Different Slants

Seeing the World from a New Angle

Bookstore Stories (1) On Turning Away Hate…by Robert M. Katzman

Filed under: Bewilderment,Friendship & Compassion,Gritty Katzman Chicago Stories,Jewish Themes,Rage!,Retail Purgatory — Bob at 10:10 am on Wednesday, November 7, 2018

Bookstore Stories (1) On Turning Away Hate

by Robert M. Katzman © November 7, 2018

In 1991, I owned a small foreign-language world-travel bookstore on the north side of Chicago in the Lakeview area, near Clark and Belmont streets. It was the center of Chicago’s gay/lesbian community, and was also and still is known as Boy’s Town. The store’s name was Le Grand Tour, and before that, Europa.

There was only one other similar bookstore Downtown in Chicago on Michigan Avenue. It was a fine store and I liked visiting it. Far more visible than my place.

To try and overcome obscurity after first working in that store in March, 1988, I concentrated on converting it from selling, or rather after existing already for 17 years, not selling foreign novels in French, Spanish, Italian and German, into a more viable commercially interesting enterprise. If the store became fun in an area with disposable income, I might draw interest from the press, which would be free.

Gradually I added dictionaries and tape language systems in over one hundred different languages.

Not just the common major languages, but two types of French (including Creole), three types of Arabic, Navaho and six other native American languages, Yiddish, modern and ancient Greek and Hebrew, Hindi and so on.

Then I began adding bilingual dictionaries in those languages as much as possible, and then looked for a publisher of children’s picture dictionaries, too. Flags from 220 nations in assorted sizes. Ditto key chains.

As an example of the intensity I was going for, the areas on Great Britain and France were each seven feet high by seven feet across. I began carrying maps from European companies and over time, the store had thousands of them. They sold.

I hired a very quiet, very smart young woman, Janet, whom I met when she was 19 and I was 38, who had a wonderful personality and helped me make the store grow. When I asked her how familiar she was with world geography because someone might come in and ask her where books about Rumania or Zanzibar were, she’d need to know that. She softly told me that she was not familiar with all the countries locations or names, but if I would loan her a world atlas, she would do her best to learn all she could about the world. I found a good hardcover atlas and gave it to her and she smiled. A great smile.

The next day–the next day–she brought the atlas back and told me she thought she had a handle on where every place was. After some hesitation, because this was not expected and I was uncharacteristically wordless, I asked her if she minded my testing her a little. She nodded yes.

I slowly rattled off a dozen countries in Eastern Europe, Africa, South America, Asia and some island nations. Not deliberately really obscure places. Just to get some idea of how much she retained.

She got all of them correct. So, that’s how our relationship began in 1988 and lasted until the store closed in 1994. I respected her. She was quietly very impressive.

For the purposes of this story only, Janet happened to be Black. Otherwise, race meant nothing to me in my relationships, or gender or whatever else makes some people crazy.

The store did begin attracting publicity and as time went on, more people and not all from just the local area, either. This story is about one of them. I will call him Joe.

Joe began coming to visit the store every so often. He was tall, thin, wore a backpack and had sort of an ex-army look about him.  He didn’t speak or smile.  He appeared to be in his middle or late thirties. In 1991 I was 41, and Janet was 22. She was always the cashier, and I helped the customers, built bookracks and maintained the inventory. Janet rarely spoke, but she had a lovely smile.

I began noticing that Joe would walk up the few stairs to a higher level, put his backpack down, pull out a yellow legal pad and begin copying information from a small stack of books. He was standing directly across from and slightly above where Janet stood running the cash register.  She noticed him first and silently caught my eye and nodded toward him. He bought nothing, put the few books back, the legal pad back in his backpack and walked out without a word.

Then a few days later he came in again at the same time, did the same things again except the stack of books was a little higher this time, and again left without a word or a purchase.

