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An author gets a read on bookstore culture

Shelf Life: Romance, Mystery, Drama and Other Page-Turning Adventures From a Year in a Bookstore
By Suzanne Strempek Shea, Beacon, 223 pp., $20

Suzanne Strempek Shea has never been a stranger to bookstores -- as a young girl, she treasured her family visits to a downtown Springfield shop. Years later, when she was beginning her first job out of college as a newspaper reporter, she would spend "much too much" of her paycheck at the same store.

As her own literary career began to flourish, Shea visited hundreds of bookstores to conduct readings and signings, meeting countless customers and employees on her tour stops. She never thought of complaining because she was "meeting the readers who, in essence, are the people that keep me in business."

But three years ago, as she recovered from breast cancer surgery and treatment, Shea received an unexpected chance to view a bookstore -- and its patrons -- from a different perspective.

"For many months you go through being cared for and checked on every day, and then you're spat out into the world to resume your life," wrote Shea of her recuperation. "Now what?"

It turned out to be a most unlikely employment opportunity. When her friend Janet Edwards called, hoping Shea could recommend a part-time employee for her family bookstore, Shea had one: herself. Thus was formed the basis of her engaging memoir, "Shelf Life," an often-humorous account of Shea's first year behind the counter at Edwards Books in Springfield.

The curious sight of a writer employed in a bookstore is not lost on Shea: "Not unlike a farmer hanging around the dairy section. A fashion designer lurking in the boutique. . . . The quarterback hiding in the back seat during the fans' ride home."

Much of her work is mundane -- learning how to run the register, shelving books, setting up exhibits, answering customers' questions, scheduling author appearances -- and she often silently wishes she could challenge customers' buying habits (such as the purchasers of the treacly Blue Mountain line of greeting cards).

Conversely, Shea isn't shy about describing her efforts at making sure that her own books, five in all, aren't buried on the shelves -- though she also notes that when she said to a customer holding one of her books, "I've heard it's quite good," the woman responded, "Doesn't look it."

Many colorful characters pass through the bookstore's doors each day, not the least of whom are Edwards family members: Janet, the friend/boss, trumpeting loudly "Look, she's here!" when Shea shows up for her first day on the job; matriarch Flo, a woman in her 80s who still works full time and whose devotion to her business has kept the independent bookstore thriving amid the influx of chains and online options; and Janet's seventh-grade daughter, Christina, a frequent after-school visitor who thinks "it's cool" that her mother owns a bookstore.

The patrons are an eclectic lot, from the pilot who was looking for a book on "rekindling love" to the fellow who just wanted to learn how to talk to -- not even date -- a woman to a businessman who wanted "nothing complicated. You know, something I'll just read and forget" and the man who somehow left his teeth behind.

And, as Shea notices, many of them hug their books to their chest: "Maybe it's a natural way to hold a book. . . . As if between the covers is something precious, sacred, beloved. . . . I watch the customers browse, select, hug, pay, hug again."

All the while, it's clear that Shea's job has brought her full circle back to the legacy of Johnson's, the legendary Springfield institution that was her first bookstore, located only a few hundred yards from her current shop: "I remember best the air. Johnson's smelled of possibilities. Something emitted by the pages in all those books on all those shelves. Here is where you can learn this, meet them, get lost, maybe find your way."

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