Bartending, Booktending: Three Years at Red Hill Books
Last summer I was telling my coworker at Red Hill Books a story about mistaken identity. I had confused two different women I know because their names are strikingly similar: Kristina Crosby and Kristin Crosby. I knew both of them but only vaguely and mostly through other people. One of them had come into the store to say hi to me and I mistook her for the other one. I was trying to explain to Jeremy, my coworker, how this confusion had caused me to send an email to the wrong one. While I told the story, a woman stood close by in the cooking section idly leafing through a slow-cooker book. Thankfully, my story came to a sort of frazzled conclusion, at which point she came up to the counter to buy the book.
“I just had to see how that ended! Thank you for that!”
And she left with a new book and a smile that looked like it might last all day.
Recently a favorite customer of mine was commenting on my imminent departure from Red Hill Books, the cozy, light-filled bookshop in San Francisco’s Bernal Heights neighborhood where I peddled books for three years. His comparison was flattering and something I had considered, too.
“It’s like losing a favorite bartender,” he said. “This place is like my local pub. I tell my wife that I’m going over to the bookstore, and she gets it.”
The two of us had spent many mornings talking about the scarcity of “good, funny writers” like Flann O’Brien or Peter DeVries. Every time we saw each other we shared a new lead. I also witnessed his quieter mornings when his son was just born. Either way, I was excited to see him – as I was countless others. Book talk with him, and with the others, often evolved into far-reaching discussions about finding yourself, turning thirty, falling in love and having a family. These transitions made sense to me, even when they sometimes went into more disturbing places.
You smile at people, ask them about their day and assist them with tasks – finding a funny book or a good mystery – and they’ll start telling you about how they wished they’d had children or how their father was an asshole or how they’re back on the wagon or how they’re looking into herbal medicine for their cancer. These people are house painters, nurses, teachers, landscape architects, refrigerator repairmen, lawyers, musicians, social workers. Some are retired, between jobs, living off social security or day-drinking away their unemployment checks. Most of these people, in my case, live in Bernal Heights and come into the bookstore as a matter of course: a place to browse, meet friends, buy books or talk to me about what’s on their minds.
Of course, not all talk becomes beery-eyed confessions and overly personal laments; most people just want to talk about what books they love. My job is to be the person who understands that what they love is important and to respond in turn with my own passions. Hopefully we’ll find some overlap and the customer will leave happy and I’ll remain feeling happy. Not only that, they’ll return happily too, knowing that what they love is taken seriously by me, a stranger yet a confidante.
A love of books, I reckon, comes from an abiding interest in the human condition with all its terror and loss, beauty and confusion, frenzy and fanfare. Books exist to explore life’s contradictions but also to offer diversion and otherworldliness. After all, it can be easier to read about life’s messiness than to simply live it all the time. So talking about books can naturally lead into talking about other things. As someone who is already pathologically curious about people, I tend to encourage over-sharing anyway. A lover of books, I figured, will over-share in interesting ways – ways that I can borrow for future fictional characters! This rule doesn’t hold if the person is disrespectful or non-empathetic from the get-go; but ninety-five percent of the time Red Hill Books does not attract those types. You can often sense, sometimes by an unlikely grimace for such a gorgeous day when you should stick to the robotic customer-cashier exchange that middle managers love to instill in their employees.
One of the amazing things I’ve learned while being a bookseller and having twenty to forty or so brief conversations a day with strangers is that most people understand boundaries; when over-sharing is involved they will do it just to the point before it becomes irksome. Even if they cross that boundary, and assuming no one gets hurt or threatened, you have a funny story to tell later. Part of the joy of customer service (yet it is a fine line indeed) is taking part in this delicate social choreography.
