By MATTHEW SULLIVAN
Libby and I spent our first hours together shelving board books and pop-up books and organizing the spinner racks with copies of “The Berenstain Bears” and “The Poky Little Puppy.” Between customers we talked.
She wore a vintage sweater and hippie earrings and had the posture of a heron. I was 24, a chain-smoker, and had just moved back to Denver after trying out life in distant places. The pay at the bookstore was dismal, but everything else about the place was transcendent. Including Libby.
A dancer from New Hampshire, she made found-art collages using old books and scraps of rusty metal, layers of Gesso and paint. She told me about herself, but it wasn’t until my first visit to her apartment, when she slid book after book about art and artists from her shelves and set them in my lap, that I really began to understand her: Kurt Schwitters, Andy Goldsworthy, Russian Paper Art. They told me almost everything.
In my apartment I returned the favor, handing over books of snake handlers, Irish poets, collections of saints. Within weeks we were dating.
Hearing Libby talk about her dance classes, watching her stoop to pet a dog tied to a lamppost and listening to her recommend “Frog and Toad Are Friends” to a young mother made it impossible for me not to fall in love with her. She was falling for me as well.
But our relationship wasn’t magic. We had a lot going against us.
There were the usual suspects: family and religion, jealousy and history, a revolving cast of book studs and book babes browsing in between us. But all of that could be overcome.
It turned out that the most threatening obstacle to our relationship was the very thing that brought us together: books. Or, more specifically, the values that books represented: openness, idealism, growth. The traits that made us readers and booksellers also made us eager and independent explorers, the kind of people who placed our creative pursuits above virtually everything else, who were always broke and impractical and able to plunge headlong into whatever boggling experience lined up next.
We didn’t care about the reach of our résumé or the student loan debt blowing in through the mail slot.
When the apartment directly below mine opened up, Libby packed her art supplies and book crates and moved in. We could be close but not too close.
Rent was so cheap at that time in Denver — I paid $255 a month for a creaky one-bedroom in an old Foursquare home — that we could afford to live separately, carrying on with our lives both together and apart. Upstairs I could spread out my notebooks and papers and spend my free time writing, while downstairs Libby could spread out her bins of rusty hardware and vintage game pieces and spend her time tacking and gluing to her imagination’s content.
The bookstore environment did little to cure us of our dreams. Nearly everyone we worked with had something they cared about that occupied their lives outside of work. The jazz guitarist, the home brewer, the sheepdog trainer, the massage therapist, the shelter volunteer, the Irish fiddler, the board-game enthusiast, the endless photographers and painters and poets and cooks.
Everywhere we looked, our colleagues were laying out possible paths through life that we too might follow. Though a few were happily married, more were single, and many were downright disoriented by the notion of settling down.
So it was not surprising that during the four years Libby and I worked alongside each other there, we broke up a dozen or more times.
We broke up on the carpeted stairs between our apartments.
We broke up at her kitchen table and at mine.
We broke up while hiking during a thunderstorm.
We broke up in her car while sitting in traffic.
We broke up while walking home from the video store.
Each time, our parting essentially boiled down to: “You do your thing, I’ll do mine.”
But these breakups didn’t last, especially when we would see each other the next day at work. Watching Libby glide through with a pile of books, looking especially lithe as she rounded the stacks, was always enough to weaken my resolve. She was never more attractive to me than with books in her arms, walking away.
When word spread that this time it was really over, our bookstore colleagues would sometimes try to nudge us back together. They may have balked at convention, but they were suckers for love.
“Matt’s pants are looking extra saggy today,” a fellow bookseller would say to Libby, claiming that the nuances of our relationship were revealed by the fit of my jeans. “He’s really sad. Go look at his butt.”
“I think Libby started smoking,” another would tell me. “You know how self-destructive dancers can be. Maybe you should talk to her.”
Soon enough, the cart that once acted as a conduit for our flirtation would become a conduit for our humility.
“You see the new Lorrie Moore?” one of us would say. Or, “You see the new book about Joseph Cornell?”
A customer would interrupt, and we would touch the spines between us.
Leaning into those carts, it was easy to believe we were inevitable.
Ending our relationship was impossible, we realized, as long as we were working in that idealistic place around those idealistic people, but we weren’t giving up on our breakup that easily. Four years had passed since our first shift together, and it was time to see what would happen if we were to pursue the next leg of our journeys alone.
Libby would move to Boston to study library science, and I would move to a small town in Idaho to study writing. We didn’t know what would become of us, but being separated by 3,000 miles of American landscape would surely help us figure it out.
For three years, our relationship relied on email and long-distance calls and plane fares borrowed from the bank. We bought each other books, as we always had, and stood alone in line at the post office, believing that the best way to pursue each other was to continue to pursue our separate selves.
Then there were the times when 3,000 miles felt like 3,000 miles.
We broke up at an artist’s colony in Maine where Libby spent summers working as a librarian.
We broke up on the steps of a church in Poland, where I was on a teaching fellowship.
We broke up in a fleabag motel in Seattle and at her sister’s home in Denver.
Finally, after three years of this, we decided we couldn’t handle breaking up anymore. So after I finished school, I packed my books and my dog and drove to Boston, where we got married right away.
After a few years of being newlyweds — Libby working as a librarian, me as a bookseller and writing teacher — our first child was born and we decided to try living somewhere we could afford. I found a teaching job at a small community college in Washington State, and we settled into the rural town of Soap Lake, a place whose claim to fame was a whimsical plan to build the world’s largest lava lamp on the shores of its mineral lake.
The lava lamp never happened — hasn’t yet, anyway — but we loved the enormity of the dream.
Over the 14 years since, Libby and I have watched the tiny bookstore in our town pass from owner to owner and eventually turn into a cafe with a small selection of books. It’s how they’ve kept their doors open.
There are a couple of other bookshops about 75 miles from our home, but the closest big store, like the one we used to work in, is 125 miles away. This scarcity was among the toughest adjustments we had to make as we settled into the rural West and our family grew from two to four.
Out of this necessity, before our children could even walk, a simple family tradition emerged of taking trips in search of books. Everywhere we travel, whether it’s across the country or across the state, bookstores have become our destination and our reward.
Like all routines, this one has its familiar steps. We feel a sense of calm as we leave the outside world and step inside. Our kids beeline to the children’s section, and by the time Libby and I catch up, the two of them are usually socked away on the floor, or sometimes in a castle or fort, with coats tossed nearby.
We begin stacking titles as if we’re preparing for a long winter. In a way, we always are. Over time, our children’s piles have become markers of their growth, like the scrawled lines on the kitchen cabinet showing their assorted heights.
As for Libby and me, we have our own markers of growth: 16 years married, zero breakups.