I worked in one of the last bookstores in town. Print wasn’t dead, but it was on life support. The neighboring restaurants drew in most of our business. The bulk of our sales were made while customers were waiting to be seated elsewhere.
Parents paged through new releases as their children collected all the trinkets we’d placed at eye level. Millennials turned all the political biographies around, teens stole glimpses at artful nudes, and couples bickered about Playboy’s newfound presence at the checkout counter.
The bad element snuck in with the dinner rush. They couldn’t look me in the eye on their way in, but they looked out for me the further they went. I’d catch them craning their necks over the shelves and ducking back down once I’d made them.
I’d walk by and they’d say, “Browsing.” before I got one word in.
It’s store policy not to accuse anyone of wrongdoing, but there was no such thing as too much costumer service when one of them was around. I made sure these people had a chance to meet everyone that was on staff at the time.
Troublemakers weren’t hard to spot hunched over in their cardigans with their hands in their pajama bottoms. They came from all walks of life, but they’d devolved into gaunt, pale faced ghouls, with cherry red eyes, and plum purple eyelids. Each one stinking of nicotine, body odor, and box wine.
I’d go back to the section they’d been “browsing” in, scan the shelves, and try to find what they’d done. There were always subtle signs. I’d find a stack of front facing hardcovers repositioned with their spines out, a title set atop the row, or a handful of books on the floor.
Troublemakers had to make room for their additions to our inventory. You see they weren’t shoplifting. They were shop dropping.
Enter the Shop Droppers
Working at the bookstore, I’ve dealt with my share of unruly authors, desperate suckers whose small publishers swore their client’s work would appear on our shelves. I told these writers I’d be happy to put their novels in the local section. I even invited them in for signings. My one requirement was that all the books we ordered could be returnable if they didn’t sell. The authors swore this was the case, I’d find out it wasn’t, and they’d throw epic tantrums.
These writers, sneaking their books onto our shelves, were a whole new kind of desperate.
Here I was thinking the online marketplace was where authors went to self publish. Did these writers really think they could build a brand at the brick and mortar level? Had so many readers opted out of their mailing lists that they had to resort to spamming them in public? Had they blown their budgets on printing and had no choice but to resort to guerrilla marketing?
I’d been in the book business long enough to spot dips in sales trends. The YA bubble was bursting. The adaptations were declining at the box office. Death sport dystopias, vampire valentines, and fairytale facelifts weren’t doing it for the general public. The fiction market was in a slump, but I had no idea things had gotten this bad.
Did these self distributors think readers would see their books on the shelf and assume a line of agents, editors, and publishers had vetted it, that all they needed was a flashy cover, a solid summary, and anyone who glanced at it would become an evangelist for their genius, that the taste makers would hold it up and the book clubs would all line up?
Even if these shop droppers printed barcodes on their books they were never in our system. If a copy made it up to the counter we had to confiscate it. The only way a customer could leave with a one would be if they’d shoplifted.
When a hardcover book wasn’t selling we sent it back to the bargain bin. When a paperback wasn’t selling we sent it to back to publisher. When we found a book that didn’t belong we ripped off the cover and sent it the recycling plant.
These writers had devoted their lives to honing their craft. They’d sifted through their experiences to add authenticity to their fantasies. They’d mined quote books so they could immortalize friends and family. They’d share their hardest learned life lessons with readers, and here I was tearing off their covers and burying the books at the bottom of a bin.
The sad thing was that the shop droppers’ book covers looked like they’d fit amongst our bestsellers, with their spiral clocks, infinite staircases, and MC Esher architecture. They even had intriguing titles like The Golden Spiral, The Self Devouring Snake, and The Book of Mirrors.
Still, I couldn’t bring myself to look inside these books for fear I’d like what I’d found and feel terrible about what I was doing, shredding schemes, and pulping dreams.
