December 8 is James Thurber's 121st birthday. Hard to believe. It seems just yesterday I was celebrating his centennial by taking myself to lunch at Shaw's Crab House and reading my favorite story, "The Catbird Seat," over a seafood salad and a split of champagne.
But I thought I would mark the day, in a more temperate fashion, and looking around in my clips for something on the great Ohio humorist—capturing his essence afresh seemed just too high a mountain as a sorbet in between courses of refugees—I stumbled upon this clever column from the late 1990s. It doesn't explain who Thurber was, or why I have 41 books by and about him on my shelf. I figure most readers will know and those who don't won't care, even after I explain it. To be honest, read "The Secret Life of Walter Mitty" — it staggers me to think there are people who never read it—and you'll begin to understand. They'll also get heady whiff of his war-between-men-and-women approach that hasn't helped his work endure. Maybe we'll attempt to give Thurber his due next year.
Until then, this column is a party all its own, a relic of those pre-Amazon days when the only thing book lovers had to worry about were large discount chains.
The problem with truisms is they're not always true.
He who hesitates is not always lost. Sometimes he who hesitates isn't hit by the truck.
A penny saved is not always a penny earned. Sometimes a penny saved is another filthy slug in the big box of pennies, filled with dirt and twisted paper clips and God knows what, the box you never redeem.
So I've always wondered about the common wisdom about bookstores. You know, that small, independent bookstores are bastions of the literary life, where knowledgeable clerks steer loyal customers toward the best in reading, while chain bookstores are gigantic mega-markets where bovine, illiterate clerks chew their gum like cud and dream of coffee breaks.
I once believed that. Passionately. So much that I would try to always troop past the three huge book stores near our place to make my purchases at a tiny independent, the Lincoln Park Bookshop.
That changed a few years ago after a single jarring purchase. I had made the walk to buy the $40, 1,200-page Harrison Kinney biography of James Thurber. As the young clerk handed the book over in one hand, accepting the money in the other, he chirped, "Who's Thurber?"
Now, I don't want to single out a particular bookstore. LPB is a lovely place, with a pair of wing chairs in the back. I know the owner, Joel Jacobson. Once he produced a bottle of fine bourbon from the back room and we sat in the wing chairs, sipping and talking of things literary.
But I was so taken aback by the "Who's Thurber?" comment (It would be like going to a nice restaurant, asking for merlot and having the waiter say, "Mer-what?") that I started shopping at Borders.
For a year or two I went around telling people the Thurber story, as a putdown to independents. But gradually I began to suspect that, like all fanatics, I had swung too far the other way. So I devised an experiment to see which is more helpful, setting up a three-round contest.
Round One began at the neighborhood Borders. I walked up to the information desk and stood before a young lady with long hair. "I'm looking for a novel," I said. "It's about migrant farm workers in California during the Great Depression."
Her reply was automatic, like pushing a button. No sooner had I pronounced the "n" in "Depression," when she said: The Grapes of Wrath.
I then walked down to LPB. The store was utterly empty, and there were two clerks (one's heart does break for these places), one behind the counter, one dusting the shelves. Not wanting to double their chances, I waited until the dusting clerk drifted out of earshot.
"I'm looking for a novel," I began, and unspooled the same request as at Borders. He looked at me blankly. I proceeded to hint No. 2: "I think it's called Angry Raisins. "
"Grapes?" said the guy with the feather duster, who had drifted back. "Grapes of Wrath?"
"Yes," I said, feigning excitement.
The first clerk, obviously abashed, explained that he assumed I was looking for something more "obscure," and there is probably some truth to that. You'd get a blank look at McDonald's, too, if you asked for a slice of meat between two discs of bread. Still, big chains won the round.
Round Two pitted Barnes & Noble vs. Unabridged Books, a capacious independent on North Broadway. The clerk behind the information counter at B&N listened to my request and chirped: "Contemporary?" I told him I thought it was a classic, and he not only coughed up Grapes of Wrath, but, as I fled, shouted that it was by John Steinbeck, the better to help me find it.
At that point, I was worried about a sweep. But Unabridged Books put on a stellar performance. Not only did the woman at the cash register know immediately, but she was the first person out of the four stores to march me back to where the book was located, press it into my hands, and tell me it was "great." The independents tied the series.
For the tie-breaker I was downtown, so I matched the brand new Brent bookstore, the return of the storied Brent name to Michigan Avenue, vs. the nearby B. Dalton on Wabash, the fading flagship of a losing brand in the book wars. It was a mismatch, but they were nearby.
The Brent clerk, in tortoiseshell glasses, knocked out the title instantly, serving up the author and inquiring—quite reasonably, considering my question—if I was able to find my way to Literature.
And B. Dalton? The initial request drew an "I have no idea." The Angry Raisins hint drew an "Is that the title?" Then I fell back to the final hint, which I had been itching to use. "I think it's by John Steinbok."
She moved over to the computer. I spelled "S-T-E-I-N-B-O-K." A light somewhere glimmered. "Isn't it 'Steinbeck?' " she said, then declared the title. It was a small redemptive moment, but the round, and match, went to the independents. Those truisms do tend to be true.
—Originally published in the Sun-Times, Nov. 1, 1998