Thursday, December 13, 2007

Encounters in Store

Sandie and I owned a bookstore in Seattle's busy tourist-draw, the Pike Place Market, for 10 years (1992-2002). Business was fine for the first half-decade, but then the big discounters and on-line megastores started to gnaw away at our livelihood. Plus I developed arthritus in both knees and found all-day standing very difficult. So when we received an offer to sell, well... now I work happily at home, selling books and LP records on line only.

During our ten store years, mostly due to the walk-through location, many authors and celebrities chose to stop in to look around. I thought it might be interesting to revisit some of those near-close encounters (oh look, he's namedropping again).

The store was called MisterE Books and Records, so of course one of our specialties was Mysteries. A great many popular mystery writers dropped by once or twice--Bill Pronzini, James Lee Burke, Lawrence Block, Sue Grafton, James W. Hall, Barbara Seranella among them--just to be friendly. But the crowded tourist location and enforced hours made book-signings impossible. So when Seattle's own series bigwig, J.A. Jance, came in to set up a publicity signing for her novels, I politely demurred, which caused her to sneer and never show up again. However, others like Alaskan authors Dana Stabenow and John Straley liked the store's collector contents, so each would drop by whenever she (or he) flew south to the Lower 48. (Dana usually bought a couple of books too.)

The biggest celebrity sale I made was to Bette Midler. She was in town to perform a concert, beginning a long tour. She strode in one afternoon, took a quick look 'round, and then asked me to help her pick some good books she could take on the road. We had a great time browsing the store and building a stack of a dozen or so, mostly modern fiction as I recall. I confessed to Bette that I'd had a hand in her decades-earlier Seattle appearance on stage in Pete Townshend's rock-opera Tommy (I'd given a copy of the record album, the year it came out, to the Seattle Opera's impresario-producer, suggesting he might think about staging it). She told me she'd hated that gig, but forgave me anyway.

Another theatrical drop-in was great comic playwright Neil Simon, in Seattle to try out a new play--he complimented the store and gave me an autograph but I think his purchases were tourist stuff only. Other actors wandered through too, including Tom Skerritt and gray-bearded gentleman Bill... Bill who? My mind draws a blank, but he's the familiar black character actor who gets hired when the production can't afford Morgan Freeman! (All apologies to Bill, who was a great guy to talk to.)

One afternoon the staff and I were amazed to see Melanie Griffith and Antonio Banderas walk in--or maybe I should say they danced in, because this was when the two had first become a couple, and they were both clearly smitten with, er, love. They were completely enraptured, and wrapped around each other, hugging and kissing while they tangoed down the aisles, not really looking at any books at all. But their smiles were brilliant and infectious, and the arm-in-arm duo effortlessly charmed us ordinary mortals anyway.

Wynona Rider was another unexpected guest. Wearing a Navy pea jacket and knit cap pulled down over her ears (a disguise, I suppose), she and a very tall female pal showed up in search of a gift for Rider's boyfriend. We discussed illustrated books, which her boyfriend collected, and I eventually sold her some nice $50-$75 item from our glass showcase. (Her public problems a year or two later were a shock; she'd been sweet and shy that day, and I know she bought rather than shoplifted!)

The one woman who didn't come in, that I always fantasized would show up, was Emmy Lou Harris. Her Nineties-on gigs were often in the downtown venues just a block or two from our store, and I thought sure she'd wander by one afternoon between soundcheck and performance. After all, we had our military brat background, Southern upbringing, and Gram Parsons all in common... but no such cosmic luck.

Instead I got to visit (briefly) with various other musicians--among them David Hidalgo, Taj Mahal, Graham Nash, Martina MacBride, Michael Feinstein, even Itzhak Perlman one amazing afternoon. And Seattle's own came by occasionally; Krist Novoselic of Nirvana, for example, shopped for Christmas books for his wife (she collected old kids books) two or three times. And Mike McCready of Pearl Jam (long before some health problems got to him) was another who visited and then artistically defaced (or do I mean enhanced?) the jacket centerspread of one of the group's albums when I asked him to sign it.

But mention of Nirvana brings me to the last person I'd like to talk about--Kurt Cobain. Grunge music's main man only ever came in the store once (that I know of), but the occasion turned out to be tragically memorable. Some time around the end of March or the first of April 1994, into the store ambled a scruffy-looking blond-haired dude carrying a toddler on his shoulders, accompanied by a male chum in a hat. The three wandered around a bit... and I was thinking everything from shoplifters to rock stars I didn't quite recognize. And then I did; it was Cobain.

He passed the child on to his friend, then came to the front, complimented me on having a Leadbelly album for sale in the front winbow, and asked if I had a copy of William Burroughs' Naked Lunch--no collector thing, just a paperback to read. I checked the shelves and said no, but we started talking about Beat Generation novels, and for no good reason, I asked if he'd read Alexander Trocchi's harrowing novel of drug addiction, Cain's Book (an uncommon item which I did have). He said no, but elected to buy it after I gave a capsule review.

At the cash register, then, I asked him to autograph a note card for me (no albums in the store), which he signed as by "Curdt Kobane." I shrugged at that, figuring I'd become un-cool, infringing on his privacy; and the three of them left.

Less than a week later, supposed drug addict Kurt killed himself--so said the coroner, as opposed to the conspiracy fans and Courtney Love haters, who believe she offed him somehow. I wondered then, and am still a bit haunted now, if the Trocchi book (and I) somehow contributed to his decision to commit suicide.

As one member of a family that experiences symptoms of mild depression, I do know how black and unforgiving the world can appear. Some days it really is too much, all of it. I'm just glad that sunshine and music and love help keep me sane, and I wish Cobain had experienced more than the chaos of too much stardom and, maybe, parenting he wasn't prepared for.

Our old Pike Market store had its problems, but some days it sure did lift my spirits...


Anonymous said...

awesome stories, Ed! I remember being blown away in 99, becoming a recent, rabid Gram fan and zipping into your store and seeing that photo of you and GRAM on the wall!!! Hearing the stories that followed--even better!


Alan Kurtz said...

Well, since nobody else has identified your "gray-bearded gentleman Bill, the familiar black character actor who gets hired when the production can't afford Morgan Freeman," let me take a crack. My first thought was Bill Gunn (see photo at, but he was better known as a writer/director than as an actor, and besides he died in 1989, which sort of eliminates him from your 1992-2002 timeframe. So maybe it wasn't Bill Gunn, but Moses Gunn (photo at, who died in 1993. Or perhaps it was neither a Bill nor a Gunn, but a guy named Joe—i.e., Joe Seneca (photo at, who died in 1996. Please, mister, do I win the kewpie doll?

I Witness said...

Good possibilities all, but in the event... cowpie rather than kewpie.