Gertrude Pruitt (Gertie, to her friends) never ceases to amaze me. Her wide eclectic knowledge of the thousands of books in the town’s second-hand used bookstore is unequalled, and, whenever asked about her, I tell the story about the summer my New York cousin visited our family here in Plainsville.
Cousin Liza had been hunting for a book from her childhood called, “Five Little Salt Shakers and How They Lived”. However, not remembering the author’s name, the search had come to a standstill. The fancy computerized programs available in the big city bookstores could not locate a copy of the children’s book, some stores even declaring it never existed. A typical search went something like this:
“Do you have the ISBN#? No? Well, then, the author’s name, please. You don’t know? How about the dust jacket—what did it look like? Now, ma’am, I’m sorry but I’m not a rocket scientist—you’re asking for the impossible. We need more information.”
“It had pictures,” cousin Liza declared, hopefully.
“Ah, then you must know the name of the illustrator,” just as hopefully.
Shaking their heads at one’s ignorance and the other’s incompetence, a disappointed Liza and a frustrated sales clerk parted ways.
By the time my cousin arrived in our humble little city, she had almost given up on her search. So, I introduced her to our local phenomenon, Gertie, who was busily dusting some shelves when we stepped through the shop’s screen door, the attached antique bicycle bell heralding our entrance.
“Linda, what can I do for you this fine morning,” perky as ever, “and who is that with you?”
Smiling, I introduced Liza, who was already browsing amongst the haphazardly stacked piles of books waiting to be shelved.
“We’re looking for a children’s book,” explaining Liza’s frustrating search thus far.
“Hmmm,” Gertie’s brow wrinkled like deep-rutted furrows readied for Spring planting, “are you absolutely certain of that title?”
Liza closed her eyes to bring up a mental picture of the book in question.
“There were five children on the front cover and they all wore dungarees,” smiling dreamily even now at the mental image.
“What color was the cover?”
“Red,” Liza recalled.
“Aha!” Gertie chortled, “I think I’ve solved your mystery. Follow me.”
We then played “Follow-the-Leader,” weaving up, down and all around the nooks and crannies of the store, stopping at a brightly decorated children’s corner tucked under a stairway. Gertie ran her fingers across the tightly packed spines arranged first by color and then by the authors’ last names.
“Here we are!” triumphantly, running her fingers across the front cover of a small selected volume, “it’s not the exact title you mentioned, but it just might be the one from your childhood.”
“That’s it—I’d know it anywhere!”
I chuckled, though, as I brought her attention from the cover’s picture to the bold, white lettering glaring accusingly in Liza’s face: “Five Little Peppers and How They Grew” by Margaret Sidney.
“Oh, no! All this time! No wonder I couldn’t find it,” sheepishly from Liza.
“ ‘Five Little Salt Shakers and How They Lived’, indeed,” I smirked.
Profusely thanking Gertie, we took the book up to the front of the store where the clerk rang up our modestly-priced purchase. When we turned to leave, Gertie was already running her hands caressingly over some other books before placing them gently into properly author-alphabetized placement on the freshly cleaned shelves. I then watched Liza’s expression change from ignorance to astonishment as the truth dawned on her.
“Why, she’s BLIND! How can she possibly . . .”
“Bye, Linda. Bye, Liza--nice to have met you. You come again now, you hear?” as, simultaneously, the bike horn bleeped merrily while we exited, Gertie’s signal of a customer’s departure as well as their arrival.
I had a fine time explaining to an increasingly incredulous Liza how the bookstore owner had special Braille computer software that produced Braille labels for the spine edge of each item in their inventory and how Gertie had a system of reading the raised dots and associating each title with the feel and texture of the covers. She then memorized the information before shelving each item.
“WOW! She’s better than an automated databank! I think I’m gaining a new respect for small towns!”
Liza became inspired to volunteer at a large library in New York, where she works to this day; that is, unless she’s visiting me—and learning more tips from Gertie!
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