Different Slants

Seeing the World from a New Angle

The Black Cashier, The Jewish Bookstore Owner and the Crazed Customer…by Robert M. Katzman

August 16, 2020 © by Robert M. Katzman

(Originally written 11/18, this revised story has new meaning to me with the possible election of a President with Irish ancestry and his VP with immigrant parents from East India, Jamaica and with a Jewish husband, to boot. Only in America could this happen, yet still, the hate persists. This true story relates how I handled hate when it came to visit me, 30 years ago. May healing and understanding occur in America if they are elected.)

In 1988, I originally managed and later 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, was also and still is, known as Boy’s Town. The store’s name was Grand Tour World Travel Bookstore, 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 the small store’s almost complete 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, avant-garde and even in a economically transitional community area with disposable income, I might draw interest from the press, which would be free. The challenge began.

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, Scottish and Irish Gaelic and so on. Aim high.

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. I even manufactured T-shirts in 70 varieties that all said: Kiss me, I’m Hungarian and so on, with matching mugs and buttons. The essence of being an entrepreneur is taking something old and forgotten and making it new again.

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 Pittman, whom I met when she was 19 and I was 38, who had a wonderful personality, radiated warmth 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 and where countries were. 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 with the arrival of the big chain bookstores. I respected her. She was quietly very impressive.

For the purposes of this story only, she happened to be Black. Otherwise, race meant nothing to me in my relationships, or gender or whatever else makes some people crazy. To me, friendship is based on a person’s character, not what shade they are, whom they sleep with or whom they pray to. They are meaningless to me.

My store did begin attracting publicity from the press, and as time went on, a larger range of people and not all from just the local area, either. My 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 1990 I was 40, and Janet was 21. She was always the cashier, and I helped the customers, built the bookracks and maintained the inventory. Janet rarely spoke, but she had a lovely smile. I felt a friendship between us.

I began noticing that Joe would walk up the few stairs to the 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 the third incident like that, and the book stack was over a foot high, when I’d decided I’d had enough of this jerk. I contemplated confronting him, because there was always a risk in doing that with a stranger, 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, deliberately 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.  In my earlier more violent life, I learned that in a confrontation it was always wise leave the other guy a gentle way out.  

But silent Janice 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!

Totally 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 $12 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. We needed sales like those.

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

He loudly 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 that 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 words to me 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.

Waiting.

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. Still, it was a handshake with real commitment. Something a person originally from the South Side of Chicago would recognize.

He went over to the area he always went to, stacked up 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 four years that the 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 around the world, and a densely packed bookstore like mine was a solid gold source of indispensible information to him.

We never mentioned the explosive moment.

Janet?

She remained with me until the last day, November 17, 1994, until I turned out the lights for the last time, so I wouldn’t have to leave that store I loved so much, totally alone. We hugged each other and wished each other luck.

We’d never discussed that one 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.

Janet, wherever you may be a quarter century later, I rewrote this story because of people like you, who make people like me feel less alone when a situation turns south.

Once 38 and 19, today we are 70 and 51. So fast, too.

Thank you, Dear Lady.

****************************************************

Publishing News! 

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                                                                                                                    (262) 752-3333, 8AM–7PM

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 should 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.

5 Comments »

Comment by Jim Payne

August 16, 2020 @ 5:03 pm

You have unexpected experiences, never mundane. You background them well, have intense drama, and write an engaging story about them. Thank you.

Comment by Mary Beth Williams

August 16, 2020 @ 6:22 pm

Powerful story which I will think about…..when to take a stand and when to extend a hand.
I remember the bookstore but until reading this now, had no idea that Europa and Grand Tour World Travel Bookstore was yours. I appreciate your writing and vivid life stories.

Comment by Brad Dechter

August 17, 2020 @ 5:45 am

Great message. I could actually see you and this story unfold in my mind as you told it. Great story telling! Thanks for sharing!
Brad

Comment by Elaine M. Campion

August 17, 2020 @ 9:08 am

Such an excellent story of how a situation can be turned around from anger to understanding. Of how this store owner handled a situation with a customer with a stern approach yet tempered that with the understanding of a young female worker who obviously was scared and afraid of a confrontation between the store owner and the customer. The situation was turned around because the store owner was concerned for the young woman and what ensued was understanding between the customer and store owner who became not only life long customer/owner relationships, but a friendship that grew with time. It is great uplifting story.

Comment by Kumari

August 17, 2020 @ 12:42 pm

That’s a good story and you told it well! I had no idea how it was going to end – – and the ending made me happy. I used to work in a small independent second hand bookstore in the 80s, I had a manager who was like you: very fair, who didn’t care what race, gender, age etc we were – just cared if we were honest, kind and we had so much fun working that bookstore!

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