A bookstore can be a good escape. Want to go to a land far away with fairies and dragons? You can do that in a bookstore. Want to feel like you’re best friends with an adorable couple who just can’t seem to admit their feelings for each other? That, you can do in a bookstore. Want to solve murders or mysteries abound? You got it. You can do that in a bookstore.
Now I suppose most of this escaping is actually done outside of the bookstore. The bookstore is just where one might find the door to these worlds. Of course you can escape and read your book for as long as you like before you leave, but most people prefer to travel to magical lands in the comfort of their own home.
The bookstore, though, is where it all begins. And don’t tell me you can just order books online, because that’s not the same. You can’t surround yourself with rows upon rows of books on your computer. When you shop online you can’t run your hands along the spines or the shelves that hold them. You can’t open the covers and smell between the pages. You can’t immerse yourself in these worlds by looking at small pictures of the covers on your computer screen. Scrolling through covers isn’t the same as walking by books and entering the worlds for the time that it takes you to read the blurb on the back, or the first one to seven pages before you realize you’ve found your new perfect world to escape into.
This is why I basically live in a bookstore. I grew up hiding between the shelves of books in the library, or wandering the chain bookstores, buying and checking out more than I knew I could read. If I had a bad day, I’d be where the books were. If I was stressed or worried about something, I’d be finding new worlds to escape into. And even if I didn’t get to reading them right away, just knowing that I had them, knowing that there was a new world I could jump into at the moment I needed it, was comforting. It was a comfort to be surrounded by people I didn’t know and worlds that weren’t mine. It still is.
So I own the only independent bookstore in my town, and luckily the chain bookstore is a good twenty minute drive out of town. People frequent my store enough for me to pay my bills and pay a part time employee. And when I lock up at the end of the day and go home, I’m just heading upstairs to my warm and cozy apartment which is a library of its own. Stacks of books make up my side tables beside the couch. Shelves in my living room are double stacked with fantasy hard covers and science fiction paperbacks. Romance novels, children’s chapter books, YA dystopian. You name it, I have it. Name a world and I’ll be able to take you there. I would just prefer it if you chose one from the store downstairs so I can continue to eat.
“Oh what a horrible day,” Mrs. Henderson says as she shakes her closed umbrella out in the doorway. She pulls her raincoat hood off her head and smiles as she comes into the store.
“It’s the perfect day for reading,” I say.
“I guess you're right. Do you have any new mysteries for me?”
“I do, actually.” I grab a new hardcover with big, red block letters spelling the author’s name: CL Jeffers. The author’s name is bigger than the title. Her eyes light up as I hand it to her.
“When did this come out?” she asks.
“Yesterday. They came in just in time to put them on the shelf for its release.”
“This man is a genius. I can’t get enough of his work. You need to get him in for a signing!”
I just smile and nod as I take the book to the register.
“I’m looking for something that’s magical,” the next customer says to me. “Something whimsical and poetic.”
“I have just the book,” I say with a smile. The customer follows me to the fantasy section and I pull a beautiful, clothbound hardcover off the shelf.
She turns it over in her hands, admiring the grey cloth and glossy red indents making up swirly designs across the front and back. The spine has the title along with the author’s name: CL Jeffers.
“I’ve never heard of her,” the customer says to me.
I shrug. “Why don’t you give it a try? Could be a new favourite.”
I spend my day recommending books to people, not all by CL Jeffers, but their books do come up fairly often. There’s a wide range of books by this author, in many genres, always there to be the escape that someone needs.
The funny thing about CL Jeffers, is that nobody realizes just how many books there are by this author. How many genres they write in. Nobody realizes how quickly a new one can come out, or how different the latest CL Jeffers book is from the previous one. No one realizes this because that is not what CL Jeffers books are for. Their books are for people who need something to get them through. Whether it be a tough home life, or just a stressful day, it’s as if the books appear only to those who need them. I guess you could call it magic.
“Cleo, I’m trying to read!” my sister laughs at me.
“I’m sorry, I’m sorry,” I say, laughing a little myself. She’s visiting me for the weekend, and I’m so excited to see her that I can’t stop bugging her or cracking jokes.
She sits in a pink and grey bean bag chair by the children’s section, her nose in a trade paperback that she has yet to purchase. I haven’t seen her in almost a year, and I’m so happy that she made the trip across the country to see me and our parents. But we’ve only got the weekend until she moves on to see her old friends, so I want to spend as much time with her as I can. Even if that reduces my reading time for a few days.
“Why don’t we go out for lunch or something?” I ask. “Becks can mind the store. Right Becks?” I turn to Becks, my part time employee, who smiles at me.
