By Helen B. Warren

I joined the capacity crowd at St. Anthony Park UCC on Sunday, May 19th to witness words spoken over the departure of Micawber’s from St. Anthony Park.

It was a wonderful gathering, full of music, spoken words and tender remembrances for Micawber’s owners and staff. I was delighted by Melvin Carter’s proclamation designating that day as Tom Bielenburg Day in St. Paul.

The gathering renewed my devotion to reading and writing. So, I accepted an invitation to join a book group that planned to gather the following Thursday. I left the church and headed straight to a big-box bookstore in Roseville to purchase Barbara Kingsolver’s “Unsheltered,” the assigned reading for the group.

I entered the store through the mall entrance and recognized that I was not in a bookshop. The bank of registers just inside the door was unattended. An announcement on the P.A. system warned that “The mall entrance will close in five minutes. Customers who entered the store through that entrance will not be able to exit the store to the mall.”

Hearing this, I proceeded quickly, scanning the aisles for a clerk. I ignored signs beckoning me to the play area and the Starbucks Café. I passed two or three stations where clerks might have been found but they were all unattended.

I spied a clerk in a section of the store devoted to used books. “We buy private libraries” a sign proclaimed. I greeted a congenial young woman and asked about “Unsheltered.” No flutter of recognition.

“Were you looking for a used copy?” the clerk asked. “Because if you are, I’ll tell you that we don’t inventory our used books. So I can’t tell you whether we have a used copy.”

“I’m reading the book for a book club that meets next week,” I said. “So I want to know whether it is to be had in the store.”

She checked the computer. “Yes, we have it. You’ll find it in the fiction section, which is filed alphabetically by author. It’s in the middle of the store.” Then her eyes and attention went back to the screen in front of her.

I proceeded to the center of the store, glimpsed a bank of shelves labeled “Fiction” and strolled till I found the Ks. I found the Kingsolver book and headed to the checkout. There was still a chance I could exit the store through the mall entrance and head to the grocery store without a walk outside in the windy rain.

Three clerks were staffing the registers. Five people waited on line in front of me. Each transaction was identical: Are you a member of our store club? “If so, I can enter your membership number. If not, would you like to join? Membership offers discounts and special notices about upcoming sales events.”

When it was my turn, I approached the register. “I’m hoping to exit the store through the mall so I can get to the grocery store.” The clerk spoke into the mike that dangled from the earphone around her neck. She asked her colleague ready to the lower the gate on the mall entrance to wait for “a little woman in a black beret.”

Then she resumed standard operating procedure. “Are you a member of the B&N club? If you are, I can enter your number. If you’re not a member, would you—”

“No, I am not a member. No, I don’t want to be. I’d just like to complete my purchase, please.”

While the clerk rang up the sale, I looked past her at a display shelf behind the counter. There five copies of “Unsheltered” sat side-by-side. The clerk who directed me to the middle of the store apparently didn’t know that the book I wanted was a featured title at the checkout. If I had known that, I could have proceeded directly to the register.

I didn’t go to the big-box store expecting to encounter staff who read books. But I thought the clerks would notice which titles were featured at checkout. Just like the clerks in grocery stores know what’s on special.

After finishing my book purchase, I realized how different this shopping experience stood in stark contrast to my remembrances of Micawbers, a cozy neighborhood bookshop that was special to all.

—Helen B. Warren, St. Anthony Park

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