Top Shelf is out on May 20, but you can read the beginning of chapter 1 right now!
The exterior of Martin’s new workplace did not inspire confidence. Dog Ears Book Shop was a two-story brick building on Seacroft’s main street. The sign out front was painted in large black and white spots that were probably meant to look like a Dalmatian, but actually looked more like a cow. The ‘Help Wanted’ sign was still in the window. If that was an indication of his new employer’s faith in his abilities, Martin’s career in bookselling would be short.
He’d been told to be here by eight-thirty, and he was early. There was a diner next door, and he’d popped in to grab a tea to go. That had been ten minutes ago, and now the bookshop’s locked storefront staring back at him made him worry. What if he’d made the job offer up? What if this was just another punch line on the cruel practical joke that was his life lately? Not being able to hold down an obscure academic position was one thing. Not being good enough to work at a lonely used bookstore in a sleepy seaside community was another issue completely. His thesis supervisor had always said life was not a pony farm, but Martin didn’t even want the whole farm anymore. A seat at the trough would do.
A dark sedan pulled up to the curb. Martin hunched into his tea, avoiding eye contact with the driver. They didn’t need to see him like this.
“Thanks, Mom!” A teenage girl with hair like coiled springs got out of the passenger side. She leaned in and spoke to the driver for a minute, before slamming the door and waving as the car pulled away. She smiled when she spotted Martin.
“Are you the new guy?” She hiked her backpack up on her shoulders. Martin nodded, and her smile spread. “Doctor Lindsey, I presume!” She stuck out her hand for him to shake. He juggled his tea and his bike helmet before reaching for her.
“It’s just Martin,” he said.
“I’m Cassidy. Mrs. Green said you’d be starting today. I’m supposed to show you the ropes.” She pulled a ring of keys out of her backpack and stepped around him to the door. She appeared to be younger than any of his former students had been. It said a lot that someone who didn’t even have a high school diploma would be training him.
“Have you worked here long?” he asked as she fumbled with the lock. She jammed her hip against the doorframe, and then rattled the doorknob before twisting the key. The heavy old door swung open on groaning hinges that shattered the quiet Saturday morning. A jogger running by turned as he passed. Martin ducked his head while Cassidy waved.
“Since I was in tenth grade. I started working after school, and then Mrs. Green let me work full time over the summers. Now that I’m back at school, I’ll mostly be here in the afternoons and on Saturdays.” She walked in and flicked a switch by the door. Ancient strings of incandescent lights flared to life. Martin’s next question caught in his throat as the bookstore loomed in front of him.
He’d been in once before, when he dropped off his resume, but he hadn’t bothered to stay. It might have even been Cassidy he’d handed his CV to for all he knew. It had taken him two tries to walk through the front door, and then he’d finally run in, thrust the paper at the person behind the cash, and fled. It had been embarrassing, but getting this far was an improvement from the trajectory his life had taken in recent months. His doctor had said he should be proud.
Oddly enough, despite that frantic and hasty attempt at applying for a job, he still remembered the smell of the store as he walked in. It was something damp and forgotten, and the space held an incredible sense of age and weight.
Heavy dark shelves of every height and width lined the walls from floor to ceiling. Books were stacked up and down, lengthways and sideways. Martin had read a lot in his life, and he had never seen so many books all in one place.
“Welcome!” Cassidy held her arms out, as if she spoke for every title and every writer represented in the giant space. She glanced over her shoulder. “It’s kind of like the TARDIS, isn’t it?”
“Bigger on the inside than the outside?”
Cassidy’s smile grew. “You watch Doctor Who?”
Martin shrugged, ignoring the little thrill in his chest at the normalcy of this conversation.
“I missed the last few seasons,” he said. “It stopped being good after David Tennant left.”
“I guess we’re not going to be friends after all.” Cassidy’s green eyes narrowed, but her smile didn’t fade.
Feeling a little braver, Martin stepped around a low table stacked with picture books and a sign that read ‘For When They Won’t F*ing Sleep.’ Beyond that, a bookshelf was labeled with ‘100 Ways to Cheat on Your Diet.’ Most of the titles below the sign were pastry cookbooks and European travelogues.
“I made that one,” Cassidy said, as Martin examined the sign. It was done in chalk, the lettering alternating orange and green, with what looked like a steaming plate of spaghetti and a glass of wine nestled underneath it.
“It’s very nice.”
“Let me give you the tour. We won’t be open for another half hour.”
The TARDIS reference turned out to be fairly apt. Every time they came to the end of a teetering row of bookshelves, Cassidy would turn and take him in a new direction. Somehow though, they never wound up at the front of the store again. Sometimes the shelves were broken up with ancient and overstuffed armchairs before the books continued. There didn’t seem to be any logic to the way they were organized. Instead of standard headings—fiction, non-fiction, travel, mystery—each section was labeled in the same cheeky blackboards as Martin had seen up front. ‘Pets.They’re Better Than Kids’ and ‘Old Dead Guys Say Famous Things.’
“Wouldn’t it just be easier to organize them by genre?” he asked as they wound their way down another aisle.
“Why? It’s more fun this way.” Cassidy seemed to know exactly where they were, despite the fact that Martin was hopelessly turned around. They passed a shelf labeled ‘Books To Read On Dark Nights.’
“But how do people find what they’re looking for?”
She glanced over her shoulder at him, and for all there had to be over ten years between them, Martin suddenly felt like a kid asking stupid questions of a weary parent.
“Have you ever worked in a bookstore before? Mrs. Green said you had.”
“In college.” It had been humiliating to have to put that little nugget of experience back on his resume.
“When you go to buy a book, if you want a recommendation, do you ask for a contemporary mystery, written in the last two years, by an American writer?”
Cassidy snorted. “Well, that’s not how most people work. Most people come in here, and they say they want something a little funny, a little sad. Something about families, but not something where someone dies. It’s easier if we organize them this way.”
“But it doesn’t make any sense!”
They passed a shelf called ‘We Didn’t Know Where Else To Put These.’
“It will.” She turned another corner, and suddenly, they were back where they started. A cyclist went by, followed by a woman with a stroller. They didn’t so much as glance through the window. Martin felt like he’d been on a kind of quest that had lasted a thousand years, only to return home and find that no time had passed at all.
“So the first thing to do is tidy up the kid’s section.” She pointed to the picture book table. “The Mommy and Me group will be here at nine-thirty.”
“Mommy and me?”
“Yes, and then the knitting circle will be here at noon.”
“Knitting circle?” Martin checked around again. “Like people? Here? Knitting?”
“Sure! Didn’t Mrs. Green tell you?”
“Tell me about what?” Here it was. He’d expected a quiet day of recommending classics and wheezing on the layer of dust that coated everything. It had all seemed too easy, and now he would find out why.
“Oh. Well. A used bookstore is only so popular. Most people just get their stuff online these days. So Mrs. Green figured out that if we get people to come for other things, they might stick around and buy a book or two. It’s Mommy and Me at nine-thirty, knitting circle at noon, and the feminist poetry circle at three on Saturdays.”
That didn’t sound too bad.
“Do I have to learn to knit?” He was pleased he could find humor over the increasing rattle of his heart.
Cassidy laughed, curly hair bouncing on her shoulders. “It couldn’t hurt.”
No, it was bad.