In the morning, the old girl looks up at me and her eyes say that she wants to stay home. I don’t think she’s ever missed a day at the office, but I knew this moment was coming soon. For several weeks now, I’ve had to gather my dog in my arms to lift her up and out of the car and carry her into the shop. Bending now to hold her gray-flecked muzzle in my hand, I tell her it’s okay, that she should rest, and it pains me to watch my failing retriever turn slowly around and hobble on ravaged joints back to bed.
“Ruth,” I call, shrugging into my coat, “I’m going.”
“Promise you won’t work late,” my wife calls back from the kitchen.
“Promise,” I answer, then head out the door.
You’ll find me off Route 9, about a quarter mile down Potts Road. My shop is in the strip mall across from that expanse of empty acres for sale. Since the upscale Square at Fox Ridge opened last year, the traffic here has dwindled to a trickle. But let’s be honest: My small business was struggling long before they laid the first brick of that pristine plaza. I’ve had Town Books for almost 30 years now. It was a good if less-than-lucrative run, and when my waning receipts signaled the looming end of my establishment, I decided to wind things down slowly, one precious volume at a time.
“We made a sale!” Kim says when I enter the shop with the familiar jingle of the bell above the door. I laid off my last employee months before this young girl, with horn-rimmed glasses and jeans with intentional rips across both knees, breezed into the shop, looking for a job. Although I didn’t need the help, I had a warm feeling about her, and asked when she could start.
“So,” I say, as Kim helps me off with my coat, “that leaves which one?”
“Your favorite,” she says.
“Well then. Let’s celebrate by making a fresh pot, shall we?”
“Already brewed.” Kim smiles.
In truth, our last remaining book isn’t my favorite, though it certainly holds significant meaning for me. I first inhaled it as a Midwestern boy smitten with adventure tales. The classic, three-century-old story of a castaway on a desert island utterly captured my imagination. That it’s even lived this long on my thinning shelves is frankly baffling. I’d have thought some kid would’ve snatched it up by now. Then again, I remind myself that it’s a book, not a screen. A collection of tactile pages, not a device. But God bless it, standing all by its lonesome. Stranded, so to speak. Waiting to be rescued. Waiting for someone to take it home.
After I’ve made a fresh pot, Kim and I settle into our stations. Hers is the easy chair I found at an estate sale, and mine is the hard wooden stool behind the register. After she’s done sending a barrage of texts, Kim puts on a big pair of headphones and opens her laptop. That leaves me with a choice: begin a crossword puzzle or return to the Updike novel in my bag. But just sitting here, sipping my coffee while gazing at the slate gray sky out the shop window, suits me fine. By the time my mug is empty, however, I crave a little conversation, anything to keep the boredom at bay, and wave to get my single employee’s attention.
“What are you working on?” I ask when Kim pulls down her headphones.
“A story,” she answers. “For my creative writing class.”
“What is it about?”
Kim hesitates, bites her lip. “The last bookstore in America,” she admits. “Not that we’re really the last one, but …”
“Nothing wrong with a little poetic license,” I tell her. “Besides, it’s good to write what you know.”
What I in fact know is that my shop might as well be the last of its independent kind in America. The cavernous bookstores are largely gone, while the modest brick-and-mortars are indeed vanishing. There was a resurgence a few years ago, with readers returning to browse shops like mine once the pandemic was in our collective rearview. But soon enough, our sales dropped as those browsers reverted to the ease of online shopping. Most small booksellers these days are hybrids, having traded whole aisles of great literature for espresso bars, paperbacks for pastries. Not to mention displays of chintzy gifts and ironic refrigerator magnets. In other words, anything to bolster their bottom line. But I’ve made no such compromises. I’ve stayed true. Other than books, a sputtering Mr. Coffee machine and a plate of Ruth’s fresh baked cookies were as much as I have ever offered.
“Where’s Scout?” Kim asks, as she pushes up from her chair to refill our mugs.
“I gave her the day off.”
“Uh-huh,” she nods, pouring.
Kim knows. She’s witnessed my dog’s steep decline. Scout — yes, named for that Scout — surely did enjoy her days here. All it took was the jingle of the bell above the door for my retriever to spring from her plaid bed in the corner to come and greet you. If you’d helped yourself to one of my wife’s cookies while looking around, then Scout would be on your heels to vacuum up any crumbs you might have trailed. Until she couldn’t. Until rising to her arthritic paws wasn’t so easy anymore. Until the Pavlovian thumping of her tail at the sound of the bell was the best she could muster.
“We cycled through a few dogs,” Kim says, returning to her chair. She folds her legs under and blows on her steaming brew. “There was Cody, who got hit by an ice cream truck. Baxter, who ran away. Rollo, who choked on a chicken bone. And Pepper. She was the best. The only one to grow old. My dad was pretty broken up when Pepper died.”
“It’s heartbreaking to watch them age, isn’t it?”
