NYR iOS app Android app More

Featuring fresh takes and real-time analysis from HuffPost's signature lineup of contributors
William Henderson

GET UPDATES FROM William Henderson
 

By the Time You Read This, Another Independent Bookstore Will Be Closed

Posted: 10/24/2012 4:58 pm

A tattered copy of A Wrinkle in Time, a fourth edition of Marjory Sharpe's The Rescuers, then three copies of the same Disnified version of 101 Dalmatians were the first books in Diskovery to be throw away when storeowner Yolanda Stratter finally admitted what her seven siblings and dozens of friends had been telling her for years -- the time to get out of the used book and music retail business had come, gone, and come again.

Next to fall were three complete sets of the Indian in the Cupboard series of books, then six hardcover Nancy Drew mysteries, then a Boy Scout guide to rocks and minerals, that was, Yolanda discovered after flipping through the book, missing seven pages.

These books, Yolanda thought, were in no condition to be sold, had been on the shelf for more than three years, and would not be missed.

But throwing out what amounted to about two dozen books took Yolanda Stratterx two days. She'd throw out the books, tie the garbage bag shut, but retrieve the books before the garbage was taken out. Someone might come in for those books, she thought. Stranger things and all.
But earlier this year, Yolanda, already overextended on her lease, behind in her rent, and unable to keep her utility bills current, had promised her landlord that she and her inventory would be out by the end of the summer.

The writing had been on the wall, though Yolanda, who says she has read more than 10,000 books, refused to read it. Less a fiddling Nero and more a Dorothy Gale in Technicolor Oz refusing to click her heels three times and go home.

Instead, she mourned when Wordsworth Books in Cambridge closed (though hoped for some of its business); worried that the rising interest in e-readers and e-books would make her and her store, Diskovery, obsolete; relocated her store to Brighton in 2007, after 27 years in Allston; and thought that she would weather the thousands of dollars in damage caused when a water main broke and flooded several buildings on Washington Street, including her store.
Only after the last of the struggling Borders stored closed, did Yolanda begin thinking that her store might be next. So she reinvented, or tried to. As much as she could anyway, given the space and her inventory.

Moving hundreds of vinyl records to the front of the store brought in browsers (soundtracks and pop) and shoplifters (Morrissey, The Smiths, The Cure), but few buyers, though those with money to spend liked to haggle. Yolanda priced records she liked to play when she was alone higher than their worth, a deterrent that doubled as bargaining room.

A section of books about or written by authors from New England went untouched for more than two months (she kept track, just because); a six-shelf bookshelf of used paperbacks stamped with Oprah's seal of approval was often scoured (Wally Lamb and Anita Shreve were hard to keep in stock; Franzen, Yolanda couldn't give away); and mass market paperbacks retelling the stories of Star Trek, Star Wars, and other sci-fi movies from the '80s (the novelizations of the Back to the Future trilogy, for example) were good sellers at the holidays.

She didn't use a cash register, and, if a customer was short on cash, often agreed to collect the difference at some other time. Usually, the people came back to pay what they owed. Those that did, often bought something else before leaving.

"People still bought books and records, when I opened the store," said Yolanda during the store's last weekend in business. And she mused on what life would be like had she not moved from Allston to Brighton but had simply closed. "I thought about it. I did. But I couldn't. How could I let go of all of this?"

In those stacks of books and boxes of records, Yolanda had found some of her best friends. Chocolate Factory Charlie and The Cocteau Twins, Michael Jackson and Marilyn Monroe, Andy Warhol and Annie Leibovitz. And her customers, which amounted to, after the move to Brighton, five, six, maybe 10 a day. Since she didn't advertise, she relied on word of mouth and passersby. And when told about several positive reviews on Yelp, Yolanda said she didn't even know what the website was.

Inside Diskovery, before its dismantling, was hazardously and haphazardly arranged inventory: Some 20 bookshelves filled with books (two, sometimes three books deep) in front of which were boxes stacked on boxes stacked on boxes. Vinyl records displayed at the front of the store were organized a bit better than the books, but barely.

Browsing, akin to excavation, spelunking, or even a search for the Ark of the Covenant (Raiders of the Lost Ark, front of the store, speculative fiction, or on VHS in a box near the back), which you might find, but only after disrupting the sleep of one or both of Yolanda's cats (one in fiction, the other under a table).

Yolanda held onto Diskovery for four months longer than anyone expected, making the most of 50-percent-off sales and the kindness of strangers. All the while, after hours and before coffee, she packed and threw away inventory, emptying her basement of still more stock, some of which she never got to price.

She fed her cats, helped her customers, emptied her bookshelves, played her favorite records, and steeled herself to the inevitable -- those books she had shelved, mentally catalogued, and touched every day were not all going to be hers any longer.

Young adult, then biographies and art books, then cookbooks and U.S. history. Poetry was easy, since she didn't have much, but fiction took a week. Each book weighed against the likelihood that Yolanda would read or re-read it.

Out by the end of the summer because the end of August, then the first of September, then by Labor Day. That last weekend Diskovery was open, while deciding the disposition of the remaining inventory, Yolanda kept the store open. Sixteen people came in and four people bought something. Three days and $125 in sales. Which was kind of a good weekend, Yolanda admitted, a far cry from the hundreds and thousands of dollar a day she used to make, the first years she was in business. At least several records and a few books found new homes before the end.

"I'll be back," Yolanda said, still packing away records. She was sitting in a blue chair, piles of records and books around her, dirt on her face, her fingernails bitten to the quick. She was taking a break, drinking ginger ale that was mostly whisky. Pizza had been ordered. Napkins passed around. "You'll see. One or two years, I'll open another store and start again."

By then, the walls had been stripped of their posters (several of which had been up since Yolanda opened the Brighton location) and original art, and dozens of bags, then boxes, had been filled with books and records, some to keep and store, others to pass along to the Salvation Army and local libraries.

Hundreds of cassette tapes were bagged, then double-bagged, in trash bags. A run of National Geographic magazines were piled near the door and forgotten until the store was empty of almost everything save the furniture, which Yolanda offered to her landlord as compensation for the extra time she needed to clear out. A run of X-Men comic books put in a box, labeled comic books, and ferried to an off-site storage facility.

A few hours before turning off the lights in the store for the last time, Yolanda began sifting through the bags earmarked for donation. She wasn't supposed to. Yolanda's family, more willing to let go of things than Yolanda was, had filled some of these bags while Yolanda wasn't looking.
This pile she bought at a Cambridge Public Library book sale; and that pile she inherited from a loyal customer who passed away suddenly five years ago; and at the bottom of this pile over here, the one with the issue of Rolling Stone with Sinead O'Connor on the cover (1990, with a review of Madonna's I'm Breathless inside), were dozens of issues of Life Magazine from the 1960s and 1970s.

Yolanda made a fourth pile, things to keep and bring with her, or maybe store, she didn't quite know, but was soon overwhelmed by what still needed to be done and how much she had been unable to sell and how little control she still had over everything. She redistributed these piles to garbage and giveaway piles.

Then she took out the last of her things, until all that remained for Yolanda to do was lock the front and back doors, take one last look around, turn off the lights, and flip the sign on the front door from Open to Closed.

 

Follow William Henderson on Twitter: www.twitter.com/@Avesdad

FOLLOW BOOKS