By FRED MARTIN, KEN SAMUELS and ERIN MESSER
of the Browser Books staff
Browser Books, a neighborhood fixture since 1976, has no doubt sparked countless anonymous instances of romance. The store’s staff, however, has been especially susceptible to this phenomenon. Perhaps it’s because we spend so much time in the store — or perhaps it’s because there’s just something a little different about the kind of person who chooses to work in a bookstore.
It was 1981, back in the funky, colorful days of the neighborhood, when Browser Books was still in its old location next to the Clay Theatre. I had been at the store less than a year, working nights mostly, when I met William Weber, a psychiatrist with an office nearby. William was taking some free time between appointments one day to browse the bookstore in the company of a woman friend, a flamboyant personality from Texas. William — from Yazoo City, Mississippi — was less flamboyant, but seductive, with his big brown eyes and that low bedroom voice.
He made several return visits. After the second or third time he asked me for a date, I finally accepted. I was a bit dubious at first, probably flattered, and definitely curious. One thing led to another, and we had a serious relationship tryout: camping together for a long weekend at the McCabe Lakes, near Tioga Pass, in our mutually beloved Yosemite National Park.
We survived that adventure, somehow, and soon moved in together. We bonded over our mutual love of Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings. Over the years — 36 now — it’s become apparent that, however opposite we are in every conceivable way, we complement one another.
I’m pretty sure Erin thought I disliked her the first day we worked together. It was my responsibility to train her in Browser’s opening procedures. Since she was replacing a longtime employee, I was determined to be extra diligent and businesslike. Of course I noticed how pretty and stylish she was. But I put those observations aside to focus on the tasks at hand. My deep first impression was how smart, professional, quick and witty she was. As I reported to Browser owner Stephen Damon: “Erin’s a real bookseller. She’s going to work out great.”
I relaxed around Erin after our first day, and we laughed a lot, shared our writing and lists of our favorite books and authors. I was impressed and charmed that she was reading her way through the books of Charles Dickens. When I mentioned I was an occasional Dickens reader, she gently challenged me: Had I read the Pickwick Papers? No, I hadn’t. Well then I should get to it — and while I was at it, I should read five or six Balzac novels as well. It took me a while, but I did just as she suggested. In turn, I got her to read the work of Cynthia Ozick.
Our exchange of reading suggestions worked out so well that we decided to form our own book club. We read works by Isak Dinesen (one of Fred’s favorites), Robert Coover, Saul Bellow, Eudora Welty, F. Scott Fitzgerald and Mavis Gallant, to name just a few.
After a few months, I worked up my courage to ask her out for coffee. We must have hung out for three hours that day, but it went by like a dream. Lunch dates, museum visits and dinners followed.
We wanted to try a change of scenery, so we left Browser and San Francisco for California’s Central Coast. We spent 15 months there and decided to get married — in the beautiful old courthouse in Santa Barbara, no less. Despite being near Erin’s folks and new friends, after about nine months in San Luis Obispo we admitted to each other that we wanted to come back to San Francisco.
We packed up the four kooky cats — one named after our beloved Mavis Gallant — and made it back to the city. I returned to Browser, while Erin went on to other ventures. I miss working with her, but I have the greater fortune of getting to spend the rest of my life with her.
It’s a romantic comedy cliche: The pair who begin the film as arch-rivals are guaranteed to fall in love by act three. Director Ernst Lubitsch perfected the technique in his 1940 film The Shop Around the Corner, starring Margaret Sullivan and Jimmy Stewart as rival salesclerks engaged in an epistolary romance. My personal favorite of these small but significant imitations of the old trope is my own marriage.
Ken and I did not start as enemies, exactly. But I began my training with him under a cloud of misinterpreted annoyance. Anyone familiar with the store will recognize Ken’s characteristic fluster, his decade and a half of Browser knowledge — and five decades of intelligence working faster than his tongue, with his self-deprecating Jewish wit not far behind. But for the newcomer trying to learn on her feet, it felt at first like trial by fire.
Still, we bonded over Mavis Gallant, the Montreal-born, Paris-based master of short fiction, whom we both discovered around the same time. The Gallant collections Paris Stories and The Cost of Living, published by New York Review Books with romantic red spines and cover photographs by Brassaï and Dora Maar, Picasso’s muse, became our holy books.
We began to leave each other increasingly elaborate notes and inside jokes hidden in personal paperwork, or left out for discovery when he would close and I would open. These articles are sealed and bundled in special envelopes and small bags; they never leave my desk. I still have the Browser bookmark on which he wrote a key to the inventory database shorthand, and the printed page of instructions for opening and operating the store.
We finally solemnized our book collection by getting rid of some, though not all, of our duplicates — a difficult process all too familiar to any book-loving couple. But we didn’t even consider giving up our copies of Mavis Gallant.
THE NEXT GENERATION
The next generation of Browser romance is so skillfully plotted that it might have been lifted from a well-crafted short story.
Catie Damon, daughter of owner Stephen, grew up pulling Berenstain Bears books off the spinning rack at the back of the store, as so many neighborhood kids did. When she was still in junior high, she worked the occasional register shift. Catie has become a gifted artist and budding filmmaker, so it should come as no surprise that she and Jordan Pearson, an aspiring filmmaker himself, hit it off so quickly. As they tell it, Jordan was shelving books on Tibetan Buddhism when they were introduced. The karma was instant.
Like every Browser couple, they have their own reading group of two. Favorites include the both cinematic and far-reaching Silence by Shusaku Endo and The Sheltering Sky by Paul Bowles, as well as Don Carpenter’s unfinished masterpiece Fridays at Enrico’s, a book of post-Beat love and loss that’s impossible not to fall for if your own personal love story begins in San Francisco.
We are among the lucky ones who can claim to have adapted the Browser Books motto — printed on every receipt — to one of the most significant aspects of our own lives: “You’ll not only find the book you want, you’ll enjoy looking for it.”