“I honestly thought that you wouldn’t be working at all today,” she says, “so please, go have fun with your sister. And don’t come back until the store is closed.”
My sister closes the book and brings it up to the counter and pats the cover gently. “I’ll buy this first, before I forget.”
Becks rings her up and asks if she wants to leave it here, but my sister insists on getting a paper bag with my store logo across it, so she can carry it around town and make people want to come buy books from me. Or, from Becks if they come today.
“You don’t need to advertise for me,” I say as we step into the sun.
“But I want to. I want everyone to be excited about your book store.”
“A lot of people are. I’m quite content with the amount of traffic my store sees. Everyone who comes in is usually lovely, too.”
“Oh Cleo, how I adore you.”
I smile and blush a little, and then bump my sister’s shoulder with my own.
“Cleo Janson out of the bookstore! What a sight to see!” a regular from my store says when he spots my sister and me in line at the movie theatre.
“Hello John,” I reply. “I know it may not seem like it, but I do leave the walls of my store from time to time.”
“Oh sure. Cleo the book master leaves the book store to see movies. I thought the book was always better,” he jokes.
“I’m not a book master,” I say, although, I kind of am. And not in the way that you’d think. I’m not just good at recommending books to people. I’m not just a fast reader who loves to get lost in the worlds of fiction. I’m something else, that I don’t know how to describe, and I’m not sure that I will ever be able to tell anyone.
The movie is good, and I find myself smiling as we leave and head into the warm evening air. I look over at my sister and almost tell her about CL Jeffers, about how that author is me, and about how the books are made. I open my mouth to say something but then she smiles at me and I lose all confidence. I feel like my sister would believe anything that I tell her; she’s always been my cheerleader for everything. But something in the base of my throat is telling me not to. I’m not sure if it’s me or something else, but I swallow the lump that doesn’t go away, and smile back at her.
At dinner, she tells me how proud she is of me. She rambles on about how amazing it is that I own my own business, and that I’m known around town for it, and for my love and knowledge of books. I smile and blush, and tell her that I’m proud of her too.
“For what?” she asks. “For running away and moving to the other side of the country?”
“Moving to an unfamiliar area is hard. Especially when you do it alone.”
She shrugs. “It wasn’t hard for me. So there’s nothing to be proud of.”
“Well book selling isn’t hard for me,” I counter. “So there’s nothing to be proud of.”
She scoffs, and we both laugh.
The weekend with my sister was nice, and I’m really happy that she came to visit, but I’m also very happy to be alone in my apartment again. Alone with my books. When the store opens on Monday morning I smile, excited about who might come in, and what kind of books they might be looking for.
The first person who comes into the store is a girl about 15 or 16. She’s got a backpack on like she’s on her way to school, or maybe she’s decided to ditch. It looks like she’s been crying, and I want to ask her if she’s okay, but I don’t want to overstep.
“Hi Cleo,” she sniffles.
“Hi.” I don’t know her name, but I feel bad letting her know that, since she obviously knows mine.
“I’m Quinn,” she says. “I only know your name because you’re famous.”
“I’m not famous,” I say quietly.
“Sure you are. Everyone in town knows you. You have the best book store.”
“Oh.” I can feel my cheeks heating up. I wish I knew what to say. “Thank you.” I guess that’s a good response.
“I can’t go to school today. Is it okay if I hang out here?”
“Thank you.” She drops her bag in the corner by the door and immediately starts crying.
“Is everything alright?” I dare to ask.
She wipes her face with the sleeve of her shirt and looks at me briefly. “I just need to escape.”
I stare at her for a second or two, my heart pounding at the thought of a teenager finding solace in my store. I’m so baffled and touched that she would think of my book shop, that this is what came to mind when she needed to get away from whatever she was dealing with. Finally, I give her a soft smile. “Then you’ve come to the right place.”
I watch Quinn throughout the day from behind the checkout counter. I read during slow periods, but every now and then I look up from my book to make sure she’s okay. Sometimes she cries quietly into her arms, but mostly she reads too. Going back and forth between sitting in a beanbag chair and sprawling out on the floor, she ends up devouring a science fiction novel before lunch. When I take my own lunch out of my bag, she notices and pulls her own lunch bag out of her backpack. I much on my egg salad sandwich and she eats her cheese and crackers.
When she’s done her lunch, she wipes her hands together to get the crumbs off, and makes her way to the YA section of bookshelves. And this is when I can feel it happening. Her book is being written, and before she scans the first row, I can feel her spot it. She smiles and reaches up to pull it off the shelf. I watch as she runs her fingers along the cover and admires the artwork that spreads across to the back.
