Why the Elderly Make the Best Customers: On Bookselling in an Aging Town

The plan was never to stay. When my now-husband and I decided to leave Los Angeles and return to the Pacific Northwest, we made what we thought would be a temporary stop—six-months at most—in a Victorian seaport on the eastern tip of the Olympic Peninsula. Rent in Seattle had practically tripled since leaving three years before. We needed space to adjust our expectations and decided to do so in a picturesque small town near family.

Change is not something I walk into easily. I was 27 at the time and up until that point, my life had unfolded exactly as I had planned for it to after nearly failing high school and watching all my friends move on.

At community college, I learned that I was smart, that I simply didn’t live in an environment that lent itself to studying. University, graduate school, and a job followed, each one overlapping just enough with the other so that I never had to experience the what-now limbo I watched so many of my peer’s weather.

I found myself behind the counter of a bookstore…and finally saw the parallels between my very first job and this one.

Following a plan is a great way to avoid worry. It’s also a great way to overlook red flags, which is how I ended up in the wrong city, at the wrong job. The move back home was an effort to fix that error. The transition though, catapulted me into a career, a life that I never saw coming but in hindsight should have; that of a bookstore owner in a small, aging town.

I’ve always been most comfortable when I’m working. On my 16th birthday, after cleaning egg off the house that the neighbor boys had thrown as an act of flirting or bullying, I took a short drive over to the Merrill Gardens retirement community and applied for a server job. A week later, donning khaki slacks, a light blue button down and maroon apron, I found myself shadowing a fellow high schooler, learning how to dress up and take down the dining room.

Coming from a home where boundaries between parent and child blurred and survival came down to how well you could read a room, I thrived in the directness. I found confidence in the work too, something I desperately needed given my lackluster performances in both school and sports. I liked the structure and repetition of it all. I liked making my own money and as a result, relieving the financial pressure from my family. Unburdening them of me. I especially liked the people.

Every restaurant I’ve ever worked at had its share of regulars. At Merrill Gardens though, like a school or hospital cafeteria, everyone was a regular. Not every resident liked it there, and there were plenty of people who didn’t even know where they were. But each had a personality that came through their requests: the gentleman who liked a half glass of all five juices available, the German woman who made new staff cry a part of their initiation, and the lady who didn’t have a clue how she got to the dining room but was over the moon to find herself there. One of the people I met there, a woman in her 90s named Louisa, became a friend who I continued to visit long after leaving that job.

There is a picture at my grandma’s house of a gathering in Vancouver, BC in celebration of the 80th birthday of a relative I don’t recall. In it, five-year-old me is crammed together with more than two dozen oldies, looking more comfortable than I ever remember myself being at that age. “We thought you were going to hate it,” my grandma said, “You and a bunch of old people.”

Apparently, I loved it. According to her, I was lively and talkative and incongruent to all the other images I had of myself at the time; quiet, tucked in the cupboard under the stairs. When I text my grandmother to confirm my memory, she writes back, “All older people and they just loved you!”

Somewhere between leaving home at 18 and returning to the Pacific Northwest at 27, I’d forgotten all this. Or rather, I never thought about how it related to, could possibly shape, my future. Then I found myself behind the counter of a bookstore, recommending Long Live the Tribe of Fatherless Girls and All the Ugly and Wonderful Things to an aging community, and finally saw the parallels between my very first job and this one.

It’s not uncommon to open my small town’s weekly newspaper in search of some wholesome community news only to find an obituary for a longtime patron of my bookstore. It’s a shock that I will never get used to. I set the paper down, turn to the computer, and pull up the archive of special orders to see when the person’s last order was, what books they requested over time, deep dive into their customer profile until my thoughts settle, and weave together a story of the person I knew.

Bookselling was a part time job I took up to alleviate the pressure of full-time freelancing. I’d spent the previous five years in library basements and cold vaults, sorting through historical documents and preserving film. Like our move, bookselling was supposed to be temporary. I think about this trajectory when I hear about someone’s passing. What about this town made up of tourists and old people who still carry checkbooks and are only reachable by phone because they don’t have email let alone a computer at home, gripped me?

I’ve never liked the term Old Soul, code for someone who had to grow up too fast. My appreciation of archives, William Wyler, and secondhand furniture didn’t grow from my soul being old. They’re interests born out of a love of storytelling. And it was that—and honestly, the relief of having a job that would allow us to continue living in our small town that we’d grown to love so much—that pushed me to say yes when I was offered the bookstore at 28, just six months into working there.

Death and aging were other people’s problems. At 33 though, I feel my mortality, the passing of time.

I became a bookstore owner shortly before the pandemic and the gap between then and now feels wider here than anywhere else I’ve been since. The obvious difference is the tourism, which has grown to unmanageable levels, both in attitude and in numbers. It’s a challenge I’ve yet to sort out. The less obvious difference is tucked into the community, behind all the newly retired California transplants currently shifting the cost of living for the worse.

On September 19th, 2022—a date I know because of the text I sent my husband afterwards—while sorting through the days order, a woman came through the door, a beloved customer with a passion for political biographies trailing behind her sporting the same knitted cap and satchel she always wore. My hello jumped from its average cheer to gusto within seconds. I said her name in my greeting. And I could see the confusion in her eyes as she walked over to the desk with a weary smile and asked if we’d met before, that she’s sorry for not remembering my name, that she’s having a hard time with names in general.

I knew this look; confusion, stress at being confronted by their confusion. I learned how to identify it at 16, and I was confronting it again at 32. I told her we’d met a couple of times before, but to not worry because it was my job to remember people’s names, not hers. I felt the loss in my chest even as I watched her face shift from worry to relief, and tried to ignore it as we talked about all the things we’d chatted about before: the veterinary clinic she opened, the birds she fed at 8:00 am every morning, the lone squirrel that waited outside with them.

The pandemic took a lot of things. From behind the counter at my bookstore, the time it snatched is most noticeable. We’re approaching five years and, in that time, I’ve learned that there’s a big difference between ages 75 and 80, 80 and 85. Sixteen-year-old me never thought about that. Death and aging were other people’s problems. At 33 though, I feel my mortality, the passing of time. My job—and some of our bestsellers like The Swedish Art of Death Cleaning, The Art of Dying Well, and Healing After Loss—reminds me of that every day.

Sometimes I yearn for the city, in the way people who label their leaving the small town they grew up in as an escape do. It took years before coming to terms with my reality, and I was only able to do so after reading through my journals and discovering that the only thing I consistently wrote about was how much I wanted to move to a rural area and read books.

It’s not Belle-swinging-around-the-stacks-on-a-ladder like so many people assume owning a bookshop is. The Olds who come through and turn my beautiful store into a literary toot den make sure of that. But I’ve grown to appreciate how aware of time I am, in a way that I wouldn’t be elsewhere, and there is an undeniable charm that shines through when someone like the small, hunched gentleman who only buys books for other people comes through and offers a hand-made limerick with every purchase, to which you always reply, “Let’s hear it.”

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