I grew up in the suburbs of New York City, in one of the handful of commuter towns along the Hudson. One of these villages contained a bookstore—a good one, with a fine selection of titles and a section devoted to attractive wrapping paper and greeting cards. However, the owner was so unfailingly nasty and abusive to her customers that my mother and I came to regard it as a challenge to make it in and out of the shop without incurring her wrath.
We seldom succeeded. Anything might set her off: an innocuous question, a breach of obscure etiquette, a sneeze. Needless to say, she had a hard time keeping staff. Everyone was scared of her, and the atmosphere of the store was one of silent terror.
There was only one occasion on which we saw anyone break through the ice. My mom and I had been compelled to patronize the shop after failing to find Miss Rumphius anywhere else, and we had steeled ourselves for the arctic blast of the proprietor’s contempt. But when we walked in, we met with an amazing scene. A plump, jolly woman was leaning against the counter and thumbing through a novelty book—something about Jewish wit and wisdom, shaped like a large bagel.
“Oh, wait—listen to this one!” she was saying. “When the temple was destroyed … the Jews built Loehmann’s!” She went off into gales of laughter.
The shop owner remained stony-faced. Then:
“It’s true,” she said, matter-of-factly. Read More