“I’ve never heard of this author before,” Quinn says without taking her eyes off the book.
I don’t answer because I’m not sure if she’s talking to me or not, but then she turns towards me, a half smile on her lips.
“I’m sorry?” I ask.
“CL Jeffers. I’ve never heard of them. Is this a new author?”
“Not really, no.”
“Oh.” She looks back at the book, opens it to the first page, and starts reading.
I’ve never actually watched someone read a CL Jeffers book before. I’ve shown them to people, and I’ve seen and felt people find them on their own. I’ve watched them read the first few lines, or even the first page, but I’ve never seen them get fully into the story. And Quinn is lost in this book. She read the first page as she stood in front of the book case, and then without taking her eyes off the book, she walked back towards the beanbag chair, plopped herself down in it, and kept reading as if she didn’t know how to do anything else.
Any time a customer comes into the store, she doesn’t even look up. Before lunch, she looked up at every customer who came in. Now it’s like she doesn’t even hear them. Like she’s literally in a different world as she reads this book. The book that I somehow made when she realized she needed something to run away into.
I don’t know how to explain it. All the CL Jeffers books that people love are mine. I wrote them. I’m writing them. I don’t know what to call it, really, I just know that I know every single line of every single CL Jeffers book, but I don’t know them until I know the reader needs them. I know I’ve written them, I feel myself writing them, but it happens in a matter of seconds. The writing, the binding, the appearing on the shelf, it all happens so fast, yet somehow, I feel it and I know that it’s me doing it.
I don’t have to know the person to know what kind of book they need. I don’t have to know their story to know what needs to happen in it for them to feel better, or feel seen. Something just happens to the both of us, some kind of connection that I can feel, and the story comes to life in the form of a book. I think I’ve been doing it for myself ever since I was a kid. But once I opened my store, I couldn’t make them for myself anymore. I tried, but whatever magic is helping me do it only wanted to work for others. Which I’m okay with.
I look at my watch and gasp. It’s almost 5:00.
“Are your parents going to worry about you?” I ask Quinn from behind the desk. “If you went to school today, you’d be home by now, wouldn’t you?”
She slowly looks up at me from her beanbag chair, the book open in her lap. “No.” And she goes back to reading.
I’m a little nervous to have her hiding out here longer than her school hours. What is she going to do when I close the store in two hours? It’ll be getting dark by then. Can I let her walk home alone in the dark?
I try to ease my mind a little by watching her read more. She’s captivated. Sometimes I can see her eyes welling with tears, and she sniffles quietly when she turns the pages. I can just feel how full her heart is as she escapes into the world that I created for her.
Of course people have told me how much they loved CL Jeffers books after the fact, and told me how much they helped them get through whatever they were going through, but I’ve never watched it happen. I’ve never gotten to witness the initial impact first hand. And it’s absolutely delightful.
Finally when I start to close up, Quinn looks up from her book. She’s almost finished it.
“Can I stay a little longer?” she whispers. “I have less than 50 pages left.”
“You can take it home,” I tell her.
“But I don’t have any money.”
“It’s okay,” I say. “You can have it.”
“Really?” Her response comes out in a combination of surprised and touched. The word almost cracks under her tongue.
“Really,” I say.
“Oh Cleo, thank you so much.” She starts to cry as she places a piece of notebook paper inside her book and closes it. She stands up and hugs me, the book still clutched in one of her hands.
“It’s my pleasure,” I say, hugging her back. “I’m glad you’re enjoying it.”
“Oh I’m more than enjoying it,” she says as she pulls away. “It’s exactly what I needed right now. I wish I could live inside this book.”
I smile at her and reach for the lights. “Then you better get home so you can finish it.”
Quinn comes into the store every day for the rest of the week, and I let her hang out and read more CL Jeffers books. Every day she comes in, there’s a new one for her, a continuation of the one she read on Monday. Every day when I start to close up, she asks if she can stay a little longer, and every day I tell her she can take the book home and finish it there.
“I can’t keep taking books for free,” she says on Friday.
“Yes you can,” I tell her. “I’m not losing any money on these ones.”
“What do you mean? Were these donated?”
I feel myself smiling. “Something like that.”
“Well I still feel weird letting you give me free books. I can work here to pay for them if you want.”
“I already have a part time employee.”
“It’s really okay, Quinn,” I assure her. “I’m happy to give them to you. It would make me feel better if you went to school on Monday, though.”
She looks down at her shoes, ashamed.
“Come visit me on your way home. You can hang out and read until I close. I just don’t think you should miss anymore school.”
“Okay,” she says slowly.