After a few more incidents like that, and the book stack was over a foot high when I’d decided I’d had enough of this jerk and decided to confront him, because there was always a risk in doing that , but otherwise he was steadily stealing what we were selling but he wasn’t contributing to paying for the existence of the place.

I walked up to him, close to him because other people were in the store and quietly told him he had to stop. That I knew what he was doing and it was unacceptable to me.  I told him to stop copying down information, to pay for the books he wanted or leave and not come back.

Very quietly, so as not to embarrass him. But Janet heard me.

Joe’s face reddened, he grabbed his backpack, threw the pad and pen in it, turned to me and yelled in my face, only inches away,

“You Jews! All you care about is money!”

Surprised, I said nothing. Just stood there next to him so he knew I was serious. In my life, standing your ground meant something or don’t bother provoking a situation in the first place. But there was fear in me, too. There was no obvious way for Joe to decide I was a Jew. Most people assumed Greek or Italian.

I was waiting for some sort of violence.

Then he grabbed the stack of books, maybe 15 of them, which at that time would have cost him about $8 to $10 each, or more.  So maybe $150 worth of books, a sale which normally was a lot of money. Janet and I both knew we seldom had sales that large. (About $330 in 2021 dollars).

Joe pushed roughly past me, carrying the entire stack, ran down the stairs and slammed them on the counter in from of Janet, who recoiled from the sound, and him, but she said nothing.

He demanded that she ring up the books and then he pulled out a wad of cash.  Janet looked at me and didn’t move. Joe turned and glared at me, his face twisted with hate.

I quietly walked down the steps, thinking that more than one thing was happening here. That in my own earlier life and still at that time there was a lot of friction between Blacks and Jews, and it mostly centered on assumptions of Jewish greed and money. I felt there was no choice for me.

I walked over to Joe, and said,

“Mister, you can’t talk to me like that. Your money is no good here. Get the hell out of my store.”

Joe looked stunned, like I was some unrecognizable alien life form.

I waited for his reaction, again really concerned it might be violent.

But I also felt there was no other way for me to deal with a jerk like him.

Principles always carry a degree of risk.

He shoved his cash back into his pocket, knocked the stack of books over with the back of his hand and stormed out of the store, letting the door slam behind him.

The other customers were frozen. The only thing they heard was what he yelled at me, and then my refusal to sell him the books. I was determined, absolutely determined to demonstrate to Janet that he was wrong and money wasn’t my God.

Janet was wide-eyed and seemed stunned.

I was beginning to relax and un-tense my shoulders.

If Joe was crazy and took a swing at me, I have no idea how that moment might have ended.

I just stayed there, silently, and Janet stacked the books back up and walked up the steps to put them back on the shelves. I rang up a few sales, and some of the few people said comforting things as they left.

As I relived those tense moments over the next few days, I realized that Janet was the real trigger motivating me to say and do what I did that afternoon.

That I really cared about how she regarded me, our relationship.

Was I a Jew to her, or just Bob?

A few days later, Joe opened the door and walked into the store.

Janet was behind the register. I was putting books away.

I walked over to him.


Then Joe said,

“Listen, I really acted like an ass the other day. I don’t hate Jews and I never should have said what I said, and I think this is an amazing store. I’d really like to be your customer. What do you say?”

And then he offered me his hand.

It was a surprise because this is not how stories like this are supposed to actually end.

But I immediately grasped his hand, smiled at him and said,

“Friend, as far as I’m concerned, it never happened. Let’s start over.  Welcome to our store.”

Joe, smiled and it seemed to completely transform his face.

He squeezed my hand tightly enough that I was glad it wasn’t a fist.

He went over to the area he always went to, stacked up a half a dozen books and brought them to Janet, who rang them up put them in a bag, took his money and gave him his change, then said in her soft voice,

“Thank you. Please come again.”

Joe turned, smiled at me, then her, then waved at us and walked out of the store.

Over the next three years that my store existed, Joe became one of our best customers. Turned out that he was a personal guide for rich people, took them anywhere they’d want to go, and a place like mine was solid gold to him.

