Saturday, August 11, 2012

Coming of Age

There is something magical about an independent bookstore. The frayed and soiled carpets, the musty scent of yellowing pages, the pungency of rarely cleaned litter boxes, the wonder of discovering mouse dropping within the folds of the very book one came to purchase. I have modeled my post college living arrangements in much the same way.

Aside from fast food joints, most of my waking hours at Wisconsin, when not running up and down Bascom Hill in my attempt to stop the war in Vietnam, were spent at Paul's Book Store on State Street. There was, of course the requisite thousands upon thousands of new and used books, both hard cover and paperback  (first editions that I could have purchased for pennies now worth a fortune!) which I sometimes took notice of. I remember the dirty carpet and the musty smell. I used to see a one eyed cat walking around like a character out of a Kipling story, but I never stumbled over its litter box. And yes, I did page through a book one time and discovered mouse droppings within.

My main attention, however, was always drawn to an ever present establishment of eccentric Cirque du Soleil characters that would gain their intellectual nourishment at Paul’s before trekking down to the Mifflin Street Co-op for other forms of nutrition. Spontaneity being the source of all light, these itinerant actors would select randomly a book off the shelves and begin to perform excerpts from it. Geology or astronomy, numismatics or children's lit, the subject made no difference. The performances would range from full blown recitations to mime presentations. I watched them in awe. For the first time I became aware of the simple fact: one did not have to be stoned to feel stoned.

One performance artist in particular fascinated me. She was a tall frizzy haired brunette who wore Trotskyite glasses slipped low across the bridge of her nose. Her clothing was upscale Salvation Army. Her jeans were torn around the pockets and knees, a fashion statement made decades before this particular look became a symbol of conspicuous consumption among the young. She wore no makeup, not that she needed any. I presume she neither shaved under her arms or her legs because at that time, shaving was a form of oppression by the Man. I never got far enough with her to find out.

I once asked her her name. She smiled and said to simply call her Ishmael. I found that a very strange but mesmerizing name for a girl. Only with the advent of Google and an extension class at UCLA in 19th Century American Literature did I come to realize she was hinting I should take my own personal hike. I often wonder what became of her. She and her company of thespians disappeared one cold Wisconsin winter never to be seen again. Either the group disbanded or found a bookstore elsewhere in a community  where the weather was less inclement and the atmosphere did not sting from tear gas.

So those memories were the basis of what follows. Why not a series that takes place in a bookstore, a children's book store.Those working in such an environment are not only well equipped to discuss the intricacies of the arcane world of children's literature but tend to be more patient than a convent of Carmelite nuns. I'm not sure whether any idea that involves books and singing and dancing would have a chance today. This was written the same year that Google came online. I've added some new hip references though I still say "groovy" and store all my Grateful Dead paraphernalia next to my walker so as not forgetting where I put them.

When not tearing up the artistic landscape at James Buchanan High for the Performing Arts, sixteen year old HOLLY HOBBS can be found singing and dancing her time away at a very special place called JABBERWOCKY. Jabberwocky is one of the last of its kind—a free standing independent children’s book store in Seattle, Washington and Holly is its hardest working non coffee drinking employee. Which is a lot to say coming from Seattle.

The store survives because of its personal service, customer loyalty, and a convivial after hours atmosphere of folk singing, poetry reading, and whatever else is out there that is both clean and free. The format is mutually attractive to those who have children and those who find them the ultimate nuisance. The two story red brick store known for its imaginative window displays and its crooked book shelves has been a landmark in the Seattle area for two generations. And no one knows more about how to service the needs of both parent and child than the owner CECELIA PENDRAGON.

Maybe other children’s book stores are quiet and staid environments where a parent can rush in, grab the au currant book and then flee to a safer haven for adults. But Jabberwocky is different. Most days a shoe horn is necessary to pry people away from the soft couches and cozy corners filled with goose down pillows. The store is a constant swirl of confused parents, unctuous sales reps, crawling toddlers, and testy authors waiting to autograph their books and carve their initials into the ancient mahogany signing table.

But Jabberwocky is much more than what one sees. Rusty pipes clang throughout the day. While there is never a water leak, the noise sounds like the last throes of the Titanic. The basement has something living amongst the walls or so local legend says. Whoever walks down its rickety steps suspects something is watching them. Whether this micro Sasquatch actually exists or not is anyone’s guess. So far the only voracious readers residing in the basement are spiders, dust mites and silver fish.

There are two buildings which book end Jabberwocky that add additional flavor to the selling of its books. The building to the left is a co-op unit which has been under constant construction for the last 10 years (the owners are fussy). The construction workers tend to make a lot of noise especially when singing sea shanties and pirate songs (no one knows why). They never enter the store and speak a language no one recognizes.

The other building is the HAPPY SINGING KENNEL FOR ALL ANIMALS GREAT AND SMALL. The lungs of many of the clients of Happy Singing wail out their love songs throughout the day making conversation within the store somewhat difficult. Some stroll on in with their owners after a day of confinement and instinctively head straight for the animal stories. Most of their owners need the leash rather than their pets..

