Posted By DMB

I’d be willing to bet that you don’t know a lot of used booksellers whose cleaning ladies have the Order of Canada. Well, mine does. She was just up in Ottawa where our delightful new Governor General pinned it on her. Her name is Linda McKnight (my cleaning lady, that is, not the Governor General) and before she became the cleaning lady at David Mason Books she was a literary agent for about 30 years and before that an editor, editor-in-chief, and then the President of McClelland & Stewart. The closest analogy I can come up with was an American colleague who often boasted that his book packer was the only shipper anywhere in the booktrade who owned a copy of the first edition of Darwin’s Origin of Species (today a $150,000 book but then only worth around $35,000 or so).

Linda phoned me one day and told she was retiring and coming to volunteer with me. She didn’t tell me then that she intended to be the cleaning lady, that came later. After she’d been here a bit and had settled in with her own desk, one day I suggested that she might find it fun to try and learn to do some minor repairs on books, something we do regularly to both keep defects from getting worse and to make the books look prettier. Just generally treating them like we do to our children. “I’m not doing any of that,” said Linda. She often talks like that to me. I was thinking of asking her if there was anything else that she would like to do, when she said loudly and aggressively, “I’m the cleaning lady around here. I’m not interested in all that literary crap. I told you that.” She was also appointed head of the ephemera department which she pretty soon got entirely organized. But she got bored because she only ever had one person come in as a potential client. So she doesn’t get a lot of action. Then one day a man came in and she made her first sale, and a pretty good one too. She stopped saying we should just give it all away after that.  

But she’s always tidying and straightening the displays of ephemera, books and prints. She’s put all of that in order and started looking around for other messes to clean up. We have to go up the hall now to wash dishes. There was a small pile waiting once and when she looked at it then looked dangerously at me I tried to explain that I was the company dishwasher and I would be doing them soon. Five minutes later they were done and then she spent a while glaring at me without saying anything. After some time, she started looking around again for other problems which offended her sense of cleanliness and decency. She chose me, deciding I was the main obstacle to the sense of order which she thinks proper to a bookstore. She started asking questions about what things were and why were they where they were. She soon decided that this store was incompetently arranged, and I was the one responsible for what she considered offensive chaos. That’s when she started pushing me around. 

Linda pushes me around a lot. She seems to enjoy it and I thought of asking (very meekly) if she did that to everyone and was it because she had enjoyed pushing people around from when she was the President of McClelland & Stewart. But then I noticed that I’m the only one she pushes around in my bookstore, everybody else she gets on wonderfully with and chats with and laughs with (often at me, I’ve noticed too). So, I didn’t ask. Later, I thought I’d like to ask her if that’s why she went from being a president to an agent, because I knew that’s what agents do. They push around publishers to get all that money from the publishing house so their writer clients can get rich. But by then I was too worried what might happen, so instead I went back to my dishwashing.

Now, I’m thinking they’ll soon be raising Linda up to the next level in the Order of Canada, this time for her services in cleaning up the traditionally seedy and dusty used book stores in Canada. Certainly we now have perhaps the cleanest bookshop ever seen around here.

As a cleaning lady Linda doesn’t work all that quickly, possibly because of all the time she devotes to pushing me around. I was hoping it might diminish some when we finished our downsizing move, which was very stressful but is now largely accomplished. The stress was largely due to me having to somehow dispose of half my store. Not an easy task for a man who has spent fifty years working on the principle that buying books would save my life and provide for my old age, a sort of insurance and pension in one. Linda’s solution for all books and furniture during the move was simple “Get rid of it!” Into the garbage or off to storage became her solution for everything.

Recently I acquired a bumper sticker created by some genius which perfectly encapsulates the philosophy I’ve used during my entire so-called career. I affixed it to a wall of the store instead of my car, based on the belief that the general public driving behind me might not get the point, whereas the kinds of people who come into my store will likely understand the philosophy behind it better. It reads, “THE ONE WHO DIES WITH THE MOST BOOKS WINS”. A wonderful slogan. Since I’ve always worked on that principle this demonstrates why I had so much stress with the downsizing. But in fact that was multiplied ten-fold by my cleaning lady, Linda McKnight, CM. It appears that simply cleaning is only a small part of the Linda McKnight, CM’s cleaning philosophy. The main thrust for her is to, and I quote, “Dump it. Out with it.” She says that a lot.

Pointing at a closed bankers box she will say “What’s that?”

“It’s books. Or it’s ephemera.”

“Get rid of it. We have to get rid of this junk.”

“Linda,” I would explain (meekly), “I do want to get rid of it, that’s why I bought it. I’m a bookseller. I plan to sell it.”

“And that pile of old magazines, those boxes of old sheet music, what about them?”

“Well, they’re for sale too. That’s what we try and do here. Buy these things and sell them and make a living. You should like magazines and sheet music, it doesn’t take up as much space.”

“You haven’t sold a bloody one of them since I’ve been here, not one. Get rid of it. It’s all crap.”

“But Linda those things are valuable that’s why I bought them. We’re going to do very well with them eventually. It just takes time.”

“We need to get rid of all this stuff now. If you won’t throw it out, take it to storage.”

That became the next mantra, “Take it to storage, we need to get it out of here.”

“But Linda (even more meekly), if it’s in storage we can’t sell it.”

“They won’t buy it anyway. It’s just junk. You’re a hoarder – you need help and I’m here to provide it.” The fact that Debra Dearlove, and all the other staff wholeheartedly agreed, supporting General McKnight, CM with great enthusiasm, didn’t make it easier.

“I’ve trained myself for fifty years to recognize gold amongst the chaff and now you all want me to get rid of it.”


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