Wanda Lewis took the part-time job at Hillsboro's historic Johnson's Bookstore mostly for to keep herself occupied following her divorce. Her father went to school with the store's owner Phil Golinski and that connection helped her land the job.
Phil was a great guy and Wanda enjoyed working for him but six months after she started, Phil learned that he had cancer and he relied upon her to fill in when he was undergoing treatment or was otherwise under the weather.
Wanda didn't mind the extra hours and she became an expert on running the store in Phil's absence, though she worried about his health. She cried the day Phil, twenty pounds lighter and bald from the chemo, told her that he was putting the business up for sale – the bookstore and the four apartments above the first floor business.
"I should get out when I'm still standing," he theorized, although he had no idea how long it might take before the business would sell.
Word got out that Phil was ill and selling the store and the regular customers were extremely supportive while hopeful that things would work out, both for Phil and for the business.
One of the regulars was a guy named Wyatt who came into the store frequently. Wanda didn't know much about him – the many tattoos on his arms and neck were interesting if nothing else and he was book smart, often striking up a conversation with her about the book he was buying or looking for.
He seemed like a nice enough guy, although mysterious. Phil said the guy wasn't from Hillsboro and nobody knew much about him or his past. But he was friendly and quite compassionate when he learned of Phil's illness.
"Maybe I'll buy the place," Wyatt quipped one day when he was in the store with both Phil and Wanda present.
"Sure," Phil replied, feeling discouraged that there hadn't been any legitimate offers. "Half a mil and it's all yours."
"Don't worry, Wanda, you can stay on," Wyatt said with a grin. "I'll need help running the place."
A month later, a relieved Phil informed a surprised Wanda that the business was being sold.
"To whom?" Wanda asked, worried she was about to be out of a job.
"Wyatt Young," Phil revealed.
Wanda assumed Phil was joking. "You mean the tattoo guy who comes in here all the time? That Wyatt?"
"The deal went through," Phil confirmed. "I guess I can go to Florida."
"How did a guy like that come up with the capital to secure such a big loan?" Wanda wondered. "He looks like a construction worker but I don't think he works at all."
Phil shrugged. "He bought it as Nicholas Blake, LLC," he said with raised eyebrows.
"You mean the pseudonym the poet Cecil Day-Lewis wrote his mysteries under?" Wanda asked with surprise.
"I thought you'd be amused by that," Phil grinned. "Just don't tell his kid, Daniel-Day Lewis!"
All Wanda knew was that the mystery surrounding Wyatt Young just got even more mysterious.
The first order of business for Wyatt was ensuring Wanda that he sincerely hoped she would stay on serving as the resident expert and historian for the business. Phil hung around for a week showing Wyatt the ropes and introducing him to vendors, customers, and area business owners.
Phil moved out of his apartment upstairs and, following a farewell reception at Serguci's Italian Family Restaurant, was off for Florida to enjoy early retirement and hopefully full remission from his illness.
Wyatt moved into the empty apartment and Wanda tried to adjust to the new owner.
Wyatt researched the history of the business and hung old photos of the place in years gone by on the walls.
"This place is too neat and orderly," Wyatt complained, comparing the present look to the images of the glory days when the store was overflowing with books piled on the floor.
"Phil was a neat freak," Wanda explained.
"He let his gay preferences influence his professional outlook," Wyatt remarked. "We want this place to look like somebody's den at home, not a library in a museum."
Wyatt got rid of Phil's fancy desk in the middle of the room and bought an old fashioned roll top desk which he placed in the front corner of the business. He also had a circular counter built in that corner to be used as the customer service area and he replaced the fancy Victorian style sofas with some beat up tag sale couches to give the place a lived in appearance.
He also updated the computer system and he began putting carts of discounted books outside to lure customers inside. Wyatt updated the bookstore's website and he became savvy on social media, debating customers about particular books there too! Wanda played the role of arbiter.
"We don't need to be losing customers over some stupid internet fight," she warned
"They should be able to defend their position," Wyatt argued.
"You're the first person I've heard of who's cluttering a business instead of uncluttering it!" Wanda remarked. "Of confronting customers instead of placating them!"
Wanda adjusted to Wyatt's down to earth everyman approach which was much different from Phil's formal and styled presence.
"I'm a fan of the regular guy who's connected to the community," Wyatt told Wanda. "The same people having lunch at Johnny C's and a beer at The Bullpen or Duffy's Tavern are coming in here for a book. We don't have to pretend to be something we're not."
"That makes sense," Wanda agreed.
She started wearing jeans and tee shirts and sweatshirts to work instead of the dresses and slacks she used to wear. She wore her black hair down or under a ball cap instead of the more formal styles she previously adorned.
Wanda was impressed at how social Wyatt was with the customers. He could engage anybody in a conversation about anything and make them feel right at home. He was also extremely book literate and he was rarely stumped regarding an author or title.
"Having it all right at the fingertip of the computer helps," Wyatt remarked.
"Did you read a lot as a kid?" Wanda asked him one day as they both manned the counter.
"Not really," he admitted. "It was a hobby I picked up later on."
"You took a risk buying this place," Wanda warned.
"Why, because local bookstores are dying off left and right?" Wyatt asked. "No more independent small business owner bookseller?"
She shrugged. "Amazon. The chain booksellers. Internet sites."
"People still like going to the local store," he argued. "Their parents and grandparents bought books here. They came in here as little kids. Nostalgia and sentimentality is important and that keeps local shopping alive."
"A lot of people don't read anymore," Wanda sighed. "It's all on their phone or Google chrome."
"There's still nothing like the feel of a paper page of a book in your hand," Wyatt argued.
Wyatt relied on Wanda's knowledge of the local people and the history of the area to help him better understand the past.
"Where did you come from?" Wanda asked more than once.
"Here and there," he'd reply to add to the mystery.
"What did you do before this?" She'd ask on other occasions.
"I lacked direction," was his only reply.
Wanda didn't argue much with Phil who was set in his ways and liked to be right but she was constantly debating with Wyatt, often in front of – and with – customers when disagreements arose about the theme of a certain book or the meaning of a particular poem.
Wanda was impressed with Wyatt's dedication and resolve. He attended tag sales and estate sales looking for books for their used book section. He got local artists, writers and personalities to come in and give presentations and sign books.
Wanda missed Phil but she enjoyed working with Wyatt and she had to admit that Johnson's Book store under Wyatt's management was much more like the bookstore she remembered as a kid.
One afternoon, Birdy Braft came into the store. Braft owned Johnny C's Diner down the street and he had been good friends with Phil Golinski going all the way back to Grammar School. Wanda got a kick out of watching the normally stogie Phil revert into a high school kid when he and Birdy began to banter.
"Wow, you've changed this place back to the way it was when I was a kid," Braft told Wyatt as he looked around.
"That was the plan," Wyatt grinned.
"Old Man Johnson loved books," Braft recalled. "The place was packed with them. He traded, bought and sold anything he could find." Braft glanced around. "There'd be books piled everywhere. On shelves. On tables. On the floor. The Old Man had music playing on a beat up old stereo."
"I'll get one in here tomorrow!" Wyatt promised.
"Mr. Johnson was a big guy and he'd sit behind the counter in a Captain's chair," Braft continued. "Glad you brought the counter back. The old man knew where every book in the store was. If you came in and said 'I'm looking for a copy of Stuart Little', he'd say 'back row, fourth shelf'. And he'd be right!"
"I'm trying to be that good," Wyatt said.
"The store back then had a unique charm," Braft remembered. "Thanks for trying to bring that back."
Wyatt looked at Wanda and smiled knowingly.