There have been very few years of my life when I wasn’t trying to earn money.
I can count at least 10 real jobs, employment where I was part of the working force and paid taxes and was on a payroll. My 1st “real” job started when I was 14 working for the parks department coaching kids sports teams – all ages from 3 to 13.
But even before that and sometimes concurrent to that there were always ways to make money. Babysitting and car washing were some of the ways to get money amongst other side hustles when I was a kid. A lot of that money went towards candy and baseball cards.
You’d think with all of that employment I’d have more money now. Ha! Now I want things more expensive than baseball cards, and aside of wanting things, living a life is expensive.
Paradoxically, the one thing I want to do and not have to do earns me no money. It earns me something else, something more, some feeling on the inside and a feeling that I’m somehow contributing to something else, to myself and out to the world. Not a big contribution, but something other than getting up, working, eating, going to sleep, rinse and repeat.
We’re more than that. We do what is necessary. But for the vast majority of us, we’re not doing what we would choose to do, whatever that may be. We’re doing what we have to do to get by.
I’ve detailed many times in this space how what I want to do is to write words here, and there and everywhere. I write them for me first. But I don’t mind and actually hope that one or two of the words get out into the world and that a few people find value in them. And while I’d love to make these words and get cash money to do it I have doubts that that will actually happen. That used to bother me. It still does, but not as much. I figure I’ll keep putting words out there, and whatever happens happens. But if someone connects with a word or two I think that is pretty cool, and I can find solace in that.
You can find other thoughts on why I write by clicking here. But aside of being influenced by other writers and kind of just having the desire to write inside of me, I was influenced by two of the places I was employed.
My mother spent virtually all of her working life working with books. There was a now defunct Chicagoland bookstore chain called Kroch’s and Brentano’s. Kroch’s existed in a time before books superstores like Barnes and Noble, Walden Books or B. Daltons. Back in the day there were very many more independent stores. And while K&B had around 20+ stores, it very much retained a independent vibe. Stores were part of the communities in which they resided.
From a young age my siblings and I were surrounded by books. My parents were and still are avid readers and obviously we were greatly influenced by that. But we also spent our childhood surrounded by books because of where my mother worked. We’d visit the store, surrounded by the books and booksellers. I can remember spending many afternoons after school sitting on the floor in one of the isles reading books while I waited for my mother to be done with work. Or weekend nights when we’d all go to pick her up. My brother and sisters and I would read in the semi-darkened store after it closed for the night while my mom and whomever else would count the days receipts after the day was done. Many nights we’d run through the isles playing tag or hiding amongst the books. We’d run as fast as we could down the main isle and slide on the shiny floors, always squealing in the delight of having the whole store to ourselves.
I’ve always read a lot. It seems to be cyclical with me, and the more into adulthood I’ve traveled I’ve found less and less time for reading. Back then, though, I read everything. Most times when I was younger, sitting in those isles waiting I read comic strip compilations or comic books. And besides authors that have influenced me, those comics have informed much of the way I think about writing and what I write.
Even before we were of employable age my sibs worked for K&B. We helped in the stock room. We helped with inventory. We worked the annual sidewalk sale in the outdoor mall where the store was located. I spent many a summer afternoon outside the store, watching the bins of books that were on sale. I didn’t have a lot of answers for the book questions people would sometimes ask, but I probably had more answers than most of the kids my age that were not surrounded by books would have had.
As time went on all of the members of our family – mom, dad, brother, sisters – drew a paycheck from K&B at some time or other. During my college years I worked there during Christmas breaks or during the summer. One summer I worked part time at the downtown location. I loved taking the El train from our suburb to downtown Chicago. It’s always moving and bustling down there and I liked being part of that.
So I grew up and moved to Milwaukee, WI to attend Marquette University. I didn’t work too hard, but worked enough to graduate with a degree in communications. I should have maybe worked a little harder, especially at the end, because after graduation I had no job and no prospects. I had come to consider Milwaukee home, or at least another home but there was a good chance I was going to have to move back to Chicago. I was going to go back to K&B, and that would not have been a terrible thing. But I was part of a little something in Milwaukee, a circle of friends who where like me or kind of like me, something that I had not had in high school, and did not want to leave that.
My fall back was always books. So I applied to a small, independent bookstore chain in the Milwaukee area. The Schwartz Bookshops had 4-5 stores around the area at any one time. It too was an older chain like K&B and was also embedded in the community in which it served. It was a place not only of selling books, but to share a love of books and social ideas and a way to make a connection to book lovers and lovers of sharing ideas.
Harry W. Schwartz founded the store somewhere in the 1920’s or so. He had passed long before I worked for Schwartz. I worked for his son David. David was awesome. To me he was like a book selling rock star. He liked me, or at least I like to imagine he did, even while I was occasionally a bit afraid of him. He was forever bouncing between stores, and he loved to arraigned and rearrange the remainder section. Remainders were usually overstock items that were sold at a discount, either because it had not sold very well or where available to buy cheaply and sell at a lower price and still make money on them. I’m not sure why David spent so much time on the remainders. I never asked him, but I’d like to think that besides getting cash for them and getting rid of old inventory he liked to give new life to books that were not being read.
The Harry W. Schwartz Bookshop in Shorewood, WI was probably my favorite place that I worked. There was not much money to be made – I don’t know that any bookseller has ever gotten rich selling books. But David would tout the social value in selling books. And while sometimes I thought that was just a line he would tell people so he didn’t have to pay them more, as time went on I believed in that. To me, there was nothing more satisfying than talking books with customers and sharing ideas and getting paid for it.
I wish I had worked for Schwartz longer. I kind of screwed it up at the end, which is an other story and does not really belong here. But working there was invaluable. I read more than any other time period in my life. I discovered so many authors and met so many authors. It was where I discovered Kurt Vonnegut and Tim O’Brien and Tom Jones Raymond Carver and Lorrie Moore and Richard Ford and on and on. It was when I discovered that I could put words on paper or on a screen and that they would occasionally make a bit of sense as they traveled from my mind to my hands. It was when I figured out that all of those years of making up stories in my head was me writing, and I finally started to write them down.
I think about many of the people I knew and worked with, even now almost twenty years later. I’m only in contact with a few, and then only through the social media. I wonder about them from time to time. Those few years at Schwartz were super cool and I miss those people sometimes.
K&B and HWS bookstores are long gone. The market decided in superstores, and the independents could not keep up. The fact that the superstores are on their last legs now due to Amazon and other internet retailers shouldn’t give me such satisfaction, but it does.
Carl Kroch has long passed and A. David Schwartz died some years back. But there influence lives on, in me and in others, or at least I like to think that.
I’ve always been surrounded by books. In my parents house. In my house now. I’d carry them everywhere. I prefer paperbacks. I always have a book with me. Back then I’d curl the book up and carry it in my back pocket. Now the are in the bag I take to work with me every day. They are not always being read, but they are there just in case I want to read them.
Reading and writing go hand in hand. I love the connection and the value in sharing ideas. I miss working at a bookstore. Everyone has to make money and do what they have to do. But working around books was one of the few jobs I had when it did not always feel like work. I’m hoping to get back to that again someday. In the meantime, I’ll keep putting words out there and sharing ideas. It’s what I was brought up to do.
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