In the late ’70s, I worked in a tiny, family-owned independent bookstore in downtown Sacramento. Founded in 1924, it was the sort of place that publishers like Alfred A. Knopf and Bennet Cerf used to visit on their West Coast trips. Levinson’s only reluctantly carried paperbacks; the broad selection of classics in hardcover was a point of pride.
One particularly slow afternoon, the lone customer, an older silver-haired gentleman, asked me why we didn’t have a copy of the then recently published Essays of E. B. White. We had it, of course—just not where he was looking (because it had gone immediately to our “General Literature” section instead of sitting on a mere bestseller table)—and I pulled out a copy for him.
When he came to the counter to pay for the book, he admired our 1906 hand-cranked NCR cash register and started to pull out a credit card.
“I’m sorry,” I said. “We don’t take American Express.”
“That’s the only card I have,” he said. “Will you take a check?”
“Of course. I just need to see your driver’s license.”
He hesitated. “That could be a problem. I don’t have a license—I don’t drive. I’m just walking around town while I wait for the Zephyr to Chicago.”
“Hmm . . . maybe you’ve got something around here,” he said, looking around. Then he picked up a little mass-market paperback from a stack sitting on the counter next to us. “Would this work?”
The black-and-white author sketch on the front cover of the book was an exact match for the man standing in front of me. I laughed, surprised that I hadn’t recognized him earlier, and put the copy of Fahrenheit 451 back on its stack, next to the short stacks of The Martian Chronicles, The Illustrated Man, and Dandelion Wine, all lined up there on the counter, all with the same distinctive sketch of their author.
I took his check.
And it still makes me happy that the first famous author I met was one of the writers who turned me into a reader in the first place.