Dozens of interesting conversations with customers have led to surprising disclosures. The multiple bracelet wearing, Raiders-loving woman who buys trashy vampire novels and supernatural mysteries told me a truly debauched story about partying backstage with Lemmy from Motorhead. After bonding with a man over our love of rock bands from the Northwest, poetry zines and Tenderloin bars, I came to know his own battles with addiction back when he was a pool shark. Another woman who would come in to buy sticker books for her mentally disabled clients talked in unsparing detail about her crazy Puerto Rican family. Another woman needed a book to give her friend who was dying – but she was surprisingly humorous about the whole thing, more than I ever could have been.
Conversation would pick up again when these people came back in, so I had to keep faces, names and tales straight, and make sure I could listen while doing the necessary work, like pricing and shelving. I had a hunch that they didn’t mind spending money with us, partly because talking to us was fun and strangely freeing. Red Hill is a unique store for employees because you’re often alone and in charge of everything that could possibly happen. You’re also seen almost as soon as people come in the store because the counter is right next to the front door. Up the red steps, between two sun-filled windows, the customer instantly acknowledges the cashier. This sort of “sitting duck” position, especially because you often work alone, generates a quicker-than-normal bond between you and the customer, opening the space for possibility.
While working mornings at Red Hill at the tail end of 2010 I met my future housemate Sarah Palmer. Sarah worked as a nanny and would wheel her adorable charge into the store one or two mornings a week to read picture books to her, lounge around on the big red ball chair and chat with me about books, music and the hilarious mishaps of life. Our rapport grew every morning and I looked forward to her visits, which often ended in one of us reciting poetry to the other. I wanted to tell her about my root canal, a failed relationship or some of my favorite books – which later, as my housemate, she would read – like A High Wind In Jamaica and Fiskadoro. Eventually she invited me to live in one of the rooms of the stately, blue Victorian off Alamo Square where had she been living for several years.
A friendship that has impacted me the most positively as a person and as a writer also began at Red Hill. In my early days there, I met the bearded and affable writer and poet Neeli Cherkovski while he was out walking his dog Cosmo. Once he found out I was a writer, the talk just erupted. On his twice-daily dog walks he’d swing by to tell me about his latest poem or book he was reading, or to share some colorful tales from the North Beach of yesteryear. He sincerely wanted to read what I wrote, too, and I excitedly agreed. Here was a man who had been invited to read his poetry all over Europe and Mexico, who was friends with Diane DiPrima, Lawrence Ferlinghetti and even the late Charles Bukowski, and he was willing to read and critique what I had written.
Like many of the writers I’ve talked to at Red Hill, I felt radiating from him an unstinting devotion to the written art; it made writing, reading and book selling all the more urgent for me. Our friendship and his mentorship has been a constant joy for me in the two years since I first met him.
Community begins in open spaces where strangers can become known to one another. “Open” means that they are not inclined to rush or keep quiet, or stay in queue, or simply pay and leave. Purely economic imperatives are suspended in favor of free and relaxed social and cultural exchanges. The economic argument for used bookstores is an important one but I believe the social argument is often more convincing. People need spaces where they can look at things that call up associations, inspire discussion, provoke curiosity and prompt encounters with unknown people and ideas. Thus, a used bookstore is ideally suited for this kind of collective daydreaming. Three years later, looking back on the friends I’ve made through the job as well as just the affable regulars who stop in merely to chat with me, I feel like my time at Red Hill Books was a highly successful experiment in community making. Seven people I met while working there are now close friends. I know that on my continued trips to Bernal Heights (to meet with these friends, or get my haircut, buy pickles) I will be greeted enthusiastically by a dozen others whose lives I know only minutely but who I am always happy to see.