“Yeah, once he hit 50, Dad got weirdly weepy all the time. Male menopause, I guess.”
“I meant your dog.”
“Oh. Pepper. Yeah, I wanted to get another dog after she croaked, but Dad put his foot down. ‘I am not letting another tragedy into this house,’ he said.”
“You know, the hero of our last book lost his dog to old age on the island. His only companion, suddenly gone. It’s stuck with me all these years.” I pause for a sip of coffee, then set my mug down. “Maybe, Kim, you should write a story about her. About Pepper.”
“No way,” Kim laughs. “My professor would shred it. She told us the only thing worse than a story about a dying grandma is a story about a dying dog.”
“But what if it’s the truth?” I argue. “What if it really happened?”
“Just because it happened,” Kim says, “doesn’t make it worth telling.”
* * *
The day drags, stretches like taffy, as the wall clock counts the seconds, and the hum of the fluorescent bulbs overhead has its usual lulling effect. Resting my head in my hand, my lids grow heavy, and when my eyes finally close, my mind conjures the shop as it used to be, with its bookcases teeming and Scout curled in her bed. Suddenly the shop quakes and my books come alive. I watch them literally fly off the shelves, flapping their hardcovers like wings while a spry Scout jumps to snap at them as they soar one by one out the door. What shakes me from this dream is the actual jingle of the bell, and I wake to see not a customer coming through the door but my own wife, holding up a brown bag.
“You forgot your lunch,” Ruth says.
“What, no cookies?” Kim says from the top of the stepladder, where she’s taken a break from her laptop to clear the cobwebs.
“For whom exactly?” Ruth says, tugging off her gloves. Noticing all the bare shelves, she asks what we’re down to now, how many.
“One,” I answer.
“One?” she laughs. “So, you really are a book shop. Okay, here’s a notion. What if I were to buy it? Then you can finally close shop to spend more time at home with me and your dog.”
I scratch my head. “I’m not so sure, Ruth.”
“It doesn’t matter if it’s fiction or nonfiction. For all I care it can be Lion Taming For Dummies. I’ll pay cash on the spot.”
“No deal,” Kim says, coming down from the ladder. “That would be cheating.”
“Cheating?” Ruth says.
“Because you’re family,” Kim points out.
“Is this a place of commerce or a poker game?” Ruth asks. “What about you, Kim? Can you buy the damned thing? Or does the rule still apply.”
“It absolutely applies,” Kim insists. “Because I work here.”
“Hon, I have to agree,” I say. “It’s the principle.”
“Well,” Ruth says while tugging her gloves back on, “you can’t say I didn’t try.”
I put on my coat to see her out. Walking my wife to her car, I wave to the man having a smoke in just shirtsleeves outside his real estate office at the far end of the strip. His name is Alvin, but he likes to go by Red, the color of his Brill-creamed hair. Next to his office is the consignment shop. Then Sal’s Pizza. On the other side of Sal’s is The Hair Depot. I suppose once I unload my final book and my establishment folds, the others won’t be too far behind, and the day will come when this little mall of ours will be but a husk, soon to be replaced by something shiny and new.
“Feels like it might snow,” I say. “I can almost smell it.”
Stopping at her car, Ruth squints up at the sky and wrinkles her nose. “It’s not in the forecast,” she says. Then she levels her gaze at me. “I don’t understand. You have only a single piece of inventory and nothing on order. And I know Kim is a sweet girl, but why keep her?”
“To help her pay for school. It was my idea, Ruth. I nudged her to take some classes at the community college. It’s doing her well.”
“You’re too kind, Tom. But isn’t it time to raise the white flag?”
I turn my eyes to the stark expanse across the road, a flat field of earth that stretches as far as the interstate, where I can see a lone truck, with that familiar logo on its side, hauling a load across the horizon. “Just be patient,” I say, opening the car door for my wife.
Ruth climbs in, turns the key in the ignition, and rolls down the window. “I’m worried about Scout, by the way,” she says. “I hate to see her suffer. I’m not sure what we should do.”
I’m not sure either. Are we selfishly prolonging our pet’s misery? Are we keeping her alive more for our sake than hers? We know it’s time to act, but we can’t face the sobering truth that our dog has reached her natural end, that we must do what is humanely right. I only wish Scout would pass peacefully in her sleep and save us that agonizing decision.
“Let’s talk when I get home,” I tell Ruth, then watch her pull out of the lot, leaving me standing in the freezing cold.
“Hello, Tom,” says Red, ambling over. “How’s business?”
“Booming,” I reply. “Nearly sold out.” Red has never purchased a book from me. But to be fair, I’ve never purchased a property from him. “How are things on your end?”
He takes a last draw on his cigarette, flicks the butt away, and says, “Lousy. Nobody’s house hunting in the dead of winter.” Then he gestures at the tract across the street. “But I’ve finally got a developer interested in that parcel.”
