Doesn’t it seem like bookstores are the latest fashion accessory for authors? We should be shopping for a sensible handbag that doubles as a carry-on, but instead we’re out buying bookstores. Ann Patchett has one, as do Louise Erdrich, Jonathan Lethem, and Garrison Keillor. Larry McMurtry owns several, although I hear he’s consolidating.
I’ve got one too. Five years ago, my husband and I partnered with two friends and bought Eureka Books when the owners announced their retirement. It was a classic dusty old used bookstore when we bought it, but we’re gradually working in more new books and broadening the selection.
Our store is housed in a grand 125-year-old building that has been, at various points, a haberdashery, a hardware store, and a shop selling carriages and horse-and-buggy supplies. It also used to be a bar, which got me thinking about the connection between bookselling and bartending.
Eureka, where I live, is a little timber and fishing town on California’s north coast. Prohibition never made it this far west. The building in which our bookstore now resides used to be one of several bars that served loggers when they came in from the woods. It was called the High Lead Saloon, “high lead” being a logging term for pulling a tree out of the forest with ropes and pulleys. The saloon sold bottles of booze through a walk-up window, and if you thought you could behave yourself, they’d let you come inside, too.
The upstairs portion of our bookstore was a separate saloon called the Louvre Café. Patrons entered through the alley—the sign still hangs above our back door—and went straight up the back stairs. Those stairs are now piled with books, but were once occupied by pretty girls waving the customers in.
To give you some idea of how little Prohibition meant out here, a police officer sat down at the High Lead every night around closing time to prevent fights from breaking out between the owners of the two establishments, who were partners. I don’t know what those men fought over, but one night Tom Slaughter, who ran the High Lead, chased the owner of the Louvre Café downstairs and shot him just as he reached our back door. Slaughter’s lawyer managed to get him acquitted of all charges. When we bought the bookstore, the lawyer’s son—now a nearly retired attorney himself—gave us his dad’s file on the case.
I don’t know what lesson he hoped we would learn from the Slaughter case. Make sure you can outrun your business partner? Don’t let a little thing like a Constitutional amendment stop you from selling what your customers want to buy? Or were we just supposed to remember to keep a nice supply of liquor on hand?
We used to have a bottle of sherry behind the counter and thought it charming to sit around the store after we closed and rehash the day’s events, but after we’d owned the place for a few years, we replaced happy hour with something new that we called “getting home at a reasonable hour.”
So here, for you booksellers, is a cocktail that is easy to make from ingredients sequestered in your stock rooms. No bar tools required—just swish the stuff around in a coffee mug or stir with the end of a pen.
The Reasonable Hour
(a cocktail for booksellers)
1.5 oz. rye whiskey
1.5 oz. dry sherry
1 tsp. Grand Marnier
Dash of Angostura bitters
Hide all ingredients in the back room behind the nonreturnable overstock. Oh, and you know those nice aluminum water bottles many of you sell? They make brilliant flasks. Mix up a batch in one of those and pass it around.