In the autumn of 1991 I came to New York to take a fiction writing class. I was 23, fresh out of graduate school, with no savings and little work experience save for two summers clerking in a bookstore in the Maryland suburbs. I wanted to be close to the rarefied air of New York publishing. Inspired by movies like Crossing Delancey, I imagined working in a real New York bookstore would allow me to befriend famous writers, editors and journalists. I applied to all the city’s famous bookstores: Three Lives, Books & Company, Scribner, Endicott, Shakespeare and Company and The Gotham Book Mart. The fact that none of them was hiring only reinforced my belief in their privileged station in the city’s literary life.
My last hope was Rizzoli on West 57th Street. If they didn’t want me, I would be forced to turn to the chains, which, in those pre-superstore days, was a bleak prospect indeed. So it was with great relief that I saw the sign in Rizzoli’s window: Position Available. Three days later I was interviewed and a week after that I showed up for my first day of work.
That autumn, I spent most of workday at the cash wrap, ringing up sales and bagging books, sometimes making deliveries to local hotels. The glamour wore off and soon it was just a job. Mostly I worked the late shift with another new employee named Dai. We’d get off at 11:00 and walk over to a diner near Columbus Circle to have coffee and pie. On the way up Sixth Avenue we’d see prostitutes standing nearly naked in the December chill waiting to be picked up.
I worked at Rizzoli for more than three years. None of the benefits I had hoped gain from working there ever came about. Writers did come by to shop or to sign their books–Robert Stone, Peter Carey and Joseph Mitchell, just to name a few. Usually they would be accompanied by a rep from their publishing house who would shepherd them quickly in and quickly out. I rarely got to talk to them. I was always too busy looking for a lost carton of books in the storeroom, or stocking the shelves, or dealing with a thorny return.
Writers were not our only famous customers. Madonna, Cindy Crawford, Christy Turlington, Uma Thurman, Linda Evangelista, Kyle MacLachlan, Ben Kingsley, Elvis Costello, Michael Palin and Candace Bergin all came in, not to mention the Queen of Thailand and the Prime Minister of Italy. We were told not to talk to them and for the most part we left them alone, though one smartmouthed clerk, seeing the name “David Jones” on David Bowie’s credit card asked him, “Weren’t you in the Monkees?” This caused everyone in earshot, Bowie included, to break up laughing.
One day near the end of my time at the store, Gabriel Garcia Marquez came in. For me that was bigger that Madonna, David Bowie and Elvis Costello rolled into one. He was unmistakable, solid and thickshouldered, wearing a grey tweed jacket. He was accompanied by an assistant, an attractive, well dressed woman in her forties who acted as chaperone and translator. Gradually they assembled a mighty pile of merchandise. When they were finally ready to pay, I made sure I was the one who got to ring them up. My hands were shaking on the register keys. Gabriel Garcia Marquez! My God. I kept typing in the wrong numbers, correcting them, typing them in wrong again. I was sweating. All the while, I was thinking of something to say to him. I wanted to ask him about Chronicle of a Death Foretold, my favorite of his books. I wanted to ask him what he was writing now. I wanted to ask him what he was reading. After what seemed like an hour of typing, his purchases totaled out at over $700 dollars!
I told his assistant. She translated for him and he gave me a credit card which I slid through the terminal. I was about to say something to him when the register beeped.
“Card Declined”, read the display. My lungs collapsed. I had Gabriel Garcia Marquez standing in front of me and all I could say to him was, “Your credit card has been declined.”
His assistant looked at me with an expression that asked, Do you know who this is? I tried to look her back with an expression that said, Of course I do! But his credit card has still been declined! “Try it again,” she said. Meanwhile, Marquez was looking through one of the books in his pile, oblivious to our conversation. I tried the card again with the same result. “I’m sorry,” I said. The woman was not happy with this news. “This is shameful,” she said. I repeated that I was sorry. She had no idea how sorry I was. Finally, she turned to Marquez and told him. He simply shrugged and reached into his jacket. Out came the leather billfold the size of a paperback book. Inside was a lineup of seven or eight credit cards. He thumbed down through them, finally selecting one and handing it to me. “Here,” said his assistant. “Try this.”
It went through. I was so crushed that I could not say a word as I carried their bags out to hail a cab.