book, to save it the indignity of being deeply discounted. But that would have been lunacy. So I left it there and moved on to the classics.

My goal had been to buy a nice hardcover set of Proust's works. And there it was, a lovely set on the shelf, and at a price that I wouldn't see again for a while, if ever. I picked up one of the volumes, opened it, smelled the fresh pages. I turned it over, studied the price. A bargain.

But there was something untoward about all this. I felt like a traitor. I'd been a very good friend and patron of the store over the years. But I couldn't shake the feeling that I had come to visit a dying aunt, and all I could think about were her possessions and how I might get my share.

I left Proust and wandered, pausing to pick up something interesting, only to find myself flushed with that same guilt. What more could I have done to save the store?

Thinking my problem might just be book-related, I went over to the CDs, half-heartedly picking out an expensive disc by the Tallis Scholars, a perfect gift for a musician friend. It had a little crack in its jewel case, nothing that would have stopped me before. I put the CD back.

I did buy something finally, a visual dictionary of the Civil War. It should help with the novel I'm working on. On my way to the checkout counter, I passed another empty bookcase. Someone had written, in big red letters on a piece of masking tape: "This shelf broken." I picked up a free newspaper. When I got to the checkout counter, I noticed that I had covered my book with it, as if I were buying something shameful.

It was something to think about as they rang up my discount.

Matthew Olshan is a novelist and teacher who lives in Baltimore City. His debut literary effort, "Finn: a novel," recently was published by the Bancroft Press.

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