Amazon has hired a half-million new workers during the pandemic to bring its work force to 1.2 million, so I read in the New York Times, the newspaper that has elected Joe Biden president despite his losing Michigan, Georgia, Wisconsin, Arizona and Nevada, but on the odd chance they may be right, I am now going to walk a few blocks to Gold Leaf Stationers to buy my pens and paper rather than go online.
It’s a romantic notion, I know. Gold Leaf is a small store run by an Ethiopian immigrant, Fasil Yilma, and so there is a story behind it, whereas Jeff Bezos’s story is sort of beyond me. What do you do with your weekend when you’re worth $189 billion? Fasil works at his shop; that’s what he does. He carries the writing materials I need and he also will print stationery with my name across the top. In the age of texting and email, it’s a sweet gesture to write cursive with a pen on an 8-by-5 sheet with your name at the top. A graceful touch of the past, just as small shops are.
I put myself through college, working in a scullery and a parking lot, and I got a radio job working the morning shift and I wrote fiction in the evenings, and out of that I made a career that gave me a lot of fun.
Most of us started out small. I did. I put myself through college, working in a scullery and a parking lot, and I got a radio job working the morning shift and I wrote fiction in the evenings, and out of that I made a career that gave me a lot of fun. I wasn’t the son of a retail tycoon, wasn’t burdened by privilege and resented by classmates, didn’t need a security man to follow me around school. So I have something in common with Fasil that goes as deep as race or religion, or so I believe. He and I are kin; Jeff and I are not.
Gold Leaf is on Amsterdam Avenue on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, which is sentimental about small shops. When I first met my wife, she told me about buying underwear at the Town Shop where the old lady clerks sized you by simply putting both hands on your breasts and saying, “Thirty-four C” and her loyalty to the idiosyncratic told me something about her. We still go to the giant Apple store on 67th because they employ geniuses who know the answer to every question. I still buy books from Amazon if I need them pronto. But there is no place like Zabar’s grocery, the old men slicing the lox, the coffee department, the hundreds of cheeses, the narrow aisles, the queuing protocols.
There’s a storefront on 69th that was “The Shop Around the Corner” in the movie “You’ve Got Mail,” where Meg Ryan ran a bookstore and fell in love with Tom Hanks, who was an exec at a big book chain that is about to put her out of business. The story is somewhat far-fetched. Falling in love with Meg Ryan is easy to understand, but the exec of a big chain? I don’t know about that.
Anyway, that’s the Upper West Side, it’s romantic. I fell in love in 1992 eating lunch at a fish restaurant on 90th. I go by there often and remember the young woman telling about her recent trip to Burma and the monkeys who pick the pockets of tourists climbing the mountain to the temple. And I’m romantic about Gold Leaf and the little guy struggling to make it in the world.
I’m hoping to find a romantic story like that in the years to come. I’ve read in the Times about Don’s financial and legal troubles but I’m tired of reading about him after all these years and then one day I’ll walk down Amsterdam and pass a kiosk on the corner of 72nd and look in the little opening and see a familiar bleached ducktail and a scowling face and my heart will go out to him. The former Leader of the Free World is now selling newspapers, candy bars, cans of soda and postcards.
I don’t like despising a person, it is unchristian and it makes me feel small and mean to harbor ill will, and in that moment I will be liberated from my animosity. I will buy the Times and a bag of peanuts and a few postcards of the Woolworth Building and the Central Park Zoo.
I’ll give him a ten and I’ll say, “Keep the change.” And he’ll say, “Thanks. I appreciate that.” Nobody ever heard him say it before but there it is.
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