“We still enter bookstores to relax our souls and expand our vision of life’s possibilities.”
A debut novelist uses a
bookstore to tell her story
By Martha Woodroof
where everyone comes
together comfortably.” To
my way of thinking, that
description applies equally
well to the real college
bookstore in which I
worked all those years ago.
By the time I arrived, Mr.
Fitts had turned the faculty’s somewhat limited
vision into a free-standing
operation housed in its
own spacious, light-filled brick building. In hindsight, it seems to me that
Skipper Fitts was very forward-thinking
about what bookstores would come to
mean in the digital age. He got that a
bookstore creates a community—not a
sense of community or a virtual community, but a real community. As in, oh
good, there’s that guy who had such
interesting things to say about Elmore
Leonard’s latest. I’m going to go over and
At about the same time Barnes &
Noble first made room for Starbucks in
one of its stores on campus, Mr. Fitts
opened the Boxwood Café inside his own
bookstore and hired me to dispense cappuccino and muffins and conversation to
the customers. What a charmed and
magical space that was! Every day a jumble of faculty, staff, students, townies,
writers and painters from the artist colony across the street, and, indeed, the
college president and her husband would
take their common ease in its welcoming, timeless, book-lined space, reading,
talking, and drinking coffee by the bay
window and working fireplace.
It was while working for Skipper Fitts
that I came to understand that bookstores are a confluence of stories, those
within covers and those whose hands
open covers and stick their noses inside.
One person’s story is no more or less
acceptable than any other person’s story
in these magical confines. Bookstores are
places where it’s okay to relax and be
My old boss talked very
little about his days at The
Harvard Coop. He did,
however, once mention a
period of time in the 1970s
when the staff had played
the same Youngbloods’
song over the store’s speakers every night after closing. They’d all join hands,
he said, and sing about
people getting together,
trying to love one another right now.
Come on people, smile on your brother...
Well, why not? When Skipper Fitts
hired me to operate the Boxwood Café,
there were whole parts of me still lost in
the weirdness of early sobriety. But no
one—including myself—held it against
me. I was part of a bookstore, for Pete’s
sake! A place where eccentricity is acceptable and common ground is assumed.
Despite all my internal struggles, in that
bookstore I was welcomed and loved as
just another story waiting to be shared.
It seems to me, as the digital age advances and works its wonders and performs its erosions, we still enter
bookstores to relax our souls and expand
our vision of life’s possibilities. What’s
truly wondrous to me is how, during that
process, we also (to my way of thinking,
anyway) grow more comfortable with
You can do many wonderful things
online, but you cannot, in my opinion,
do this. You have to do it in the story-loving company of those who hang out
So, anyway, here’s to Skipper Fitts,
who understood this bookstore-commu-nity business way, way back when. How
could I not pay tribute to his wonderful
bookstore in my first novel? ■
I’m about to publish my first novel, Small
Blessings. Its central character is Tom Putnam, an English professor at a small Virginia women’s college, who has resigned
himself to a quiet and half-fulfilled life.
There are elements of me in three of the
women with whom Tom interacts. I can
be bossy like Agnes, his mother-in-law;
I’m an alcoholic like Iris, his colleague;
and I was a professional gypsy for a couple
of decades like Rose, the college bookstore’s new assistant general manager. But
none of these women are me.
The only wholly autobiographical element in Small Blessings is a place, not a person—the college
bookstore at which Rose works. In my
novel it is called, simply, the Book Store,
and it is a fond rendering of a real college
bookshop where I worked for a few years
a couple of decades ago. It was the first
real job I landed after getting sober.
This college bookshop was originally
owned by the faculty, who, being generally wise and erudite, wanted the store to
expand while still remaining a bookshop—as opposed to a corporately leased
“gift shoppe” that hawked college merchandise and textbooks with a few bestsellers scattered around. In order to
accomplish this goal, they hired Skipper
Fitts away from the Harvard Coop.
Tom Putnam says of the fictional college’s operation in Small Blessings, “The
Book Store is the soul of the college and
the community, in a lot of ways. It’s
Martha Woodroof’s first novel, Small Blessings, will be released by St. Martin’s in August.
Woodroof writes for Npr.org, and her work has
appeared in the New York Times, the
Washington Post, and the San Francisco Chronicle.