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The Bookstore That Changed My Life

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Josh Hanagarne is the author of THE WORLD'S STRONGEST LIBRARIAN ($26, Gotham, May 2nd 2013) and is a librarian in Salt Lake City, Utah.

The sign on the door said EXPERIENCED BOOKS. I found the store while wandering around my new neighborhood after moving to Salt Lake City.

The door opened and a guy walking a dog exited. He said, "Go in man, you'll definitely leave with something." This reminded me of the shop in Stephen King's Needful Things. But then, books remind me of everything, and everything reminds me of books.

Inside, the upper floor was about the width of a large elevator. Books lined the walls from floor to ceiling, and were also stacked in piled on small tables. Something brushed against my legs. A grey cat. Another cat, orange and white, perched on one of the upper shelves, looking both bored and judgmental.

I turned a corner and nearly fell into the lap of the elderly man sitting there, reading. He turned his book upside down, set it on the table, and stood.

"I'm Keith Clawson," he said, extending a hand. He wore a plaid shirt, and khaki pants with suspenders.

"I'm Josh. I like your store."

"Really? Why's that?" He smiled. He knew why. I've been told I get glassy-eyed and slack-jawed in bookstores.

At that point, I jerked my head around, flapped my arms a bit, and made a loud noise. "Sorry, I've got Tourette Syndrome," I said. "So while I'm here, when it gets quiet, I'll probably--"

He held up a hand. "Follow me and I'll show you something."

I followed him to what turned out to be the L section, which was about three feet away from the chair he'd been sitting in. He took Jonathan Lethem's Motherless Brooklyn off the shelf and put it in my hand. "Have you read this?"

"No. I'm guessing I should?" I opened the cover to see if the price was written on the inside cover.

He smiled again and said, "This one's on me. Tell me what you think next time you're in."

"Did you buy something?" my wife said when I walked into our apartment.


"Did you steal it?"

I told her about Mr. Clawson--calling him Keith would never feel right to me, despite his insistence--and she said, "Well he sounds sweet, but try to sneak some money to him next time."

The protagonist of Motherless Brooklyn had Tourette Syndrome. Mr. Clawson gave me that book for me at a time when my condition was worsening and I was handling it poorly. It helped me in ways that I've never been able to put into words.

From then on, I went to Experienced Books at least once a week. From a commercial standpoint, the store was tragically calm. But for a reader like me, having access to Mr. Clawson was like attending Book University. He was just as insatiable for books as I was, but he'd had a head start of several decades.

Sometimes I would say hi and then, if he was engrossed in reading, I'd browse on my own. But most days we'd just sit there and talk, sometimes for an hour. Every time I'd try and apologize for my noisy tics, he's say, "Apologize again and I'm kicking you out, pal." And most days, he wouldn't let me pay for anything.

"I just don't feel right," I would say. "You're running a business here."

He patted me on the shoulder and said, "It's a lot more than that. But whatever it is, it's mine, and I'll run it the way I want." Then he shooed me out the door with another book.

When I mentioned that I had loved the latest Tom Robbins book, he sent me home with Riotous Assembly by Tom Sharpe, and A Confederacy of Dunces by John Kennedy Toole.

When I came in raving about Something Wicked This Way Comes I left with Geek Love.

When I told him I loved Alice's Adventures Through The Looking Glass he said I might enjoy Aeschylus. I've never understood why he drew the connection between the two.

One day a woman who I believe was his wife was there talking with Mr. Clawson. I heard her say that she had seen a book at the Barnes And Noble down the street, 101 Things To Do With A Cake Mix. She wanted it.

I don't remember if I took a book home that day, but I walked straight to Barnes and Noble and bought a copy of that cake mix book. The next day I went to Experienced Books and, just before I left, dropped it on the table which held the cash register and credit card machine.
He never mentioned it, but I hope they used it and tried all 101 ideas.

From then on, whenever I'd go to Experienced Books, I'd leave a book on one of the piles. Sometimes it would be one of my own books. Sometimes I'd buy something just to give to his store. Usually I'd just put one of the books he'd given me back on his shelves.

Occasionally his daughter would be there helping out. Whenever she was there, it was a relief to actually pay for the books.

Mr. Clawson introduced me to Cormac McCarthy and Stanley Elkins and Catch-22.

He quoted from The Velveteen Rabbit when I'd ask him if his ailing back was bothering him.

He knew the order of Kurt Vonnegut's books off the top of his head.

He once said I reminded him of Dorothy Parker, whom I'd never heard of. When I took home one of her books, I wondered if I'd ever be as funny as she was.

Most importantly, he was my first encounter with the calling--I think he would have agreed with the word--of the passionate bookseller.

Experienced Books is gone now, and Mr. Clawson's not with us anymore.

But I think of him every time I meet a sharp, dedicated, lovable bookseller. I see his face every time I drive through that neighborhood. Often, when I finish reading something new, I wish that I could ask him what he thought of it.

And I'd give a lot to be able to show him my own book, which talks about so many of the books he introduced me to.

Most of the time when people tell me something changed their life, it's hard to tell if anything has actually changed. But Mr. Clawson and that store changed my life. I'm reminded of that fact every time I walk through my own personal library. I'm reminded of it every time a bookseller recommends something for me to read. And now, most days, I'm able to put the right book in the right person's hand while I'm working at the library.

Mr. Clawson was correct. What he did was much more than simply running a business.

I always felt like his favorite, but I'd guess that you could find a lot of book lovers in Salt Lake City who felt the same way.