An Excerpt from THE LAST GREAT AMERICAN BOOKSTORE
by Elizabeth Green
The Curious Cat Book Emporium
January Blog Entry #1
An Interview with the Proprietor
June Marchland is a journalist who has worked at the New York Times covering the Syrian conflict as well as the war in Afghanistan. June began her journalistic work at Harvard where she founded its quarterly women’s newsletter. She currently holds a PhD in philosophy and journalism studies and is extremely exclusive about who she chooses to interview. The Curious Cat Book Emporium is honored and humbled to have her here with us today.
JM: What was your inspiration for such a store?
FB: When I was a child my father owned a general store in our hometown of Norristown. He worked tirelessly day and night, my sister and I assisting him. Often he would wake us before dawn to assist him in opening the store. My sister stocked the milk and I counted the register while father made coffee. Often businessmen would come in on their way into the city and flirt with me, but never with my poor sister who had a terrible under-bite at the time that always made her look hungry. My inspiration came as I watched all of the mistakes Father made. He would not treat us well, and paid us only enough to get a school lunch that day. My grades slipped because I was always so tired from getting up early, and would often fall asleep in class. This spawned my dreams of opening my own store, and doing it right. Treating people right, rewarding customers but not too much, not at the detriment of my business, and always being deeply rooted in the community.
JM: Do you feel rooted in your community?
FB: I do. I am always looking for ways to get the local businesses to work with me, on what would be mutually beneficial opportunities. Not all have taken to it. I believe the times we live in have forced people – even hippies that run co-ops – to be rather paranoid, but some have proven me wrong. The owner of O’Hare Repair is an example of an excellent businessman, rooted in his community.
JM: Some have said that you are a pioneer in the field of used bookstores. Why do you think that is, if you agree?
FB: I humbly agree, June. And that is because not only are our sales numbers steadily increasing each year, but I have also managed to diversify and become the only bookseller in Philadelphia, or perhaps Pennsylvania, with such an inventory of Mark Twain books as to set me on a criteria far above the others. I am aware that some sellers may be jealous of my situation, but they needn’t be. They should do as I do, and learn from my successes, and emulate when possible – as long as it’s not selling Mark Twain books!
JM: They didn’t tell me you were so funny.
FB: I like to surprise people with that.
JM: Would you say you are popular among your employees?
FB: My employees are like family to me. They are my closest friends. We share my great Victorian space for eight hours a day, and so we have no choice but to become close and reliant on each other. I liken it to how sailors must feel on ships, stuck in the ocean for months at a time, building friendships, alliances, and life-long memories. Recently we had a wonderfully fun holiday party at the store. Everyone came and brought their friends and we talked and laughed into the night just as I, as a little girl, had dreamed my family would always do.
JM: Are you close with your family?
FB: I have always felt like a stranger in my family, and as much as I would like to be closer to them, I have to choose my work. It is the one thing that has brought me more happiness and satisfaction than anything in my life before. And if anything were to happen to this place…well, failure is simply not an option. I watched my father fail, and it’s an ugly, terrible thing. My father and I were never close, but ever since I opened my store twenty years ago I believe that I have been in a silent competition with him – even though he has been practically bed-ridden these twenty years. I often think on the Ginsberg poem, “A Supermarket in California”, when I think of my father. I believe Ginsberg was speaking of Whitman when he referred to “father, graybeard, lonely old courage teacher”, though I have never seen this poem as referring to anyone but my father, and my question to him, which I believe is similar to Ginsberg’s: what kind of America did you get to see? And more personally for me, what did you leave me to deal with? Why haven’t we spoken, why can’t we speak? Why must you, father, be on a ferry to death while I’m left to pick up the various pieces of confusion in my life, that you left littered around me like broken glass?
JM: You are quite a poet yourself, yes?
FB: When it comes to my father, I think I can throw out a lot of feelings at the drop of a hat. That is what happens with neglect. The child is left with so many unsaid words, so they become poets, artists, or bookstore proprietors. But getting back to your question, the quiet competition between my father and I has forced me to become close to him in a strange, ethereal way that’s rather hard to explain. I suppose I am showing him, with my success, that I am doing it right. I am showing my entire family this truth, and I think it’s hard for them to watch me rise and be happy. Some families just like being miserable together.
JM: Before you owned the bookstore, what was your occupation? Did you own another business or did you work for someone else?
FB: I went through a time in my life where I wasn’t completely sure of what I wanted to do, even though I knew I wanted to own my own business. It’s very frightening to be in your thirties and decide to start a business completely on your own, knowing that you will be putting your personal life on hold until things even out. After school I took a few years to live at home and reevaluate things before taking the plunge. I’m glad I stayed at home and thought hard about it instead of taking a job in the city that I didn’t care about and risk getting sucked into a dreadful nine-to-five, too comfortable to leave. We can’t grow without a little discomfort – a fact some of my family members would do well to learn.
JM: What was it like twenty years ago, starting a business from the ground up the way that you did?
FB: It was challenging in that West Philadelphia was a very different place twenty years ago. My greatest challenge was vandalism and robbery, but I will have you know that even though it was considered a rough area, I was unafraid. I saw this as an opportunity to bring books to a community in need. Also, the building, despite needing a lot of repair work, was incredibly affordable, however that was not my main motivation for the purchase. I knew this neighborhood would turn around, and sometimes, I dare say, I credit my store for the start of its gentrification.
JM: If you had one piece of advice for a new business owner, what would that be?
FB: Pay your bills without taking out too many loans, pay them on time, be creative, and you cannot fail. I suppose that’s three. (Laughter)
JM: We’ll let that one go.
JM: It’s been so wonderful sitting in your shop and getting to know you. I have interviewed many people. From world leaders to intellectuals, and this has been a true highlight.
FB: I am humbled. Thank you, June. It’s my pleasure.
JM: Pleasure is mine.
An audio clip of this transcript is unavailable due to technical difficulties. Fawn Birchill apologies for the inconvenience. Questions regarding the interview can be directed to Fawn in the comments below. Please no swearing or soliciting.
Reply to Lillian_Fae
June Marchland was an actual writer for the NYT but has since moved on to work at other newspapers. I do not know the terms in which she left the newspaper, but because you cannot find her anywhere means that perhaps she left on unsavory terms and not, as you say, because she is a fabrication. How very insulting.
Reply to Jorge_X223
Thank you for finding my interview amusing. I do hope you stop by the store sometime!
Reply to My_grating_coconuts
I do not appreciate non-sequiturs on my blog. It falls dangerously close to the solicitation warning at the top of the comments. That being said, I know nothing about quantum physics nor do I have any books pertaining to it in my store. Certainly not any regarding the speed necessary for a basket of rabbits to pass unharmed through a brick wall. The entire experiment sounds dreadfully morbid and so I hope you are not planning to go through with it.
Reply to My_grating_coconuts
Though upon further thought, perhaps a high-speed canon would work – but only if the brick wall was heated and therefore weakened.
Reply to Sienna_90
I am not condoning the abuse of animals. I actually detest the use of animals in testing of all kinds, medical and otherwise. However, I believe we are having a hypothetical conversation here, and because I have an inquisitive mind and greatly enjoy any good scientific debate, I cannot help but inquire. You must be curious yourself?
Reply to My_grating_coconuts
Yes, I think the outcome would be substantially different if you were doing this with different animals. For example, the speed required would be greatly reduced were you to propel a bull through a canon, for example. Though I do NOT condone this!
Reply to My_grating_coconuts,
Would love to discuss the interview instead! Did you like it?