Behind The Curtain 24: Subsidizing The Last Bookstore In America

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

By Sharon letts

Eye Correspondent

To most people, the Firebreathing Dragon on Second Street in Old Town, Eureka looked like it had always been a bookstore. Bookshelves climbed up the walls to the mezzanine, and then continued on the second floor. In the center of the building where carriages had once gleamed on their pedestals before being replaced by automobiles, books sat on tables and faded under the bright skylights.

For this was the last bookstore in America. A hand held device called the “Gizmo” had replaced books many years ago. The Firebreathing Dragon kept its doors open by selling a little something extra with every book that left the store. It was the worst-kept secret in town.

Crawford sat behind the counter, enjoying the usual rush of last-minute customers on Friday night. A group of Earth First!ers came in to pick up supplies for the weekend. Clad in ancient jeans faded almost to yellow, dreadlocks, and knit caps made of hemp.

One guy stood out: he was wearing a track suit with a price tag still attached.

“I’m Jeffrey. I’ve been in a tree for the last year,” he said.

“Welcome back,” Crawford shook his hand.

Jeffrey wandered around the store, scanning the shelves.

“So, the way this works,” Jeffrey said, without taking his eyes off the books.

“Yeeeessss…” Crawford said, not wanting to explain anything if he didn’t have to.

“Is that I pick out a book – “

“That’s right,” said Crawford

“And it could be any book.”

“Any book you want.”

Jeffrey pulled a book off the shelf. Crawford nodded encouragingly..

“That’s how it works,” Crawford said.

“Do I take the book home?” Jeffrey said.

“Yes,” Crawford said. “We prefer that you do.”

“Along with…”

Crawford sighed and turned to the Earth First crowd. “Guys?”

One of Jeffrey’s friends put his hand on Jeffrey’s shoulder. “Come on, man,” he said. “Pick out a book and let’s get going.”

“Does it matter how much it costs?” Jeffrey said, reaching for a ’60s-era reprint of a Hardy Boys mystery called The Hidden Theft.

“Yes!” several of them said at once, making a collective hissing sound intended more to shut him up than answer his question.

“Oh, OK. I get it. So I need like a twenty dollar…” he walked the aisles and chose a book on Japanese flower arranging. He opened it to check the price. “Like this!” he said, holding it out to his friends.

“Pretty much like that, Jeffrey,” one of his friends said. Crawford collected their money, wrote out receipts, and slipped each book into a paper bag. Jeffrey took the bag, opened it, peered inside, and then ran it dramatically under his nose.

“Out!” Crawford said, rising halfway out of his chair.

The rest of the Friday night rush was more businesslike, and that was how Crawford liked it. A guy in dark jeans and a starched striped shirt came straight to the desk, jingling his keys, and asked for a $200 book. Crawford pulled a decent British edition of Twain’s More Tramps Abroad off the shelf.

The guy nodded without picking it up. Crawford slipped it into a bag. He turned to leave, then pulled the Twain out of the bag and set it back on the counter. “Keep it,” he said.

Crawford put the book back on the shelf. It was the third time he’d sold it in a month.

Just before close, a couple of tourists came in, wondering how a store like this managed to stay in business.

“This is a unique community. People have really supported us,” Crawford said. He heard that question every weekend.

They left without buying anything.

This slice of subsidized life in Humboldt was taken in part from local author Amy Stewart’s novel, The Last Bookstore in America, available for Kindle on Though Stewart uses Old Town and Eureka Books as a backdrop, the story is completely fictional.