Adele Griffin is the author of the Young Adult novel Picture the Dead (co written by Lisa Brown), a ghostly mystery set outside Boston during the Civil War, illustrated with detailed scrapbook-type pages; I’ve included a video with a behind-the-scenes interview at the bottom of this guest post. In the meantime, travel back twenty years or so while Adele revisits a bookstore (“decorated in Charles Darwin meets Pippi Longstocking”) and a bookseller (“Cool to Kids”) who brought her from V. C. Andrews’ Flowers in the Attic to Marianne Wiggins’ John Dollar. I can picture Adele’s hair mousse and gel sandals, and hear the teenage sighs (I’m a few years older, but those fashion faux pas were around when I was in school, too). The original owners are still with Readers’ Forum, and are, presumably, still Cool to Kids. Please enjoy Adele’ Spotlight on Bookstores:
Say it was a June afternoon of 1989, when I slouched into my local bookstore, Readers’ Forum on North Wayne Avenue in Wayne, PA. Shy and sullen in my jams and jellies, eyes rimmed in burnt matchstick and my hair artfully moussed the requisite inch above my hairline. My question delivered on the breath of a patented teenaged sigh, as I slid my paperback across the counter. “You have anything in here as good as this?”
“This” being my dog-eared copy of Flowers in the Attic by V.C. Andrews. And frankly, it was hard to imagine a more spellbinding novel existed. I’d readFlowers several times last summer, and with each journey I suffered fresh the indignities of the sickly, stunted, plucky Dollanganger children whose methods of surviving their attic incarceration included eating mice and drinking one another’s blood.
Flowers was my hunk of cheesecake, my reward after hauling from the grim cart of my summer syllabus—Orwell, Hemingway, Woolf—and my re-reads had looped well into the dozens. And while Flowers hadn’t lost its thrill this year, perhaps it was narrator Cathy Dollanganger who put it best, “I’d reached maturity. The wisdom of the attic was in my bones, etched on my brain, part of my flesh.”
But how to replace it? Maybe here, in my local bookstore that looked like it had been decorated in Charles Darwin meets Pippi Longstocking, with its wild teeter-towering stacks, its nooks and secret corners, and its friendly traffic of Wayne folk rummaging the piles and shelves. Also, co-owners Al Willis and Ed Luoma were officially Cool to Kids. Whenever I’d visit, usually to buy a book for Mom’s birthdays, they never offered from the musty wares of Appropriate and Safe. Al’s last suggestion, a book called Love Medicine by a young up-and-comer named Louise Erdrich, had gone over quite well.
Now Al studied my paperback, its die-cut window and gothic spires. “Give me a sec,” he said. As usual, the store was brisk with adults who presumably had more to offer than a wad of babysitting singles tucked inside a hot-pink, Velcro-sealed wallet. Al, nevertheless, took longer than a sec. He strolled the aisles careful as a zookeeper peering in on his sheltered wild. And while the book he came back with changed my life, at the time I wasn’t too happy about it. John Dollar? Uh-oh. If I’d wanted something boring, I’d have checked back with my syllabus. And so with a parting sigh (teen sighs come in pairs), I paid up, and left to go next-door and drift around the Benetton.
It might not have been that week, or even that month, when I put away Flowers. What I will never forget is the fervor that was lit in me when I began to read Marianne Wiggins’ riveting testimonial of youth and treachery, narrated in such pitch-perfect command of that particular dystopia that long after I’d finished, it continued to shock and haunt me, and eventually set forward a nascent curiosity of what might be waiting for me in the dark depths of my own imagination. Could I ever conceive and unleash a story as powerful as John Dollar? It is my life’s work to find out.
Recently I spoke with Ed, who is also a novelist, and we waxed horror-nostalgic on John Dollar and its profound and unusual resonance. “It’s a quirky pick, but then, that’s what Reader’s Forum does,” he told me. “We buy, unpack, shelve, and read these books. We know them, we know their value, and we can shepherd a book to its best reader.”
Seems pretty straightforward. But like Al’s deceptive “give me a sec,” Ed’s philosophy comes steeped in his vast knowledge of the inventory, as well as a practiced hand in measuring book to reader time and again. John Dollar was exchanged that day for my crumpled cash and Al’s parting, “So when you come back, Adele, you can tell me what you thought.” A suggestion I took with a shrug and the aplomb of youthful hubris. It’s only now, in grateful and considerable retrospect, that I see the capable touch of my Indy, deftly guiding me toward literary challenges that might not have been so evidenced in Andrews’ actual sequel, Petals on the Wind. All sullen teens should be so lucky.
(Note from Dawn: isn’t that great?! Who wouldn’t love to frequent a bookstore, where “give me a sec” led to another inspiring read?! Here’s that video I promised, about the background and inspiration for Picture the Dead; I’m especially curious now that I’ve learned it all happened close to where I live!)
Causes Adele Griffin Supports
Brooklyn Historical Society
Harlem Village Academies
Boys Latin School of Philadelphia