Saturday, January 9, 2010
The Midwestern love of Chains & the Blaming of Leonard Woolf
Particularly in the days before Amazon, The Tattered Cover really used to be something, back when its Cherry Creek store still existed. When I first moved to Colorado one of the first places I made sure to visit was the Tattered Cover, it was almost legendary. It had four immense floors, stuffed with books of every description. There were wingback chairs secreted away in seemingly private corners, where patrons sat and read for hours at a time. Their customer service was well known, and there is a famous tale of a customer service representative there once tracking down some out-of-print editions in a private basement, in Ohio. I have no idea how, I prefer to think that he was in possession of some book-charming magic.
Now The Tattered Cover largely resembles a chain bookstore. Or perhaps the chain bookstores came to resemble it, I don't know. I do know that after the Cherry Creek store closed, and TC moved to an old theater on Colfax Avenue, it lost something. The store had also opened other branches, one in lower downtown, one in the suburb of Highlands Ranch. It was inevitable, I suppose. Although it is still known as an independent bookseller, it largely resembles a Barnes and Noble, or Borders inside.
There is something about the Midwest and a great love of Chain anything. Chain restaurants, Chain retail stores, Chain auto-mechanics. Even though in other parts of the country there is nothing less hip than a Chain store, here about the only businesses that survive are Chains.
This is particularly ironic because the Midwest is associated with Conservative thinking, which talks about the importance of the small business owner, and the dreams of the individual being key in this Free Market but in practice, it is the Chain Stores that thrive. I've never been particularly at peace with this aspect of Colorado, but then I suppose that's my stealth-liberal talking.
When we first moved here we frequented a Sushi restaurant called Goro's which I apparently liked right to death, in very short order. I should mention that if I like something the chances that no one else will seem to be rather high. Products I adore tend to disappear from shelves, entire lines of merchandise are seemingly vaporized by my approbation. I'm something of a menace, really. Fear not, this evidently does not hold true for people, just things. Stores, restaurants, perfumes the occasional town (long story, that). If you are selling something? For the love of mercy, don't ask me to buy it, if I like it is a sure sign of ruination to come, but I digress. I do that a lot too. Kill things off by liking them, and head off on tangents. We all have skills, those are mine.
Anyway, I was scouting around one of the Tattered Coves off-shoot stores because I was looking for a biography of Leonard Woolf. I didn't truly expect the store to have it and, indeed, it was nowhere to be found. I was also looking for a copy of an E. M. Forster book, as I had lent my copy to someone, and then that person moved to Texas. My copy of Howard's End went with her, and apparently got lost somewhere between the border of Oklahoma and the city of San Antonio. They suspect a box fell off the truck. No, really. I probably liked that box.
The Tattered Cover didn't have a copy of Howard's End on hand, either. Similarly, another one of my books that decided to secede to Texas, Wharton's The Custom of the Country wasn't available either. Determined to support an independent bookseller, or die trying, I snatched up a copy of The Women, by T C Boyle, although my track record with enjoying contemporary fiction suggests that was a foolhardy plan.
When I returned home, I logged onto Amazon, and found everything I needed within seconds. Mission accomplished, go team Me. I could have ordered the books at the store, but frankly I was a little ticked about Howard's End, The Custom of the Country I can understand as it isn't one of the more popular Wharton books, but if you are going to have any E. M. Forster in a bookstore Howard's End seems a very likely candidate. Plus, for reasons that will soon be easy to understand, I wanted to get the heck out of there.
My quest for the biography of Virginia Woolf's husband has to do with my on-going obsession with seeing both sides of almost any situation. I think this has to do with my parents divorce when I was little. My father had a lot of problems, to be honest about it, and would say just terrible things about my mother to me. I was six when she left. My mother, who had far fewer problems (particularly after she ditched my dad, and as a consequence, me) was no better.
I'm not blaming either of them, by the way. This was in the seventies, and there's a reason that defaming an ex-spouse in front of a child became so frowned upon; almost every divorced person was doing that in the seventies. It did leave me with an almost pathological need to defend people who aren't present. A trait of mine that can drive my friends nearly mad. They tell me about how they have been wronged, and nine times out of ten I start to try and provide the other person's possible viewpoint. It takes an act of will on my part to stop myself.
It's a pity I never had a yen to be a defense lawyer, isn't it?
Several years ago I became embroiled in a debate about Virginia and Leonard Woolf. If you aren't familiar with Virginia Woolf, here's the short version: Well known author, and for good reason. Tendency towards nervous collapses, and breakdowns possibly related to Manic Depression, or possibly Clinical Depression. Sexual abuse at the hands of her half brothers (I've no urge to defend them, trust me) also played a large part, and Virginia eventually took her own life. She's a figure of a fair amount of interest and I'm sure you've all heard of her.
She was married to Leonard Woolf and seemingly loved him a great deal. He returned this feeling, and waged a long battle, often simply trying to keep her alive. Virginia also had a long affair with another woman. It would take entirely too long to explain this if you aren't familiar with the specifics, but that was not outside the boundaries of her marriage.
Virginia Woolf was complicated, basically.
