Last Friday night, something reminded me of my friend Betty, and I resolved to call her and invite her to tea as soon as I got a chance.
On Saturday afternoon, my former coworkers at the West Village bookstore called to tell me that Betty had died in her sleep in early November. She was 92.
Betty had been a loyal customer of the bookstore since long before I started working there. She had been a friend of the woman who handled the poetry section, and when I came along with similar interests I got to know her too. She came in almost every Saturday, sometimes more often, even when her legs started hurting her and she had to rest often. Once in a while when she was feeling too ill to make it to the store, we would run a book or two over to her apartment, and she'd pay by check.
Her book interests were primarily poetry (which I was happy to help with) and Buddhist philosophy (which our resident meditation maven ably handled). She had great taste, and read widely, though I imagine she couldn't really afford to buy all the books she did. But she was just as interested in the lives of the employees. Even after I left for another bookstore job, she asked after me and kept up with my doings. When she saw a familiar face, she would open both her eyes and her mouth wide in a charming expression of joy.
Betty had probably lived in the neighborhood much longer than the bookstore had been around. From what I could gather (she didn't like to talk about herself much), she had come to New York as a young woman with hopes of acting, and had had some small success in various capacities in the theater world. She had a tiny apartment on Bank Street, and I loved visiting her there, surrounded by her few things, always gracious. She understood the preciousness of her West Village community, considered herself a Villager more than a New Yorker and knew everyone she saw in her neighborhood by name.
At one point when Betty was contemplating surgery, she hired me to help her with some odd jobs that she wasn't sure she'd be able to handle: organizing her music collection, getting rid of old clothes and books, minor shopping. Later, she hired me to type up some of her writings: a sort of spiritual memoir, and some song lyrics, all of which were moving in a humble way. I spent a lot of time with her in her apartment, talking about big things and small things. At some point, Betty went from being a customer to being a friend, and a kind of mentor. Her easy delight, her calm grace, her big-hearted struggle with growing older and facing death, were all reasons to admire her, and to love her.
In the best of cases, a retail store becomes more than a place where financial transactions take place and goods change hands. It becomes a place where relationships develop, where human beings learn from each other and about each other. It becomes not only part of a community, but something like a home, where we learn, in different ways, to love each other. Love means the potential, the inevitability, of loss and grief. But it seems to me the only thing that is really worth suffering for.
Every year at Christmas, Betty showed up at the bookstore with a gingerbread house as a gift for the staff. God, we'll miss that gingerbread house this year. We loved you, Betty. Thank you for being part of our lives.