by Hugh Gilmore
If you suspected I was a man of low ambition, I’ll confirm that by telling you that for years I had hoped to write regularly for this newspaper. During those years, however, I ran a used and rare books store down on East Chestnut Hill Avenue, and I didn’t want to seem like a charlatan who wrote about books in order to promote his own book selling business. So, I did nothing about my secret dream.
Not entirely nothing, though. Chestnut Hill was very political back in 2006, sometimes in quite ugly, name-calling, insulting ways. Some of that nastiness sprawled over into the pages of the Local itself. Even more grime appeared in the form of a website called the Chestnut Hill Notebook. There, every prominent person on the Hill was subjected to scathing, snarky, ad hominem insults in the name of community democracy. I knew none of the people personally, nor the issues, and therefore stayed out of it. I did read the Notebook sometimes though.
One day I noticed a small marginal side-box in it asking for submissions from the community regarding news, opinions, stories, poems, anything. What the heck: I wrote a lengthy letter regarding TVs in hospital waiting rooms to the editor, John Lombardi (who had recently been the Local’s editor in chief). He liked it and ran it as an opinion/story. That felt good, so I wrote a second – this one about a scary incident in my bookshop with a homeless person.
Those stories were written in April or May 2006. Nothing further happened after that, chiefly because I had a falling out with Lombardi when he asked me to eavesdrop in my shop and around town to get usable tidbits for the political aspect of the blog. I refused. John called me Jesse James, a pointed-enough insult that I got the sense of it even though I didn’t really understand what he meant. I stopped writing for the blog.
My writing life hibernated for the next six months. Then something bad happened, which turned out good. After ten years of creating goodwill at 43 East Chestnut Hill Avenue, from having established the only used bookstore – a beloved place – in Chestnut Hill, my landlord pulled my lease. My shop was in a twin Victorian building owned by a father-son antiques business. The son came to me in mid-October as I was preparing for the Holiday business season and said I’d have to be out by Dec.31. He needed to expand his antiques business into my half of the building.
I pictured how difficult it would be to prepare for the holiday season while simultaneously looking for a new place, selling off inventory, fixtures and shelving, all the while telling my customers where they could find me. Plus: have the place broom-swept as I left.
Could be done, I suppose, if one didn’t care about money, or making the year profitable. But my dark Irishness came over me, and I decided I’d be darned if I’d act to suit someone else’s timing. I began packing the next day, held a few sales, sent the best of the rare books home, consigned all the workaday books to a dealer friend, just about gave away the bookcases I couldn’t use, wrote a few sad-if-not-weepy sketches of how it hurt to lose this wonderful little business I’d built from scratch, wiped down the bathroom, vacuumed the floor and stepped out. So be it.
I turned over the keys by the end of November. Christmas “season” be damned. For the next six months I was really and truly depressed by the loss of a life’s dream: being the proprietor of a quaint old used book store. Anyone who’s experienced it can tell you it’s hurtful to lose your identity.
But I was not without prospects, if you will. While packing, I’d gone to the Chestnut Hill Local offices seeking Pete Mazzaccaro, the editor-in-chief. I asked for one gift, but left with two. I told Pete I’d like a goodbye column written about the demise of my store, a valentine to the community that had supported me. He complied by sending former reporter Kristen Pazulski to write, “Last of the old time bookstores to close.”
The second gift (from my point of view) came when Pete mentioned that he’d read my two contributions to the Chestnut Hill Notebook and liked them. He thought they were well written.
Even a fool such as I can recognize opportunity if it hits him on the noggin like that. I’d been wanting to write for the Local for a while, but the past few years had been quite unstable ones for the Local. As I recall, an editor or two had resigned, an editor was fired, then a whole team, then two more editors fired. I knew a freelance writer needed a dependable relationship with his editor, so I was playing a waiting game, hoping to pitch in once a steady editor (whom I also liked and respected) came along and took the helm.
I told Pete I had an idea for a regular column about reading and reacting to books and other cultural matters. He took me on trial for a month. I’ve been writing my column for 10 years now. In a way, a few congratulations are due to Pete and his staff. He brought stability and a high-quality paper to the community. It’s his tenth anniversary also, more or less.
Next week: Only partially tongue-in-cheek: What I’ve learned by being a weekly columnist for our town’s leading newspaper.