So this is how it all began. Holly Hobbs just wandered in one afternoon looking for a book for her younger brother. A part time job was available and she has worked there ever since. Holly is the store's Jackie of all Trades. With grandiose enthusiasm she stocks the shelves with books, cards, toys, and sentimental ephemera. She points confused parents to their lost children and whinny kids to the bathroom. She deftly handles those toddlers still too young for a chain gang but far too old to sit still in a stroller. She soothes the panicked young students looking for that last minute quick read to complete the next day’s book report. Expectant mothers wishing to give an intellectual edge to their unborn bundle know exactly who to approach for that easy listening Mozart musical tape. And after many a rather rambunctious birthday party for a five year old or wonky author signing, she can be found afterwards mopping the floor like a sailor swabbing the deck.

Surprisingly the above list of chores is secondary to what she is was first hired to do: to be the afternoon assigned reader of picture books. Being the consummate showgirl, Holly's ego took a beating every time someone in her audience fell asleep during her interpretations of steam shovels, flower loving bulls and tigers that speak. So she began to change her act to what it is today. Holly is the singer-dancer-storyteller-raconteur and maestro of her own variety show, “Telling Tales Outside of School”. What started as a one girl recital now is a full blown Buchanan High School for the Performing Arts production number.

And why not? Jabberwocky has a stage and the high sachoolers have their own clothes. Why not put on a musical show? The school is a chock a block of singers and dancers and musicians all waiting to perform…anytime and anywhere. Why wait for Buchanan High to set up another auditorium concert just for  adoring parents? Jabberwocky gives them an opportunity to branch out and play to the public even if much of the public are young enough to be their kid brothers and sisters (sometimes they are).

No one will ever confuse this setting with American Idol, but then there are also no wonky judges telling the participants they look like bugs either. The performances are part Ringling Brothers, part Broadway, a little bit of Ed Sullivan (spinning plates and ventriloquists) and all kitsch. The shows draw in a massive number of neighborhood regulars who would otherwise have a reflexive gag sensation at the mere mention of the word “children”.

To lend more chaos than constructiveness are several of Holly’s friends from school. There is MACK her erstwhile boyfriend, shy beyond comprehension except when he’s singing on stage. Then watch out because this kid has a set of pipes on him. Nothing like belting out Kipling’s Just So Stories in a Frankie Valli falsetto. He has butterflies in his stomach when HE IS NOT performing. Otherwise he spends most of his time in the corner reading picture books since that’s what he wants to write one day. Little kids are always asking him where the bathroom is. He does not know why.

There is FIONA whose father manages the large chain bookstore several blocs away. She hangs out with Holly because the book selection at Jabberwocky is far greater and the store is much friendlier. Her father refuses to allow any form of entertainment at his store. He says it scares customers away. Actually the parents and kids that frequent her father’s store scare her. Fiona adds a whole new dimension to the word “overacting” especially when she dances to her own choreographed version of “Good Night Moon”.

There is EDNA, goofy class clown of her school by day but stone cold intellectual whenever she sets foot in the store. No one understands how she can go from Lucy Ricardo at Buchanan High to imperial, haughty, and rude performance artist LUCRETIA. At Jabberwocky her character has the bedside manner of a bag of rusty nails. Her act is part Norma Desmond, Diageliev, Cruella DeVille, and Cher. She does not understand why the kids love her performance because it is so French salon. She also spends boatloads of money at Jabberwocky trying to complete her Maisey collection.

Let’s not forget Cecilia Pendragon, owner of Jabberwocky. A former student of Buchanan High, she now runs Jabberwocky as if it were the Julliard of the West Coast. It a comedy club but without the comedy, the liquor license, or the hecklers, but everyone gets a shot at performing. While she has been known to walk around the store strumming a banjo, her talent remains keeping the doors open and the talent flowing from Buchanan High and other schools.

Sure there are youngsters crying in the audience and parents in search of wayward children. Sure there is that constant clatter of next door construction and next door barking and meowing and rusty pipes that come in whenever someone needs a bass in the background. But this unintended wall of sound does not disturb any of the performers, customers, authors or salesmen. In fact it offers a respite from the wailing of two year olds using board books as teething tools.

In creating a series around the chaotic environment of a children’s book store and the assorted eccentric characters frequenting it, we fall directly in line with those closed surroundings already on the air: Suite Life of Zack and Cody, Hanna Montana, That’s so Raven, I Carly, Naked Brothers Band. With Coming of Age we have the ability to highlight different musical performances in each episode while the winning personalities and talents of Holly and her main friends act as the energetic backbone for it all. It’s an odd way to sneak in the idea of a weekly variety show with singers and dancers and pets and rusty pipes, but it is worth a shot. Oh yes, there is something downstairs in the basement!

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