“Let me guess,” I say. “Luxury condos.”
“Tell me. Why is it always luxury condos, and never just plain old condos?”
He fishes a pack of Chesterfields from his shirt pocket and lights a fresh one. “Don’t you have that Victorian on Garfield?” he says, shaking out the match. “With the nice trim?”
“Yes, that’s ours,” I say, wondering how Red can stand here in the frigid cold in just short sleeves and no coat. “Why do you ask?”
“How old are you now, Tom?”
“Jeez,” Red says. “All that space. And all those stairs. Lawn to mow, hedges to clip, and driveway to shovel. So much to maintain. And that house of yours isn’t getting any younger. Quite a burden for a man your age.”
When he’s done, I ask, “Where are you going with this, Alvin?”
“Maybe it’s time you considered a condo yourself. The ease of one-floor living with lots of amenities. Swimming pool, tennis court. I’d be happy to show you some.”
“I don’t need a pool,” I tell him. “Or a tennis court. Ruth and I like what we have. It’s home. We raised our kids there, and it’ll be theirs after we’re gone.”
“Well, if you change your mind, you know where to find me,” he says, then starts back to his office.
“Hey, Alvin!” I call out, and he turns. “Can I interest you in a novel?”
“A novel? You mean, like, a book? To read?”
* * *
The rest of the day is sand through an hourglass. I’ve eaten the tuna sandwich that Ruth brought me, finished another pot of coffee, completed the crossword, and turned the last page of my Updike novel. This leaves me gazing again out the shop window, where it seems the clouds are heavier than before. Then I notice flakes, big fat ones, beginning to fall. They remind me of goose feathers, as if a pillow is being emptied from above. Soon the acres across the street are blanketed, and in its stillness there’s an almost profound beauty, with the snow turning from a brilliant white to a bluish hue in the fading light.
Kim claps her computer shut, removes her headphones, and stretches both arms. “Our book’s going to sell,” she yawns. “And soon. My Spidey senses can feel it.”
“I don’t think,” she answers. “I know. But then what?”
“End of story,” I shrug. “What about yours? Have you completed it?”
“No, I kind of hit a wall.”
“You’ll figure it out,” I assure her. “You know what, Kimmy? Why don’t you go.”
“Go?” she says, looking at the clock. “It’s not even four.”
“I can take it from here. Trust me.”
“Cool,” she says, then shoves her laptop into her backpack, gets up from the chair and pulls on her coat. “See you tomorrow then.”
“Maybe you should stay home.”
“To break through that wall and finish your story.”
“No worries,” she says. “I can work on it here. I …” Her eyes narrow. “You’re firing me, aren’t you?”
“Letting you go,” I tell her. “There’s a difference, you know. I’m sorry, Kim.”
“Yeah, well, I knew it was coming,” she sighs, but then her face suddenly brightens. “I’ll buy it!”
“You? But I thought that would be cheating.”
“Not if I don’t work here anymore.”
The floorboards creak under her boots as she disappears down an aisle and appears a moment later with my last volume in her hands.
“I’ll take this one,” she says, holding it up.
“Ahh,” I say. “Daniel Defoe. Excellent choice.”
“Have you read it?” she asks, coyly.
“Many times,” I play along. “You will not be disappointed.”
“And how much will that be, sir?”
“No, no, Miss. Your money is no good here. Would you like a bag?”
“Got one,” Kim beams, stuffing the novel into her backpack. “But thank you. For the book. And for the job, too.”
“Thank you,” I tell her. “Now, let me guess. You have the ending to your story.”
She ponders for a beat. “Yeah.” She nods, slipping her backpack over her shoulder. “Guess I do. But is it okay if Scout, um, if she …”
“Dies in the end? Of course. But not too sappy, too sentimental?”
“Maybe,” she says. “But it’s worth telling.”
On her way out, she stops to cast around one last time. “I’m going to miss this place,” she says, then gives me a wistful smile before turning on her boot heels and going through the door with the bell jingling.
Kim’s exit allows a blast of cold air and a swirl of snow to blow into the hollow shop, and after of minute of sitting alone in the silence, I know it’s time to go, to leave my bookless shelves behind, but I can’t seem to bring my shivering self to move. Outside, the flakes continue to fall, and drifts are forming. A plow rumbles past the window with its blade loudly scraping the street. When the quiet returns, I can almost hear my heart beating through my sweater. Then the phone beside the register rings, and it gives me a start. I don’t think it’s rung in a very long time. In fact, I all but forgot it was there. Lifting the receiver, I clear my throat.
“Tom?” I hear Ruth say on the other end. “You should come home.”
I knit my brow. “Because of the snow?”
“Just come home.”
The slight tremble in my wife’s voice tells me that something’s not right, that something’s wrong, and fixing on the empty bed in the corner, I know what it is.
“I’m on my way,” I say, then hang up the phone, grab my coat, and hurry out the door without even pausing for a moment to look back.
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