What is your very favorite bookstore of all time? The closing of Borders last week reminded me of mine, and of how sad I was when it closed in 1992. Here is what I wrote about it in a column for the Telegraph Herald in Dubuque, Iowa, at that time:
It was a big event in our small world when we found out last week that Small World Bookstore was closing. It was a little beacon of peace and light in a television world. The best children’s book store I’ve ever been in, Small World crammed plenty into a tiny space: It had plump pillows to plop down on and a potpourri of books, toys, puzzles, games and cards selected with taste, an awareness of social justice issues and a sense of whimsy. Perhaps must importantly, the unhurried people who worked there knew books and cared about kids. The shop’s logo -- “A bookstore of discovery for children and the people who care for them" -- was no hype. The store was giving MTV and Nintendo a run for their money; that wasn’t the problem.
In a remarkable and moving letter sent to the store’s regular customers in February, owner Judy Essman explained, ‘Some of you may remember that in 1990 I was treated for breast cancer. The treatments were thorough, and 1991 was a year of vigor for me and Small World Books. This year brings the unfortunate news that the cancer has returned and will slow me down considerably as I embark on new treatment. Because I need to conserve energy and turn to more relaxing activities, I will retire from the bookstore business.
“We have loved hosting your birthday parties, doing book talks for your mothers’ groups and classrooms, bringing in special entertainers and authors, and daily answering your questions about books for children." Judy went on to tell about employees’ future plans and her own: “I will study seed catalogs in preparation for this summer’s garden, weave on my long-ignored loom, and spend more time with friends over tea.”
Ever the bibliophile, she concluded by suggesting books that help explain illness to children, and added, “When you see me in the store or in the community, don’t be afraid. Having cancer is not the end of the world. In fact, it can bring about changes that enhance our lives. Please let your children know that it is fine to ask me how I am feeling. Their direction questions and honest statements are breaths of fresh air!”
I remember seeing Judy with her head wrapped in brightly colored scarves when our family started shopping in Small World a couple of years ago. It crossed my mind then that she may have been through chemotherapy; but on Judy -- tall, slim, elegant, coolly intelligent -- the scarves seemed more a matter of style.
I caught up with her recently and told her with what deep regret I went to her close-out sale. I wasn’t the only one. Judy’s mailbox has been full of love. Customers young and old, some of whom barely knew her and some of whom are living with cancer themselves, wrote to tell her what the shop has meant to them and to wish her well.
Judy is less inclined to mourn the shop’s closing than she is to celebrate the joys it has brought her these last three years. Chief among them was the knowledge that she could run a business according to her principles and still succeed commercially. “I knew from the beginning I wanted a multicultural, multiracial, nonsexist store, and that I wanted to be small scale in how I used resources. We used donated bags and didn’t print anything we didn’t have to. During the war in the Gulf I talked about peace-making and conflict resolution in our newsletter. People responded because it really is a small world, and we really need to know each other."
What about those life-enhancing changes cancer has brought her? There are many. She and husband Ray Makeever are closer than ever before, and despite having lost a breast, Judy says she feels more womanly, and more proud of being a woman, than she ever has. She's physically braver, too, as she learned this past fall on a solo hike she took on a strenuous trail in the Cascade Mountains. "I do think by having to look death in the face I have become more willing to take risks. I decided I would rather die on the trail with a broken ankle or from an encounter with a bear than to miss seeing the top of the mountain."
And most of all, she has realized how many people she matters to. "I have absolutely been surrounded by love and concern," she says.
Ernest Hemingway's definition of courage as "grace under pressure" means more to me now that I have seen the example of Judy Essman's uncommon grace.