Patry Francis: The bookstore that made me a writer

Patry Francis is the author of All the Children Are Home (Harper Perennial, 2021), The Orphans of Race Point (Harper Perennial, 2014) and The Liar’s Diary (Dutton, 2007), as well as the blog 100 Days of Discipline for Writers. Her short stories and poetry have appeared in the Tampa Review, Antioch Review, Colorado Review, Ontario Review, and American Poetry Review, among other publications. She is a three-time nominee for the Pushcart Prize and has twice been the recipient of the Massachusetts Cultural Council Grant. All the Children Are Home braids together the stories of Dahlia Moscatelli, a woman trapped in her home by a traumatic secret for nearly twenty years and the four foster children in whom she has invested all her hopes and dreams. The novels follows the family through nearly a decade of heartbreak and triumph as they find–and share–the courage and resilience to overcome the past.

Usually, when I give an author talk, I start by describing the bookstore I used to visit every Saturday from the time I was about fourteen. Initially, it seemed like a somewhat arbitrary way to begin, but one of the great truths that writing reveals is that every time we open a notebook or a new document, the subconscious reveals obsessions and truths we never knew we possessed, and they are rarely arbitrary. Every revision, or in this case retelling, makes that more clear.

But back to that bookstore. In a city of a hundred thousand, it was the only one we had and it sold used books. My father said it was a front for a local bookie, which may have explained the disarray I encountered when I walked down the cement steps to the basement level where it was housed, and the air of preoccupation exuded by the proprietor. He chain smoked while he talked on the phone, allowing what was often his sole customer the run of the place. The disorganized stacks of paperbacks that cluttered the aisles and lined the musty bookshelves might have turned others away, but I entered the store in the spirit of an excavator, and never left without a great find.

When I first found myself talking about a place I hadn’t consciously remembered in decades, I focused on its seedy location and how I’d once been frightened by a man drinking from a paper bag under a bridge along the route. “What are you looking for down here, little girl?” he asked as he lunged toward me. I can still remember the fear I felt as I ran away. However, his question has also remained.

Did I know myself what drove me to walk under that bridge every Saturday, with a couple of dollars in my pocket? That bookstore, I told my audiences, was what had made me a writer.

However, as I continued to repeat the story in the various libraries and bookstores that were kind enough to have me, I saw something more clearly than the face of the man who had frightened me under the bridge. I saw the tattered covers of several books I’d discovered there, the price marked in the corner in heavy black ink:

Franny and Zooey with its no-frills white cover: 35 cents. That led me to the library where I discovered the rest of Salinger’s work.

A musty, water-stained copy of Les Miserables: 10 cents. It is still among my favorite novels.

Sylvia Plath’s Ariel was unmarked, and when I asked the price, the owner flipped through the pages. “Hell, it’s poetry,” he said, pushing it at me. “If you want to read that crap, you can have it.” I still do.

I spent a dollar on an almost new copy of The Art of Loving by Erich Fromm. Though I don’t remember much of it now, there are a dozen mentions in my adolescent journals about how it changed my life.

I wasn’t sure what Man’s Search for Meaning was about, but I knew I needed it. The slim mass market paperback was in less than pristine condition, so I haggled with the owner over the price.  Though he was usually willing to negotiate, this time he set his cigarette down in the ashtray and leaned over the counter. “Priced as marked,” he bellowed. “If you don’t want it, put it back on the shelf–right where you found it, too.” As if the store had a some secret order, after all.

The pages of that book are yellow now and marked with underlinings in various inks that mark different stages in my life, but I still have that one, too. Even the price on the cover remains: 75 cents.

I had probably told the story of my first bookstore a dozen times before I realized why it had returned to me now, and what it had to do with my novel. Clearly, I had been drawn to certain themes and questions all my life. The adolescent angst Salinger depicts so well, the rage against abandonment in Plath, the belief that our essential goodness can triumph even in the worst situations which I found both in Hugo and Frankel, all show up in The Orphans of Race Point.

I rarely write autobiographical fiction, but there is a reason we are drawn repeatedly to the same thematic landscapes, whether they’re drawn directly from experience or not. Like much of the creative process, it often remains one of the mysteries of the unconscious–at least for me. But every time I relive the walk to my first bookstore, and walk down the stairs to the subterranean room where a literary excavator unearthed so much of herself, I get a little closer.

Originally posted on July 23, 2014


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