Text Patterns - by Alan Jacobs

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Farewell, Mr. Dalton

From Christopher at Survival of the Book I learned that the last B. Dalton bookstores are closing. I can't help but feel some nostalgia about this, because B. Dalton is one of the three employers I have had in my entire life. And my first employer.

B. Dalton came to Birmingham, Alabama in the summer of 1975, when I had just graduated from high school, as part of a brand-new mall called Century Plaza. (The mall itself, after many years of decline, closed last year.) I was sixteen, and this was my first job. For the first month, when we couldn't get into the still-under-construction building, we worked out of a mini-warehouse, lugging books and supplies down a long alley the UPS trucks were too big to get through. Then, when the store became available, we lugged them all back down the alley and onto trucks, drove half-a-mile, and unloaded them into the store. All this in an Alabama July. I don't know whether I’ve even been so consistently hot, tired, and sore.

What I remember most about that month is the wonder of taking from their boxes book after book that I had never heard of before, reading their covers, and then setting many of them aside to purchase at my 30% employee discount. (We couldn't buy anything until we got into the store and got the registers set up, which meant that when I finally got to purchase the books, I used up most of my paycheck.)

What impresses me now, as I look back, is the hopefulness that underlay the original inventory of the store. It contained a remarkably full selection of literature, philosophy, science, anthropology, psychology — you name it. Of course, many of those books didn't sell, and the home office in Minnesota knew it: B. Dalton was the first bookstore chain to computerize its inventory, and every evening when we closed we had to set the registers to send the day’s data through a modem to the General Office. So after six months the store’s inventory had altered for the worse, from my point of view, even though it certainly matched our clientele better.

(Incidentally, even before the store opened we got several calls a day from people wanting to speak to Mr. Dalton. It was remarkably hard to convince some of them that there was no no Mr. Dalton, that the store's name was a fiction. People are used to that sort of thing now — I doubt that anyone comes to Applebee's looking for Mr. Applebee — but it was a relatively unfamiliar practice at the time.)

Before the official opening date of the mall, the store was ours, and all the books therein. It was therefore something of a shock to have to open those gates one morning and let the rabble in. We felt violated, somehow — especially since we had been in the store until well after midnight the night before cleaning the parquet floors and then mopping them with linseed oil.

I was actually the person who opened the gate the first time, and as I did a woman walked in, approached me, and asked a question. Our first customer! “Do you have The Seagull, by Jonathan Livingston?”

I paused. “Um, you must mean Jonathan Livingston Seagull.”

“No,” she said, confidently. “I know what I want. I want The Seagull, by Jonathan Livingston.”

I paused again. “Well,” I said finally, “we don't have that.”

She turned on her heel and walked out. And thus began my career as a book salesman.