My grandparents moved to Arizona from Chicago the year my mother turned 5. Shortly after their arrival in Arizona, she was bitten by an infected mosquito and sunk into an illness that was claiming children’s lives. My grandparents kept her at home rather than take her to the hospital. For about a year, she was in bed. She did, eventually, make a complete recovery, and in spite of all the predictions she would spend the rest of her life in an institution, unable to care for herself, she graduated Phi Beta Kappa from college.
Still, there were a number of lasting scars from the illness. One, in particular, was the memory of a shade of mustard yellow—a reminder of the vomiting frequently brought on by encephalitis. My mother was allergic to the medication they gave her for the illness. She vomited it up twice a day almost every day for a year. At the age of 5, it left a powerful impression.
If we were driving down the road and saw a car that color, or sat at a stoplight next to a mustard yellow house, my mother would have to pull over and vomit. For years she did not drive on 17th Street between Orange and Market streets because there was a camper truck parked on the side of the road that was the exact shade. I have had to leave receptions with her because of tablecloths or an unfortunate hostess’ dress. Even 40 years after recovery, her response was still visceral.
Brain swelling causes fevers, which can cause fever dreams—or hallucinations, another symptom of encephalitis. The summer before the move to Arizona, my mother and her older sister, Carol Ann, spent time in Chicago with Aunt Dan. She took them to the movies almost daily. These fresh images were the ones that swam to the surface in her young mind: the Blue Fairy from “Pinocchio” and other Disney characters would talk to her frequently. Bugs would crawl on her and no one could get them off (of course, no one could see them except her, which made the bug extraction impossible). I think about my grandparents who had just moved across the country, away from their entire family and social support system, alone in a new town with a sick and possibly dying child who needed around-the-clock nursing. How did they manage? How? They chose not to send her to the hospital, but to keep her home and care for her themselves.
There are people facing similar decisions right now. At encore, our publisher, John Hitt, shared a letter last week about how he and his wife, Susan, were self-quarantining. Susan was showing symptoms of the virus but neither her doctor nor the health department were prepared to test her. John and Susan have a tremendous network and a lot of people who care for and about them here in Wilmington. That social capital will mean more to all of us in coming weeks and months than we likely realize.
I have really struggled these last few weeks. I am far from perfect, but I do have a couple of guides I try to follow with regards to the bookstore and my staff: I don’t ask people to perform any task I haven’t done myself and am not willing to do again. (For example, when we had what can only be described as a “liquid fecal covering” of the floor of the bathroom a couple of weeks ago, I wasn’t asking anyone else to clean that up.) I work hard and expect others to as well. (If I can be out on the roof in 47-degree weather to do repairs, you can sit at the front desk and clean books.) But I really want to be able to tell the staff: “This is what is going on. This is our plan; we are going to get through this.” To me, that is part of what leadership looks like. It really bothers me I cannot formulate a specific plan, communicate it to the staff and collectively put it into action. I can’t give them some idea of what to rely upon. It isn’t even that each day is different; each hour changes.
Money-wise, the outlook is bleak for small businesses right now. Front Street looks dire and desperate. I usually try not to say anything negative about downtown or Front Street. When I was 12, I fell in love with riding my bike downtown, wandering through the shops, having coffee and lunch. It was charming and sophisticated, and I just knew if I could have a cute little store down there and eke out a living, I would be one of the coolest people on the planet (and, more so, one of the happiest).
Right now, my beautiful historic district is pretty much abandoned. It’s baffling and breaks my heart, how less than a week ago sidewalks were full of people walking dogs, riding bikes, and groups of friends congregating and taking pictures. Afternoons at the bookstore used to be a wonderful mix of what I call “a lot of life going on”: James Jarvis teaching piano lessons; a hipster purchasing the history of book-to-film adaptations; a couple of young writers studiously combing the poetry section; someone flipping through stacks and stacks of prints; and a couple of small children making fish sticks at the play kitchen in the kids’ section while their parents look for books. We went from that to nothing in two days.
A little over a month ago, a young lady I went to high school with, and had not seen in about 20 years, took me to lunch. During the meal she asked if I liked owning a business. Another local business owner (of far greater financial success), who has become a philanthropist, had been mentioned in an earlier conversation. I used him as a comparison: I think his business success allows him to do things that are important to him—like philanthropy work. As far as the business itself? That’s a means to an end—not a life’s calling. I have no illusions I will ever have a wealthy bank account. The bookstore is my calling and a trust I will fight to the end to preserve. I know what real wealth looks like: It looks like people who showed up to move us to safety 10 years ago when our building got condemned. It looks like all the phone calls and emails we have received in the last two days asking if we are OK.
Wealth is the knock I answered at the front door of the store today.
Monday is our usual payroll day at the bookstore. I paid the staff and told them, honestly, once paychecks and our sales tax payment hit, the bank account would be empty. We don’t have any income coming in right now. If anyone was going to risk illness to keep their doors open, it was going to be me—not them. So I planned to try to open, but the reality that reared its head made it clear I needed to put a sign on the door with our phone number and the possibility of delivering items to someone with a specific request. Around 2:30, one of my friends and her dog knocked on the door. I let them in (of course) and we joked about staying far enough apart and not hugging.
Then she handed me a check.
I told her she couldn’t do this, I couldn’t accept it. She asked if I remembered when I was settling my parents’ estate and I gave her a check at a time she was in desperate need. I nodded. Honestly, I haven’t thought about it more than maybe two or three times in the last five years. It wasn’t done with any strings attached. It was just that I could help, and she had been so generous to me in so many aspects of my life. So this one time, this one thing I was able to do, I wanted to do. She was back to return the favor at a time the bookstore really needed it—when I had no idea how to pay upcoming bills, when we have no money coming in the door.
That is wealth—real wealth and real capital. In the coming weeks and months, we are going to need each other more than ever. Yes, we have been through hurricanes. Yes, we know what a long recovery looks like, but this is going to be different. There are tough choices ahead; I beg of you, dear readers: please, choose love and kindness. We are all going to need to share as much of that as we can.