Caught Green Handed
It was on one of our slower evenings when I caught her. A thunderstorm had thinned out the dinner rush and I spotted her in the entryway. She had all the telltale signs, with her hood down low, concealing her features in a veil of shadows. Her sweatshirt was soaked through, revealing rail thin arms and a book-shaped outline in her font pocket.
I stepped into her path. “What can I help you find tonight?”
She froze at the entrance of this open-ended question. Her gaze was aimed past the bestsellers and the staff recommendations. Her eyes were red and her lips were white. Her hair lay flat with grease. Her cheeks had sunken in and her nostrils were coated with dried flecks of blood. She looked like she hadn’t showered, eaten, or slept in weeks.
She sidestepped my advance. I stepped back into her path.
“Oh, and just so you know everything on this table is buy two get the third free.”
She nodded. “Thank you.” She sounded like she was just catching her breath after trekking across a desert.
I let her pass so I could follow behind her peripheral vision. She led me to the science fiction and fantasy section. I watched her reach into her pocket and withdraw a novel. It was soaked through. When she started wringing it out on the carpet I decided to announce my presence.
“You mind if ask what you’re doing?”
She curled the book, wedged it in her armpit, and stepped forward to hide the puddle. “I’m just browsing.”
I nodded to the book. “Really, then how did that get so wet?”
She looked to the ceiling for signs of a leak. I pointed to her sightline and brought it back down to mine.
“You see a lot strange people have been coming in, making a mess of things, and leaving stuff behind. You’ve got to tell me why you all think it’s such a good idea to leave your unpublished works on our shelves?”
The shop dropper kept her eyes on the floor. “Have you ever bothered to read any of these books you’ve been finding?”
I shook my head. “I have so many books in my cue I don’t have time for donations.”
She shook her head, scoffing. “Read mine and you’ll understand.”
The shop dropper tossed her book at my feet and ran. There wasn’t a whole lot I could do. I mean, what would I’ve told the police: a shifty looking woman came into my store and dropped a book that wasn’t in our inventory?
I examined the wet paperback. The front cover had a line of Russian dolls going off into the distance. It was called The Endless Dollway.
The Fictional Feedback Loop
Oh I read the The Endless Dollway alright, from cover to bewildering cover and now its summary is a part of my life story.
The Endless Dollway was about a woman named Amber, a binge reader, the kind woman who reads paperbacks so fast she can use them to make forts for her cats. Amber, as it turned out, was the shop dropper who’d flung her autobiography at me.
Amber’s story started at my bookstore where she was looking to discover the next breakout author. She scanned the paperbacks, looking for someone with one title to their name, someone whose intellectual property had yet to be mined by the Hollywood system, someone who wrote an undiscovered gem she could pitch to all her friends.
Amber found herself drawn to a book with an onion peal spiraling to the center of the cover. It was called The Ever Pealing Onion.
The book had no recommendations, the author had no bibliography, and the blurb on the back seemed more like a dare than a summary.
It went: Read this at your own peril for writing is a form of telepathy and your mind is your sole instrument for perceiving reality.
Amber took the book to the check out counter, the clerk found it wouldn’t scan, and that it wasn’t in the system. Since he couldn’t charge her for it he told her she could just have it. It would be their little secret.
Amber rushed home, put on some sweatpants, some tea, and started reading. The story within Amber’s story was about a girl named Wendy, a binge reader, looking to read something original only to luck upon a book by an unknown author with an intriguing cover.
The design of Wendy’s book featured a brunette, like herself, holding a book with a picture of a brunette holding a book. It was a series of pictures within pictures that went on forever. Wendy’s book was called The Droste Effect.
I though it was a cute mind trip, reading about someone like myself reading about someone like themselves, a clever bit of meta fiction that I assumed would ultimately be disappointing. That was until I realized the story was also about me.
Amber read The Ever Pealing Onion until its hero, Wendy, decided to take a break from reading and go out onto the porch for a cigarette. Wendy opened the front door to find there was nothing there, no sky, no horizon, just a seamless great white dome.
