On the day before Christmas, I had all the holiday gifts lined up. The present for my wife seemed a little chintzy, though, so off I went to Porter Square Books to add a gift certificate. Since we’d also been doing little family gifts for Hanukkah I picked up a tchotchke or two and some wrapping paper. The friendly clerk explained that the bookstore had run out of gift cards, so they issued me one on paper. Ever the dutiful environmentalist, I declined a bag for the swag.
Proud of my last-minute shopping I came home and went to wrap the gift certificate inside the latest John Grisham novel. Spread out before me were the wrapping paper, the “Fight Evil, Read Books” socks, the Scotch tape — but where was the gift certificate? Maybe it’s in the car … Nope. Turned the house upside down … Still no card.
After drubbing myself with several rounds of “You idiot,” accompanied by multiple unprintable adjectives, I put in a last-ditch call to the store, hoping they had some way of voiding the gift and issuing me another.
I spoke to a woman named Dina, who turned out to be co-owner Dina Mardell She explained that the official cards had tracking numbers on them, but the paper cards didn’t and she couldn’t void it. As my heart sank she added, “But I’m going to trust you and issue you another one and if you find the old one, I hope that you’ll rip it up.”
I couldn’t believe it. Trust?
Let me back up a bit. I was in a pretty rotten mood to begin with. The morning news seems to raise the world’s misery index every day. A recent USA Today/Suffolk poll showed Donald Trump beating any Democrat in 2020. My dog’s now too old to chase the Canadian geese away in the field bordering our house — and I’m pretty easily winded myself these days. Losing the gift certificate was only the latest excuse for getting down on myself, getting down on the world.
So it’s hard to overstate what Dina’s act of generosity meant to me. I went from feeling like Scrooge at the beginning of “A Christmas Carol” to Scrooge at the end of the story. I felt like yelling “Merry Christmas” to everyone on the street. If Tiny Tim had been there I would have paid for his college education.
But the experience is more than a feel-good Christmas story. To me, independent bookstores have been one of the major antidotes to corporate greed and digital soullessness. They stand for community at a time when communities are an endangered species. After Bestsellers Café closed its doors following a series of disputes with its landlord, the heart and soul went out of Medford Square, not too far from my house. Getting a sandwich and reading a book at Bestsellers while looking out on the Mystic River was a weekly ritual for me, one that made the square seem alive and well.
I’d bet that the Bestsellers owner, Rob Dillman, would have been equally trusting; other indie owners as well. I would not put that kind of faith in Barnes & Noble. And Amazon? Forget about it. Getting through to a human being is difficult enough.
But I have to admit it. I’m as enticed by the deep discounts at Amazon as the next person. And I’ve read enough to know that to some degree those discounts are coming off the backs of harried workers. Judging from the friendliness of the Porter Square staff on one of the busiest days of the year, they’re treated a lot better by Dina and her husband, David Sandberg, than Amazon workers are by Jeff Bezos. In fact, there’s a plan in place for senior employees to buy shares of the store.
Whatever their job satisfaction, there’s the consumer’s life satisfaction. Not just the glow of another person’s generosity, but genuine human interactions, leafing through the books in a nicely laid-out store, talking to clerks about their recommendations, participating in a communal experience. Try getting any of that on your Kindle.
I’m sure I haven’t downloaded my last e-book and I’m equally positive that there’ll come a time when I just can’t resist the Amazon discount on a book, particularly if I’m only marginally interested in it. But for now, I think that my new ritual will be heading over to Porter Square Books, 15 minutes from my house, grabbing a sandwich and a cup of coffee at Café Zing and, more than likely, buying a book.
And the next time I get down on myself and the world, hopefully, I’ll remember Dina saying, “I’m going to trust you.”