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Shelf Life

Romance, Mystery, Drama, and Other Page-Turning Adventures from a Year in a Bookstore

Reviewer: Sally Boss

By Suzanne Strempek Shea. Boston: Beacon Press (, 2004. 223 pages. Hardcover. $20.00.

A bookstore is about a community. In the age of universal literacy there cannot be a real community without a bookstore. Unfortunately there are plenty of “communities” without bookstores. These are false communities consisting of people united by the same income level or a desire to live in the same suburb, share the same guarded and fenced subdivision entrance, and note imperfections in each other’s lawns and living rooms. Perhaps the reason people feel so lonely in middle-class subdivisions of American cities is that in spite of their literacy their major contact with the printed word occurs through reading labels on grocery packages. They might pick up a free advertising sheet in the local mall, and some of them even subscribe to a local paper. But the idea of going to a bookstore and browsing among the recently published books is alien to them. This is mass society, and it does not make for good citizenry.

Such thoughts come to mind as one reads Strempek Shea’s newest book. It is about working in a bookstore, and it is autobiographical. After a bout with cancer which she commemorated in Songs from a Lead-Lined Room, she reentered life via the bookstore door. She began to work in a local store, and the book under review is the fruit of her year-long career as a bookseller.

Strempek Shea has a rare ability to make ordinary people and humdrum happenings sound interesting, such as opening packages containing books, taking out the layers of books (all titles are mentioned) until the invoice appears-and then going to the computer and recovering the same invoice there, and then doing what is necessary to confirm receipt. Sounds boring? Strempek Shea makes it vibrate. Add to it the delightful little portraits of people, coworkers as well as customers, and, of course, comments on books and cards and the “stuff” one buys in a bookstore. Strempek Shea’s small tome is likely to make a book lover out of a person whose only encounter with hardbound books is the “how to” manual on house decorating.

When this reader first learned that this is a story of the author’s year-long stint in a bookstore, apprehension set in. After a few dozen pages I felt that the book could not be put away-it had to be read to the end even though its plot is thin. Strempek Shea makes one realize how incredibly interesting human beings are, even the most boring ones. Once their portraits are sketched out in words, they acquire a second life, as it were. Oh, the power of words. Strempek Shea possesses that power to a high degree. So many writers live off unusual plots and adventures, or the method of epater le bourgeois. Strempek Shea makes a cake out of a sack of cement, and it tastes good and is good for you. There are certainly ups and downs in the book, and occasionally there are passages which one feels could have been deleted. But the book flows and the reader’s interest does not flag. The staff of the Edwards Bookstore in Springfield, MA has been immortalized.

This brings me to the inevitable reflection on this spectacularly talented American of Polish background: if she were of a different ethnic background, her name would have been plastered all over the first pages of the New York Times Book Review and other power-wielding magazines. Strempek Shea has a style all her own, she has created a unique way of writing about small-town ethnic America, she represents people who were never ambitious but found happiness and wisdom while shopping for $1.99 bargains. Even though her Polish consciousness amounts mostly to a memory of the soft fluff of childhood, Strempek Shea is marked by her background and her refusal to latch onto topics that the “with it” people are supposed to write about. Thus she can count on genuine reader interest but not on the advantages that accrue to the overadvertised bestsellers through made-to-order reviews orchestrated to appear simultaneously in different parts of the country. She and Martha Stewart are recipients of the cold shoulder treatment routinely extended to persons of Polish ancestry who are “making it” in this country. Yes, they can be successful, but their next step is made difficult, the opportunity to trip grows exponentially as successes pile up, and that very last step necessary to get to the top of the heap is usually detoured. Strempek Shea is one of the few successful writers of Polish background in the United States today, and she got there without the help of kingmakers. She can only count on us readers, and we should not fail her.

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The Sarmatian Review
Last updated 9/12/04