Amber set down The Ever Pealing Onion, made another cup of tea, glanced out the window and watched a couple out on the boulevard bagging their puppy’s poop. She wondered if the dog was a Shih Tzu a Bichon or some combination of the two. Either way it was adorably cute.
Amber dipped the teabag, put a pair of slippers on, and opened the front door to find the couple had gone, as had the rest of the world. Amber saw the same white void Wendy had seen in her reading.
I tossed The Endless Dollway across my couch. Never mind putting a bookmark in it. There was no way the book was going to make me look, no way I was going to get suckered into that gimmick. I switched on the TV and turned my attention to Netflix.
The next morning I started my work routine, lathered my cowlick in hair product, burnt my toast, and opened the front door to find the world was gone just as both Amber and Wendy had. Everything was as white as a polar bear in a snow storm.
I thought to walk out into the void, but upon my first step I found there was no ground to stand on. I caught my entryway on the way down and clawed my way back ins. My WELCOME mat fell out the door behind me. I watched it glide down, reaching the limits of my vision before it ever reached the bottom.
I rushed back to The Endless Dollway to read about Amber rushing back to The Ever Pealing Onion to read about Wendy rushing back to The Droste Effect. In each story the hero found their world had yet to be written and that the only way they could leave their home was to write a never ending narrative of their own.
Each story was an elaborate chain letter, forcing the readers to become writers, so that their readers would become writers too.
Amber had heard of authors “sprinting” writing entire novels over the course of a month. It sounded like grueling work, but now she had to do it in less time. She and her cats had to cut their rations in half. She tried to call for help, she tried to reach out to others online, but those services only seemed to work when they were in service of the curse.
When Amber’s manuscript was finished, the curse allowed her reach out to an independent publisher, collaborate on a cover design, and order a sole copy. Amber slept by the front door and spent those last days watching the mail slot.
When the book came Amber bit into the package, crawled to her front door, and reached for the knob. Rain drops cascaded down the front steps and pooled in the street. There was thunder on the horizon.
The world had returned, but Amber knew wouldn’t last for long, not unless she shared her story with someone. That’s when she drove to the bookstore and threw her book at me.
This Loop Closes
The Endless Dollway’s curse cut me off from the world. The Internet magically reduced itself to dictionaries, thesauruses, and grammar and style guides, just the sites that would service another entry in this ceaseless series.
The curse wouldn’t even let me order food. I had to ration moldy bread, canned beans, and spaghetti sans the sauce. I watered down coffee grounds, nibbled on houseplants, and chewed candles like they were gum.
I was never certain if my home had disappeared from the world or if time had frozen. After that first night, the TV stopped getting reception, the clocks lost their hands, and call stopped coming in.
I had to write the world around me from memory, predict my future, give my life a story. I had a strong hunch the curse wouldn’t just accept a wish list of positive life events. I had to give myself hardships: from the shuttering of my bookstore to my own death by cancer. I had to make it hurt too. The curse wouldn’t accept anything but finest work.
I slept in two hour intervals. Time might have stopped but my appetite would not. I looked like a mummy in the mirror, standing before a sink full of my own hair. At one point I boiled my shoes, belts, and jackets and ate the leather.
I didn’t have a moment to question who was behind the curse or how my typing was serving their arcane agenda. If The Endless Dollway had taught me anything it was that I had to look out for my protagonist first and my readers second.
When I finished I used the same independent self publishing service Amber had discovered. For all I knew the eBook market made these people so desperate that they started this curse to stay in business.
All that mattered was that what I’d written was good enough to keep the cycle going. There would always be subtle variations in the stories within these stories, like funhouse mirrors, the reflections were ever changing.
This reflection is mine. Yours will be a little different.
Now might be a good time to look outside and see if the world is still there.
My audiobook Terms and Conditions is now free on Bandcamp. You can listen to it right here!