“OK, Gwenyfar, you have got to take a deep breath and calm down.”
I held a hand to my chest and felt my heart going triple time. “Here, here! This is just like any other day of running a bookstore, with a few small changes,” Jock pointed out.
“I wish I could believe that,” I responded. “Please, hug me.”
It was 11:40 on Saturday morning, and we were in the last desperate throes of getting ready to open the doors to let people in the bookstore for the first time in two months. Jock, with his broken leg, was camped in the wing chair by the sofa as I ran around filling bottles with sanitizing solution, taping up signs, detailing our COVID-19 protocol, and trying to get Jock’s station in front of the store set up: gloves, mask, a clipboard for keeping track of the number of people in the store, signs, hand sanitizer … what was I forgetting?
The week leading up to our reopening was fraught with indecision. Do we open or not? If we do, what will it look like? I can’t call any of the staff into work; I don’t feel safe asking them to be here right now. I spent hours on the phone with Rachel and Elise, discussing the logistics of various scenarios, including at what point employees and consumers alike would feel comfortable being back inside the store. I couldn’t make this decision in a vacuum, but I also couldn’t ask them to return before I had any idea what is going on—or if there would be any money to pay their wages.
Jock announced he would work the door, keep track of the number of people inside and sanitize everyone’s hands before they entered.
“Well, the problem with that,” I explained over the phone to my friend Ashley, “is I know he is doing this because he loves me and he wants to help. But he is the most important person in the world to me, and the idea that he could get exposed or sick is horrifying.”
By Wednesday it looked like we were committed to giving Saturday a try—I was nowhere near ready. I was still trying to address the crack in the wall from the parking deck construction behind us. It blended beautifully with where our neighbor’s gutters overflow, leading to a waterfall in the “S” aisle of books. In spite of months of work on the roof, we still have not eliminated the leak over “Poetry, Reference and Anthologies.” I had dreamed of repatriating the poetry section during the shutdown, but it was not to be.
Friday I managed to get most of the books by authors whose last names start with “S” and “T” back on the shelves—a major victory. Hopefully, in the coming months, I can make the walls look nicer. For now, perfect is the enemy of good, and we have to press on with what’s possible.
In addition to getting the construction site cleaned up in the back, there was the issue of what to do with the kids section? Would we leave the toys out? There was not going to be time to clean them all day long. After much internal debate, I packed up the play kitchen and toys. The image of a child playing with them, and putting their hands in their mouth (or a toy in their mouth) and getting sick or carrying it home to one of their parents was too much to bear. I closed my eyes and held a bookshelf for a moment of stability while murmuring a prayer. It is too much to worry about right now. Managing the toys is not a priority.
I cleaned and shelved about 10 boxes of books on Thursday and Friday, all while answering the door and helping people with book orders and answering questions. Still, the never-ending piles of books loomed. My legs ached from the knees down, my feet were swollen from walking, carrying, climbing ladders, and endless bending and lifting. I looked with sadness at the pile of poetry books that had been evacuated to the “Psychology/Self-Help/Health” section in February because of the leak, and hung the “Technical Difficulties, Please Stand By” sign in an attempt to stop people from entering that section.
In an effort to make a bit more space at the front, I moved the pedestal with “Pictorial History of Wilmington Books” to the front of it. I turned a lightweight cardboard bookshelf around so its back faced outward, one which I could hang a sign about social distancing—appropriately placed under “Technical Difficulties.”
Gwenyfar, you have got to accept the possible, I reminded myself. Go lie down. Tomorrow is going to be stressful—get some damn rest!
“So, are you ready?” My neighbor Jacob Motsinger of Memory Lane Comics asked on Saturday morning.
“To tell the truth, I am very nervous,” I said.
We were standing apart from each other in the alley, having a cup of coffee. We have been checking in a lot more than usual about how things are going with curbside pickup and deliveries and bills, as well as when to reopen and how. I ticked off the parameters the bookstore had settled on, including offering a discount to people wearing masks. “I think the majority of people will be reasonable, but…” I shook my head.
“Well, good luck,” he said, smiling.
At 11:30 a.m. someone pulled on the bookstore’s front door. “I need about 20 more minutes!” I called. I fluttered my hands in worry at the people at the door. “I’m sorry! It’s a little worrying trying to get ready for the first day!”
“Don’t worry, we’ll come back,” they said. They waved and smiled with more calm and good cheer than I had felt in weeks.
They did come back—bless them—about an hour later. Jock put sanitizer on their hands at the door and they were our first sale to people wearing masks. When I announced their total, the lady asked, “Is that with the discount?”
I made a choice to reward good behavior of mask-wearing by offering a discount to those who follow the guidelines.
“Oh, no! I forgot! You are our first group!” I set about refiguring their total. “I guess I need practice. Thank you for sharing this with me!”
They were a picture of patience and kindness.
Throughout the day, people cycled through. Several friends dropped by to wish us well, though there were plenty of people I didn’t know, too.
Mark and Linda Basquill were a highlight. “Where are your gloves?” Linda asked, pointing at my hands.
“I gave them to Jock.”
“You should have them, too.” Linda has been an RN at least since the Clinton Administration, so I grabbed the glove box and donned a pair. Just as I was getting them in place and writing up Mark and Linda’s purchase, Jock walked in with a question about whether a family of seven could come into the store.
“Absolutely,” I said. Instantly, I realized I misunderstood the question and Jock misunderstood my answer. He wasn’t holding them at the door and in they came.
With the Basquills, plus the family of seven we were now over our capacity. I finished ringing up Mark and Linda; they waved and left, bringing us under our threshold.
Toward the end of the day, two people I like to talk with came through. “So how is it looking out there?” I asked. “What are you seeing downtown?”
“A lot more people walking around,” one answered.
“Yeah, a lot more people in shops and on sidewalks,” the other added.
Mmmm, I thought. Hopefully, that’s a good sign. But is it? How can you tell?
I guess the only way I can tell is by how grateful I am to be behind the front desk at the bookstore again. It isn’t completely normal; I can’t smile at people with a mask on. But just to get a chance to chat about books and to share the world that I and so many people have worked so hard to build—that is wonderful. This is a first step. It isn’t all going to be perfect, but this step was important and all day, I felt us inching toward normalcy.
“So, how did it go?” Jacob asked me that evening. I had promised the doggies if they were very good while we were at the bookstore, they could have a second—albeit much shorter—W-A-L-K when we got home. Jacob was out front when we made our way back to the yard.
“Pretty well, all in all. We had one woman who inflicts herself on society, but it’s retail—we were going to have that regardless of COVID-19. I think the cool weather helped since we could prop open the door and no one had to pull on the handle.”
“Good.” He smiled. “Were a lot of people wearing masks?”
“Yeah, we gave a lot of mask discounts,” telling him about forgetting with my first group and practicing the mantra with them.
“That sounds great.”
I smiled back this time. “Yeah, we’re going to try again tomorrow.”