It is hard to find a space that can eradicate barriers between strangers without generating awkwardness. Red Hill Books is such a space, befitting its street corner location in a neighborhood known for convivial interactions. A good catalyst can be an overheard conversation that you desperately want to enter into. Hundreds of these happened at Red Hill and many times I dove right in. As much as browsing and loafing are integral to the bookstore experience, I believe that eavesdropping is more essential. Once you eavesdrop, you can initiate a conversation with a stranger—a stranger who, like you, loves books. Under most circumstances it would be considered rude to eavesdrop, a rent in the fabric of urban etiquette in which strangers remain strangers. But in a bookstore, the books themselves become interlocutors. So does the bookseller, who becomes a hub of all possible inter-stranger conversations because he or she is the one person who people talk to first. The bookseller is a stranger you’re encouraged to talk to; then other people can overhear what you’re talking about and are invited to join in. In some sense, the bookseller can orchestrate an unlimited amount of enriching encounters between strangers and between strangers and herself. The purpose is to create camaraderie, which is conducive to good business and good citizenship. And it makes the hours more pleasant which is good for everyone.
Using this strategy I’ve had two favorite customers who don’t know each other start chatting. Since they’re each on my list of personal favorites I gambled that they’d get along, if only in that fleeting moment of book talk. One of them recommended a writer, Mordecai Richler, who he claimed was a brilliant comic author – just what the other one was looking for! Based on the strength of the recommendation, the other guy bought the Richler book, which otherwise might have languished there for another six months, unknown to the world.
Another time, quite miraculously, it turned out that three people in the store who did not know each other at all had all lived at one time in Newton, Massachusetts. This brought them together round my counter in a swirl of laughter, awe and reminiscences. Street names and markets and museums I had no clue about were savored. They all ended up buying something too. There was also the hilarious time when, like in a long-winded joke, an unlikely cast of characters including a police officer, a window washer, a Unitarian minister and a nine-year-old fedora-wearing aspiring ninja surrounded my counter, talking animatedly about San Francisco’s concrete slides. Times like that I feel most like a bartender who possesses the contagious magic that brings all kinds round his counter.
The magical three years I had at Red Hill, packed with new friendships, tall tales and adventures couldn’t have happened without the surrounding neighborhood of Bernal Heights. In a sense, all of Bernal, with its intimate main street busy with dogs and children and bicycles, its verdant residential heights of old restored Victorians and flowering staircases, its lesbian saloon with a beautifully cozy statue garden, its video rental store doubling as a succulent boutique, its meditative cypress park and its wildflower meadow crowning a hawk-shadowed summit is organized almost like a used bookstore. And even if that’s a stretch, my point shouldn’t be: this is a neighborhood where strangers become friends, where customers become regulars and where there are countless conversation threads being picked up again day after day.
Many of my favorite regulars have lived there for six, ten or even thirty years. Some of the older Bernalites could tell me, in great detail, how things had changed. I heard stories from the old days, like the now-famous one about how, when the Wild Side West first moved there in the mid-70s, some residents weren’t too keen on having a lesbian bar in the hood, so they dumped old toilets on the front stoop – which the owners turned into beer garden art. Or how all of Bernal was a hotbed of anti-war radicalism in the 60s, earning it – and eventually my store – the name Red Hill. These days, one of the Bernal success stories – which testifies to its inherent neighborliness – is the building where six different retail kiosks all operate in harmony, selling spices, knife-sharpening, Russian piroshkies, baby food and a California-Jewish deli all under one roof.
Yet for all that, a lot of people you talk to, people who live in the Mission or North Beach, for instance, will tell you they don’t make it up that way. Or they’ll ask: where is that again? Perhaps Bernal’s varied and hospitable citizens would prefer it this way: not to be too much of a destination neighborhood, lest market forces encroach and ruin everything. But when people ask I tell them: up a nondescript hill that veers off Mission St, there is a refreshingly unassuming neighborhood that retains a little bit of the Mission, some of the Bayview, more than some of the Excelsior, while being its own unlikely and very personable village. On one of its busiest corners, sits the vivid lime green façade of Red Hill Books, a place unbeatable if you’re looking for kid’s books, rare gardening manuals or even just a hard-to-find novel. You can’t miss the bargain book carts out front, or the free book box or its elegant red and black sign. In such a place it was also easy to feel like your favorite bartender even when all I sold were second-hand books, many with bookmarks dropped between the pages from strangers long ago.