Thursday, March 06, 2008

Close the door, turn out the lights

For a moment I pause at the top of the stairs and gaze at the library. Everything is softened under a layer of dust, the table, the irregular stacks of books, the sagging bookshelves, the rocking chair. The room personifies neglect and the state of our lives. Even the stairs portray incompletion, raw wood, carpet removed, stripped, sanded but unfinished yet, a project begun years ago and stalled and finally forgotten.

The nearest stack of books teeters precariously on a stool so I straighten it up. On top is a nonfiction account of the Ypres Salient where some of the fiercest fighting in World War I took place; beneath are books of poems by Theodore Roethke, Walt Whitman and Donald Hall, and a study on Pueblo birds and myths. Bottoming the pile is a retelling of the Cinderella story. All are unread, as are three hundred or so others lining the shelves. My fingers come away chalky white. I wipe them on my pants and start down the stairs, and cannot help but smile and promise the room a good spring cleaning. Someday. Someday soon.


The final week in our ownership of my wife’s shop went nothing like I thought it would.

It was, in many respects, an important reminder of the things that make life worthwhile. Years ago, when I first made moves into an unlikely career of journalism—untrained, unschooled and above all unprepared—I sought advice from a birding friend turned editor of the Washington County News. He told me one of the most difficult stories he’d had to write was about a four-foot stretch of newly laid sidewalk. “What can you say about a sidewalk?” he asked. He preferred to write about people, he said. Which was exactly the opposite of what I wanted. People were complicated, mysterious and terrifying, especially to one more attuned to silence and solitude. A sidewalk I could deal with.

My first article involved a swimming pool. Naturally, it wasn’t about the pool as much as it was about the man who donated the money for its construction, and of his great-grandson who appeared at the library one day carrying a faded black-and-white photo depicting the pool, the people and, indirectly, the impact it had on the community. The first lesson in journalism I was taught was that the story is always about people.

Retail is no different. Anyone who thinks it’s about product, inventory and profit (or loss) doesn’t know anything about owning a business. Like journalism, like community, like family, even, it’s always about people.

After three years of being in business, we were selling out to a partner. And while the prospect of having more time to do the things we wanted was like an electric current singing in our veins, there was also a bittersweet element in saying goodbye to something we had created from scratch. So much work and emotion goes into building a business that it becomes part of you, indistinguishable and inseparable from the person looking back from the mirror each morning. With three days left, I figured it would be quiet, a time of reflection and gradual withdrawal. Instead, it was like history being rewound.

I had no sooner unlocked the door when people began filtering in. There was Steve Rock, once a stranger in search of fresh habaneros—the hottest chiles on the planet—now a fast friend, and Duane Iles, ex-pharmacist, ex-enemy, whose crooked smile never failed to make me laugh, and Pat O and Nancy and the mayor, John Nowak, whose wry insight always helped me see the opposite side of the story, and others, a steady stream of them, some saying goodbye, and others, like Richard Olson, an ex-Santa Fean, opera connoisseur, art lover, chilehead and irascible, profane old fart whom I love dearly, who made me promise we would somehow find some other common ground to meet upon. There was little time for reflection other than to wonder what it would be like to not be available for these friends, what would fill that absence or how we would continue to gather.

We would never have known these and so many others without the business. As Lori said, that in itself is a great success, and a lasting tribute.

The final day was spent in packing and removing our inventory. There was little time to mourn our passing. We hadn’t eaten lunch so I promised Lori Chinese in Marysville, and as last minute shoppers browsed I hauled the remaining boxes out to the truck. In a perfect note of symmetry we finished exactly at 5 p.m. Lori emptied the cash drawer, turned the thermostat down, and killed the rear bank of lights. I removed two keys from my keychain and set them carefully them on the counter. It was like slicing off a finger. It was like sawing off manacles.

At the front door I paused and turned to look back one last time. Lori stopped beside me.

“Do you see anything of us left?” I asked.

“No,” she said.

I hadn’t worded it right. What I meant to ask was had we missed anything.

From outside came the wild cry of snow geese heading north, and the sunlight lay warm and golden on the damp grass and the splintered trees and the rusted metal wheels chained to the flagpole. It was the warmest day of the year, the kind of day that feels like hope, a day saturated with promise of an end to a long and bitter winter.

“We’ll always be here,” I said, and turned out the lights and locked the door behind us. 





Jenni said...

I'm catching up on reading here. I didn't have time to read much when I found your blog for the first time the other day. I'm not sure where to put this comment, so I'll just put it on the latest post. Your writing is beautiful. I'm hooked and I will most definitely be back for more.

Tom Parker said...

Jenni -- Glad to have you here. I'm like you in that there never seems to be enough time to read. When I do find time, I invariably fall asleep in the first page or two. I think things will be better now that we closed the shop, but it'll take several months just to get the place reorganized.
In other words, no time to read!

Phyllis Hunt McGowan said...

This is wonderful.
"it’s always about people"- in the midst of a fast world of business, it's easy to forget that rule.
The last paragraph was so poignant. Leaving is so very hard sometimes.