We never mentioned the explosive moment.


She remained with me until the last day, until I turned out the lights for the last time, so I wouldn’t have to leave that store I loved so much, alone. We hugged each other and wished each other luck.

We never discussed the moment either.

The moment her being there made it unforgettable to me, almost three decades later.

Janet went back to school and eventually became an administrator in a large hospital.

I’m imagining she aced all her exams, too.

Brief Epilogogue:

Last year, two years after writing this story and thirty-six after last seeing Janet, I found her on the internet. An amazing way of reconnecting with people. We talked on the phone for a long time, and I asked her permission to use her name in my story, which was fine with her. her life has been successful and she still works in a hospital. I am now 70 and she is 51, not such a big difference anymore.


Publishing News! 

(Currently seeking representation as a speaker/poet for hire)

Bob Katzman’s two new true Chicago books are now for sale, from him!
Vol. One: A Savage Heart and Vol. Two: Fighting Words

Gritty, violent, friendship, classic American entrepreneurship love, death, heartbreak and the real dirt about surviving in a completely corrupt major city under the Chicago Machine. More history and about one man’s life than a person may imagine.

Please visit my new website: http://www.dontgoquietlypress.com
If a person doesn’t want to use PayPaI, I also have a PO Box & I ship anywhere in America.

Send me a money order with your return and contact info.
I will get your books to you within ten days.
Here’s complete information on how to buy my books:

Vol 1: A Savage Heart and Vol. 2: Fighting Words
My books weigh almost 2 pounds each, with about 525 pages each and there are a total together of 79 stories and story/poems.

Robert M. Katzman
Don’t Go Quietly Press
PO Box 44287
Racine, Wis. 53404-9998

email: robertmkatzman@gmail.com

Books cost $29.95 each, plus shipping

For: (1)$3.95; (2)$5.95; (3)$7.95; (4)$8.95 (5)$9.95;(6) $10.95

(7) $11.95; (8) $12.95; (9)$13.95 (10)$15.95 (15)$19.95

I am also for hire if anyone wants me to read my work and answer questions in the Chicago/Milwaukee area. Schools can call me for quantity discounts for 30 or more books. Also: businesses, bookstores, private organizations or churches and so on.

My Fighting Words Publishing Co. four original books, published between 2004 and 2007 are now out-of-print. I still have some left and will periodically offer them for sale on my new website.


Comment by Brad Dechter

November 7, 2018 @ 10:43 am

Good one Bob!

Comment by Jim Payne

November 7, 2018 @ 12:35 pm

You are an amazing story teller. I’m sure the incident is real, but the way you present it to us is more than real, it’s personal. From the drama of a fist to the poignancy of a last hug with Janet, you kept me feeling in the story. The event was so simple as you told it. I liked that there were so few fact associations, just the people in a strange store witnessing a strange customer. I know it is your story because you took a tough stand and still brought in something gentle. You are an amazing story teller.

Comment by Sue Ellen Burckhart

November 7, 2018 @ 2:32 pm

What an amazing story. I so enjoy your posts.

Comment by David Griesemer

November 9, 2018 @ 9:09 am

“…this is not how stories like this are supposed to actually end.” No kidding. This was something of a miracle. If things like this can happen, maybe there’s hope.
Bob often feels afraid for other people. Rarely for himself. Confrontation can escalate. Corporate lawyers would counsel Bob to withdraw. Principles carry risk.
As for the presence of Janet being a factor, ask yourself, how might things have gone differently had she not been there? Joe’s rant, Bob’s stand, the apology – how much of it was theatre for her? Was she the conscience in an otherwise visceral situation? Where are the Janets of today?

Comment by Brad Bliss

November 9, 2018 @ 4:00 pm

The history of people gives them so many facets. The question, “What makes this one tick?” has a dizzying array of possibilities. I’m glad it ended well. I wonder what the books were about that he had an interest in.

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