In the middle of a party a few years back, a woman who had recently read a specific biography of Leonard Woolf and this particular biography blamed him for Woolf's mental illness. As it happens, Woolf had her first nervous breakdown years before she ever laid eyes on her husband-to-be. Certainly by modern standards the measures Leonard employed to try and keep Virginia safe from herself seem controlling, and the life he encouraged her to lead to try and stave off bouts of depression also seems controlling when viewed from a modern perspective.
To try and keep this from stretching on for too long I'll sum up and say that we had a long, polite but pitched conversation. She stood firm on her belief that Leonard Woolf was an abusive, controlling man, I continued to defend a man long in the grave as having done the best he could do, and out of a very sincere love for his wife given what was available in terms of treatment. We parted ways, and were probably both equally glad to do so.
I've been meaning to read the defamatory biography of Leonard Woolf from that day to this, and two things reminded me that I still needed to procure a copy. One was Jo's list of authors she'd read, and seeing Woolf's name on there reminded me that I had yet to see the other side in that debate. The other was a mutual defense of Annie Sullivan my friend Angela and I were engaging in via email. Long story short: Long dead Annie Sullivan was accused of abuse of Helen Keller in a biography. My friend and I were on the same side of that defense but it reminded me, I had yet to read the Woolf biography. It is now ordered and on its way.
However, it was as I was doing a near headstand on the floor of the Tattered Cover, as of course any subject of a biography starting with W is likely to be on the shelf closest to the ground, that I heard my name called. I glanced up, from my decidedly weird position, and felt a slight chill wash over me.
Before me stood a woman who is perfectly nice in every single way you can name. She's a pleasant person, she has a sunny disposition. We have known each other for seven years through our sons' sport activities, and although she is among the nicest of people, she finds me weird. She likes to tell me that she finds me odd, and weird, eccentric, a great figure of fun. This started when she found me reading a book about Czarist Russia (save yourselves, do not ask) in a parking lot, during a rainstorm. Now, I'm not sure I blame her for thinking I'm an odd duck, she has a positive gift for finding me in the middle of doing things that are slightly left of center. For instance, in that rainstorm, when she was simply seeking company while we waited for practice to finish, she knocked on my car window and startled me so badly, I threw a book about Peter the Great directly into the air, only to have it bash me in the nose on the way down.
I'm just saying, legitimately from her perspective, I probably seem like a lunatic. We've only met four times outside of the fields, but not once has she found me doing something as innocent as buying a cucumber. No, instead she's found me doing things like lurking outside an Adult Book store, waiting on another friend, who had needed moral support while trying to buy a vibrator. That's the kind of stuff this nice Lacrosse mother finds me doing, as she's innocently off to the adjacent Mexican restaurant. Then there was the time at a charity drive, I almost slammed bodily into her while clutching a doughnut shaped cushion to my chest, with a headless bobble head doll stuck in the center. That is yet another long, long story but I swear this is not evidence of my encroaching madness. The fourth incident is actually so embarrassing, I'm choosing not to describe it in public.
There is a perverse god somewhere laughing his butt off. You see, on this occasion, not only was I down on my knees, one of the blasted books on the shelf was upside down. Rather than reaching out and righting it, I had placed the crown of my head on the floor, and was attempting to read the title. I had one hand on the shelf above me, steadying myself, giving not a thought to how it probably looked as if I was having some strange seizure to everyone else, when I heard this woman's voice. I shot up with a quickness.
"I thought that was you!"she said. Well, in her experience, who else would it be? Woman doing something vaguely bizarre in public? Has to be me. "What are you doing?"
Now, at this juncture, I probably should have lied. I probably should have said, "Oh nothing, just looking." but I wanted to try and explain my contorted position on the floor, and said I was looking for a biography. I left out the part about reading upside down.
"Oh, which one?"
I realized my mistake almost immediately, but as nothing that would reassure this poor woman that I wasn't moments away from sticking my head in an oven, came to mind, I answered truthfully, "Who's Afraid of Leonard Woolf: A Case for the Sanity of Virginia Woolf."
She blinked, laughed and let out a long, drawn out, "Oooooooh. I haven't read that one."
Yeah, I'll bet. I extricated myself from the conversation with a minimum of explanation, and left with equivalent of a Chain book, one from the New York Times Best Seller List. I couldn't be found snatching that up, nope. It gets ever so slightly better, no really. When I exited the store, a man stood nearby with a sandwich board, asking for signatures to preserve some parks and recreation space, to keep it out of the hands of a developer. I stopped and did my civic duty. It's just my tough luck that he was wearing stuffed reindeer antlers on his head, trying to attract attention.
This was, of course, the moment when the Lacrosse mom exited, and saw me deeply engrossed in conversation with Antler Man. Embracing my fate, I waved cheerfully to her, and the Antler Man waved too. She seemed to be chuckling as she waved back. Can't imagine why.
Next time I meet up with that woman, I'll likely be carrying a live duck and riding tricycle while eating popcorn. I'll have a perfectly reasonable explanation, of course, but that won't matter.
I left the store, and went to the grocery where I bought such shocking and strange things as Broccoli and Leeks.
I do wonder what fate has decreed that this woman will stumble across me doing things that must look like I'm inches away from sitting in a corner, chewing my hair. When I see it from her perspective, truly, I can fully understand why she thinks I'm, at best, a flake, and at worst, a mad woman but for today, I'm blaming Leonard Woolf.