Saturday, October 2, 2010

“Kindred Spirits are not so scarce as I used to think. Its splendid to find out there are so many of them in the world.”

What really knocks me out is a book, when you're all done reading it, you wished the author that wrote it was a terrific friend of yours and you could call him up on the phone whenever you felt like it.

I tend to read every Holocaust novel I can get my hands on, and four years ago I came across this one...

...and completely loved it.

I had a specific question about the plot, so I shot the author, Jenna Blum, an email. She responded, and was so nice and happy to get such a nice email that she forgot to answer my question...and then sent me another message answering it, and telling me I was the only reader to pick-up on that part so far.

For the next few years, Jenna and I exchanged many emails and Facebook wallposts. Like myself, Jenna loves a good Lifetime "Give Me Back My Baby" movie.

I could tell almost immediately that Jenna was a kindred spirit.

And then she posted this blog about working at Borders...I worked at Barnes and Noble for five years...I read the last line of this story and burst into tears.


Before I became a full-time writer, working at Borders was the only job I ever loved. Moreover, it was the only job, outside of writing, I was able to hold. Straight out of college, when a Random House interviewer asked me why I wanted to work there, I couldn’t think of an answer. When a friend’s father gave me a job in an advertising firm, I lasted one day, then called in and said I had mono. For years I was a serial monogamist in the food service industry, working one low-level job after another—including a prep-chef position requiring me to wear a hat shaped like a garlic clove—to support my expensive writing habit. In my late twenties I was gently fired from being an assistant restaurant manager because, I was told after exploding a bottle of Merlot on a customer, “the food industry is not in your blood.” I nodded. I knew this. I accepted it. But what, aside from writing, was in my blood?


This was in the late 1990s, in Minneapolis, Minnesota. I was jobless, almost thirty, on the cusp of divorce, publishing short stories and applying to grad school for the sixth time (“When I Go To Heaven, Here Are The Fictional Characters I Expect To Meet”). After losing the last restaurant job, I was shaking in my boots. Literally. It was winter, below freezing. I had to pay rent. I drove to Richfield, MN and applied at a flagship Borders opening there. The manager, Paul Bartlett, wore a gray t-shirt despite the cold and looked like a football coach, except much more suspicious. But he was kind. Despite my patchy track record, he hired me as an assistant manager. I’d start in the café, he said, and we’d see how I’d do.

And voila, I’d found the first job that I could not only tolerate but that I loved.

What I remember about working at Borders: the eighteen-hour days as we got the football-field-sized store ready to open. Running the full length of it several times a day in six-inch platform-heeled boots. Installing the espresso machine. Training booksellers to make espresso drinks. Consuming six espresso drinks a day (to this day I remain impervious to the effects of caffeine; it’s like water to me).

Most importantly, though, I remember the sense of coming home. In the broader world, I had discovered to my chagrin, people didn’t seem to read a lot. When I confessed I was a writer, a frequent response was, “I always wanted to be a writer, but I watch too much TV.” Not so at Borders. If not everyone wanted to be a writer (though plenty of my colleagues did), we all cared passionately about books. From 18-year-old Mark, the first vegan I ever met, to Howard, a 72-year-old retiree who insisted on shelving the computer books to keep in shape, we were all obsessed with the written word. We placed bets on what book Oprah would choose for her next selection. We lovingly arranged and rearranged the New Hardcover Fiction and Nonfiction tables every day. We made a point of knowing our customers so we could hand-sell to their satisfaction. I learned the importance of end-caps and enthusiasm. A good bookseller can move the world.

I loved working at Borders, and after six months, Paul Bartlett told me I had a good shot at becoming a general manager. But that same afternoon I found a letter from Boston University in my mailbox, welcoming me to their graduate writing program. It was a chance I’d been longing for since I was a little girl, since I have always wanted to write. But I was really torn, and it was heartbreaking to go.

When my debut novel THOSE WHO SAVE US was published in 2004, I returned to the Richfield Borders for a reading. Paul Bartlett was there, in his gray t-shirt. He said, “I always knew you’d make it.” Really? I hadn’t. I’d hoped. But I hadn’t known. I bless and credit Paul, and Borders, for having more faith in me than I’d had in myself.

Last week, Jenna was signing her new book in a little independent bookstore not far from me which I never knew existed.

I left early.

I told my office I was going to a "book signing."

I think they thought I was trying to cover something-up.

Jenna gave a delightful lecture and Q and A at the signing, and told a story about how when her father died, she realized he had kept every story she had written as a kid and that she knows how proud he would have been of her.

(I really wish I had been warned that she was going to tell that story. When I was rehearsing for my play this summer, I was on the train one night and it suddenly hit me that my dad was missing this show and so much more and I realized I had tears running down my face as I stared out the window. Suddenly, Frank Sinatra singing "You'll Never Walk Alone" came-on my iPod. Great timing.)

I seemed to be the only person at this signing who wasn't a part of a book fact, I kind of want to join a book club now because I was enjoying watching the dynamics between these other women and felt a bit left-out.

However, I DID "know" one person at the signing...Jenna herself...who seems so happy to finally meet me and had me sit next to her as she signed so we could talk. I have waited-off to the side for friends to finish signing Playbills, but this was the first time I had waited-off to the side for friends to finish signing New York Times bestselling novels.

This girl is pretty awesome, and I was so thrilled to finally meet her!

Thank you, Jenna!

Diana Rissetto

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