I’m not sure if Quinn goes to school on Monday or not, but she at least doesn’t come to my store. Not until 3:45, when she’d normally be walking home. I can feel the next CL Jeffers book being written as soon as she steps through the door, and my heart fills with joy when she finds it on the shelf. I feel so warm inside as I watch her read.
She doesn’t come to the store on Tuesday. I wonder if it’s because she’s okay and doesn’t feel the need to escape. Becks is working today, so I head up to my apartment at 4:30, and let her close the store when it’s time.
Quinn comes in on Wednesday and enters by saying, “I didn’t come yesterday because I didn’t finish my book. But I’m done it now and I need the next one.”
I laugh and let her find it herself, like she does every time she visits. She stays until I close the shop at 7:00, and again I let her take the book for free. I watch her through the glass door as she heads down the sidewalk, and I think that maybe I don’t need to tell anyone about my secret. Maybe just having this ability and being able to watch it help people is good enough.
No one would believe me anyway.
I’m surprised when Quinn comes to the store on Saturday. She’s sitting against the door outside when I unlock it and flip the closed sign around. I let her in and she heads to the YA section without anything more than a nod and a smile. I smile back and let her pick up the next CL Jeffers book, the one I just wrote in the seconds it took her to find it.
She stays all day. We eat lunch together but alone, quietly munching on our sandwiches and smirking at each other from across the room. When I start to close the store at 6:00, she stands, the book cradled in her arms against her chest.
“Thank you for letting me come here,” she says.
“Of course. I’m happy to have you.”
“And thank you for the books.”
She grabs the door handle before I make my way over to lock it. “See you on Monday.”
I give her a warm smile. “See you on Monday.”
But she doesn’t come by on Monday. Or on Tuesday, or Wednesday, or Thursday. I’m a little worried about her, but am sure she’s fine. There’s nothing wrong with deciding not to visit a bookstore every day, is there?
I’m happy to see her come into the store on Friday afternoon. She’s with two friends, and they’re all laughing. Quinn waves at me when our eyes find each other, so I wave back. Quinn and her friends look at the shelves together, and talk a little too, but I can see Quinn scanning the shelves with a little more purpose than the other two girls. She’s looking for the next CL Jeffers book. But there isn’t one. I can’t feel one stirring in the back of my head, and I can’t feel her need for one. She wants one, because she would read this series until the end of time if she could, but she doesn’t need it. Not anymore.
“Are there more of those books?” she asks me. “The ones I’ve been reading?”
I get up from my stool and start to walk over to her. “No,” I finally say. “You’ve read the last one.”
“Did it not have a good ending?”
“They all had good endings,” she says. “But there was just always more.”
“I’m afraid you’ve reached the end.” Something about that sentence doesn’t sit right with me, though. She’s reached the end of those books, yes, but she’s far from the ending of everything else. She’s reached the end of whatever she was going through. Whatever was happening that made her need this escape, that’s what’s over. Isn’t this supposed to be a good thing? Why do I feel so sad about it?
“I guess everything has to end sometime,” she says with a sigh.
“I suppose that’s true. But the good thing is you’re in a book store. So you can pick a new series to get lost in.”
“Oh, let’s all get this one!” one of her friends says, holding up a book that looks like it’s about witches and werewolves. “There’s three copies here so we can all read it together!”
“I don’t have any money,” Quinn says.
“Tell you what,” I say. “If you three promise to come back and tell me what you thought of the book, you can take them all for free.”
“Really?” the other friend asks.
“Really. Just this once, though. These ones definitely cost me money.”
“That’s really nice of you,” Quinn says. “I know these ones aren’t donated, so please know how much we appreciate it.”
“I do. Now go enjoy your books. And I won’t be offended if you need to go to the library instead from now on to get your books.”
Quinn smiles. “Can I come here to read them?”
“Of course you can.”
Quinn and her friends leave the shop excited about their free books that they’re going to read together. I’m excited for them to tell me what they thought. It’s a book I haven’t read before so I’m interested to know the story. As I close the store though, I feel something strange in the back of my head. It feels like I’m writing a book for someone, but there’s no one else around. I feel the story creating in my mind, but slower this time, like the words are running through dark maple syrup. I can hear the story and feel the characters, and by the time I make it upstairs, I know the ending. This hasn’t happened to me since I was young, and it’s making me antsy, in one of the best ways. I practically run to the bookcase in my living room and let out a sigh of relief when I see it. A brand new CL Jeffers book just for me.
And even though I just wrote it with magic and know the whole story, I pull it off the shelf and get cozy on the couch. I know the whole story, but I also know that I love it, and that reading it is exactly what I need right now.