I toiled in a Cambridge, Massachusetts bookstore in the late 1990s, making an embarrassingly low salary and working for an eccentric boss with one of those dramatic Southern Gothic names, in this case Jefferson Beauregard Jackson.
I’ll call him Jeff. He was 45 years old, thin, with gray flowing hair worthy of Prince Valiant. Jeff spoke with the slow Southern drawl of his native Savannah, Georgia. Working with him each day at the bookstore was like being managed by some doomed 19th-century Romantic poet, as if Percy Bysshe Shelley had lived into middle age and taken a supervisory position.
Jeff was an easy boss to work for, mostly because he was mildly hung-over much of the time and would let you do pretty much whatever you wanted. If you didn’t feel like shelving books or dealing with a particularly-annoying customer, Jeff would let you hang out in the backroom listening to soft rock on the radio and opening newly-arrived boxes of hardcover books.
After work is when I really got to appreciate Jeff’s eccentricity. Once we’d locked the doors at 10 pm and said goodbye to the last lonely customer, the night staff would head to a local watering hole, a subterranean cavern called Grendel’s Den with dim lighting and cheap cocktails. Jeff would lead the way, like some Pied Piper needing to get his drink on. After a few shots of bourbon, Jeff would typically break into a series of bizarre aphorisms, like “Whenever you do your banking, be sure to dress like a pimp.”
Jeff was a gentle drunk, prone to morose outbursts of modernist poetry. During lulls, as we sat together at Grendel’s gossiping, he’d quote from his favorite poem, T.S. Eliot’s “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock.” Glass upheld, he’d drawl, “Let us go then, you and I/ When the evening is spread out against the sky/ Like a patient etherised upon a table/ Let us go, through certain half-deserted streets.” Listening to him then, you felt that Jeff had lived through many such etherized nights.
Jeff would smile wearily and drain his last drink and we’d finish ours, and we’d all stumble down the street to catch the last bus home. The page turned, the bookstore’s doors locked, all ready to be re-opened tomorrow.
Despite being a woefully underpaid bookseller, I was happy to work in a place that would make room for an eccentric like Jeff. I had always felt like an outsider myself, a misfit in love with words and stories, vaguely doomed to some mildly-noble failure. This is how all bookstore people felt, I suppose. Jeff appealed to the barely-submerged doomed poet in all of us.
One sensed in Jeff a freewheeling energy that could be both inspiring and potentially self- destructive. Newly-hired booksellers invariably thought Jeff needed professional attention. More than once, I was taken aside and asked whispered questions like, “What’s the matter with Jeff? There’s alcohol on his breath. Does he have a drinking problem?” I always told them to give him some time. And after a few weeks these same employees would be joining Jeff and the rest of us for drinks and laughing at his stories about his crazy bohemian days in Savannah.
Jeff did his job quite well, even charismatically. He possessed refined Southern manners that reminded me of Rhett Butler in “Gone With the Wind.” To customers, Jeff spoke like an Elizabethan courtier – think Sir Walter Raleigh with a mild whiskey hangover. “How may I endeavor to assist you this fine day, ma’m?” he would say, bowing his head and almost curtseying. He’d listen to customer complaints with his hands clasped in front of him and with rapt attention, as if pleasing that particular customer was the only thing that mattered. After a few minutes with Jeff, even the most annoying customer would be apologizing for causing inconvenience.
Some of the customers could be quite challenging. They’d walk up to the service desk and say, “I’m looking for a book. I don’t remember its title, but it was a novel with a red cover that was reviewed in the newspaper a few weeks back. I think it was about a woman who’d done something she later regretted. The author was from either Cedar Rapids or St. Paul, some place in the Midwest.” So I’d suggest a few titles off the top of my head, just to show I was willing to help, and then start checking the computer. It was all acting.
Then I’d call Jeff over. He’d bow his most gracious courtier’s bow and say “how do you do, ma’m?” and then he’d listen intently for a minute to the same incoherent spiel I’d just heard, but now the mystery author had apparently moved to St. Louis or Hoboken. “A red cover, huh? Well, that surely does sound familiar. Yes ma’am, we get lots of red covers these days. And the woman did something she later regretted? Well, I can certainly identify with that.” Somehow, after a few minutes with Jeff, the customer left the store happy, listened to. Jeff was a master at leading the lost and confused buyers who walked into the store. Probably because he was one of the lost and confused himself.
When the bookstore got quiet after 8 p.m., Jeff would distract us by describing his madcap days in Savannah and all the strange characters he’d befriended there. Whether these tales were true or not, none of us could tell, but it hardly mattered. Jeff would tell us about a retired British stage actress named Miranda who owned ten cats. She’d named each one after a character from Shakespeare. Jeff would rub his hands together and tell us how “that Iago surely would cause a lot of trouble scratching up the wicker chairs, but that Lady Macbeth was the worst. She’d jump up on the coffee table and knock over our martinis.”
His time in Savannah sounded like one long bender. Jeff claimed to have even worked in a liquor store, but said he’d left after a few months, never explaining why. I could well imagine him enjoying the stock a bit too much, thus running afoul of management.
Among the bookstore’s staff, trying to identify Jeff’s personal demons was a kind of parlor game. Speculation was rampant. Maybe Jeff suffered from loneliness, some tragic inability to connect with others. Perhaps it was some unspoken alienation, like maybe he’d shot his father and fled. Like the rest of us, Jeff was overeducated and making $9 per hour. The least one could do was respect his silence about whatever he might be trying to bury. I visited him sometimes at his apartment. He lived alone in a single room, and the place was strewn with empty beer cans. I drank with him, but I’d always leave before he started talking about the banking habits of pimps or doing his T.S. Eliot impression in that world-weary voice of his. I didn’t want to be that etherized.
I quit the bookstore after three years, and talked my way into a marketing job with a publishing company that paid more than twice my bookstore salary. I worked in a gray cubicle on the fourteenth floor of a non-descript building in an anonymous-looking industrial park along an interstate highway. I sat beneath fluorescent lights and answered e-mails all day and typed memos about various book distribution channels. Occasionally, I drank coffee and ate lunch at the chain restaurant across the parking lot. Nobody in my new office had befriended eccentric British actresses or would quote from T.S. Eliot in dimly-lit watering holes.
My new boss, a bespectacled and balding man so gray he almost embodied gray, generally communicated with me through brief e-mails, even though his office was across the hall. I often couldn’t recall his name. The staff had two-hour meetings every Tuesday morning in which we were encouraged to “think outside the box,” “leverage our core competencies,” and “proactively seek opportunities for synergy.” I never quite understood what these directives meant, so I’d doodle in my notebook and nod from time to time and wonder what the lunch special was at the chain restaurant across the parking lot. It was always something bland.
I went back to the bookstore a few times, but things weren’t the same. Jeff had left for New York City, where he’d taken a job in a college bookstore. I visited him there a few weekends. I remember being at a Greenwich Village bar with Jeff on the Sunday afternoon when JFK Jr.’s plane crashed off the coast of Cape Cod. For hours, the bartender and other patrons blathered on about youthful possibilities dashed, the tragedy of unfulfilled ambitions. He had a pretty wife, great hair, and a sparkling career ahead of him. Jeff and I mostly listened. Later, we walked around the Village, reminiscing about our bookstore days. Jeff was as funny and vaguely melancholy as ever. I haven’t seen him since that sad afternoon. And I’ve never had another boss remotely like him since.