SHELLY’S WORLD: Fiction … The Happy Store – Florence

By Shelly Reuben
SHELLY’S WORLD: Fiction …  The Happy Store – Florence

Clementine finds a role model in her 34th adventure at The Happy Store.

Clementine Fraile knew that her boss, Walter Graybell, was completely unaware of his artistic talents.

As manager of The Happy Store, he regularly assigned Athena Eliopoulos or Betty Davis the task of creating entire displays of that month’s featured items. Such as … a mother-of-pearl vase brimming with tall magnolias, set in the middle of a round marble table festooned with eucalyptus garlands, atop a floral rug, and beside a burgundy velvet armchair with a soft pink throw tossed over one arm.

What Athena and Betty achieved was always stunning. But when they weren’t looking, Walter would slide the mother-of-pearl vase a little to the left so that it was off-center, replace a magnolia branch with purple thistle, re-drape the throw over the back of the chair, rearrange the eucalyptus, and … voilà … what was only eye-catching became sheer magic.

Walter made these changes because, unbeknownst to his conscious mind, he loved The Happy Store and he passionately loved beautiful things.

Three more details about Walter will get us to the starting point of this story.

One: His eye for beauty was congenital, like his ginger hair and his black eyes.

Two: He did not know that what he did required “talent.” He thought he was just managing his store.

Three: Although he expected his employees to read his mind, anticipate his needs, and/or to be in three places at the same time, he was usually even-tempered. With customers, he was always imperturbable.

At least, that is, until he met Florence.

Hyman Pease, Clementine’s former boss and friend, now owned a mystery book store not far away, and he belonged to an association that met once a month to exchange industry gossip. At one of those gatherings, he met an antiquarian bookseller named Florence Clay and, as with every other male in the room, he instantly fell in love with her. Even Hyman’s wife fell under Florence’s spell.

In many ways, she and Clementine Fraile were very much alike. Clementine’s skin was brown and her eyes were green whereas Florence’s skin was ivory, and her eyes were brown. Otherwise each was diminutive (under five feet), had curly brown hair, a pretty heart-shaped face, a huge smile, and small feet. Give them fairy wands and gossamer wings, and they could be mistaken for Tinkerbelle.

Both also were subtly feminine in ways that inspired old-fashioned chivalry. When Florence entered a room, doors were opened for her and chairs were pulled out. If she had smoked, men would have tripped over their feet to light her cigarettes. On seeing her for the first time, Clementine leaned toward Betty Davis and sighed, “I’ve just met who I want to be when I grow up.”

Hyman had sent Florence to The Happy Store because, being both an antiquarian and an egalitarian, she threw book parties at her store for all of her favorite authors, whether they wrote mysteries, literary fiction, limericks, or ponderous philosophic tomes. After her parties, Florence – so ebullient of heart and generous of spirit – would always give her guest author a little souvenir of the occasion. Her favorite gift shop having just closed, until Hyman told her about Clementine’s workplace, she had not known where to go.

But once they met, Clementine, in effect, became Florence’s “personal shopper." She found heart-shaped earrings for the woman who wrote The History of Romantic Love; a turtle teapot for the author of Death at the Zoo; bicycle bookends for a man who wrote a bestseller about unicycling across Australia. And so on.

As they shopped, Florence and Clementine talked about books. Clementine, it turned out, had inherited her addiction to the written word from her late mother, a crime reporter for a small Upstate New York newspaper. Her first love had been Nancy Drew, but she eventually graduated to Sir Walter Scott, her favorite novel being Ivanhoe. Whereas Florence loved everyone from Virgil to Agatha Christie. She also, however, judged a book by its binding, paper quality, cover art, type style, and even the stitching along its spine.

The two women talked. They shopped. They talked. They shopped. Meanwhile Walter, alert as a secret service agent at a presidential parade, listened to everything they said and watched everything they did.

Now would probably be a good time to tell you a few more things about Florence. Such as that her eyes squinted when she laughed … and she laughed a lot. Such as that she always wore stylish skirts or dresses, often with necklaces that flattered her long neck and elegant shoulders. Such as that, even when it rained, she wore dainty shoes with short, spiky French heels. Such as that every time she came into the store, she made a point of twinkling up at Walter, and making him feel forty feet tall.

And one more “such as.” That Florence Clay considered it a moral imperative to lie about her age (only her husband, two years older, knew what it was), and that she was ninety-two-years-old.

It was on her fifth visit to The Happy Store that Walter Graybill swooped in on her and Clementine and usurped Florence for all time. He, who rarely read for pleasure but, as previously established, had an infallible eye for beautiful things, had visited a crafts fair a while back and, browsing carelessly through a stall, had come upon a book. The very book he was holding in his right hand at that moment, and which he thrust at Florence, saying, “I don’t know if this is important or valuable, and you’re the expert, but …”

She took it, and gently began to flip through the pages.

It was leather-bound, very old, and very fragile. In the center of the front cover was a recessed triangle with a gold-embossed inset inscribed: “POPE.” The spine, also gold-embossed, read: POPE’S POEMS ILLUSTRATED. The gold-edged pages were as thick as vellum, and the pen-work on the illustrations was as delicate as spider webs.

“Is it worth anything?” he demanded.

Florence sighed, looked at him with compassionate eyes, and said, “To quote the author of these poems, Walter, ’Blessed is he who expects nothing, for he shall never be disappointed.’” She handed the book back to him. “It’s beautiful, and I’d be proud to have it on a shelf in my store. But as to its monetary value, I …”

Walter held up a hand. “Never mind. I don’t want to know.”

From that day forward, whenever Florence came into the store, Walter monopolized her.

A little more now about Walter.

As a rule, he did not interact with customers. When he did, his manner was textbook impeccable. Angry shoppers left mollified. Irrational shoppers drifted away smiling. Even the rare shoplifter, after Walter had divested him of his ill-gotten gains, departed feeling less like a criminal than like one who was about to turn over a new leaf.

Bottom line, Walter was impossible to enrage.

Except once. After Florence, the wee nonagenarian, antiquarian, egalitarian charmer, had captured his heart.

One afternoon, on her way to the checkout counter to buy a small soapstone fox for the author of a book about taxidermy, a wiry man, thirtyish with thin lips, shark-gray eyes, and suited in Spandex as if about to ride in the Tour de France, bumped into the petite bookseller. He roughly pushed her aside, flung a door mat on the counter, and demanded to Athena, “Ring this up. I’m in a hurry.”

Tottering precariously on her French heels, Florence would have fallen if Walter had not rushed over and caught her. He set her back on her feet, and then gently ushered her to an armchair not five feet away.

“Are you all right?” he asked, unable to hide his anxiety.

It should be added right here that Florence adored Walter. Her brown eyes sparkled with admiration as she looked up at her hero and said, “I’m fine. Swan dives are one of my specialties.”

Walter shook his head, his face still a mask of worry. He patted her arm; he patted her shoulder; he patted her hand. Then he turned toward the wiry man with the shark eyes, tossed the floor mat aside, wrapped

two hands around his right arm, and yanked him down the aisle to the front of the store. He moved so fast, and the man was so taken by surprised, that it seemed as if his feet did not touch the floor. Clementine and Betty Davis, anticipating Walter’s intent, had rushed ahead to open the front doors. Which meant that he had an audience of two when, ejecting the astonished bully, he said, “If you ever come into my store again, I’ll have you arrested for elder abuse.”

The following afternoon, Betty and Athena wondered aloud about what might have triggered Walter’s rage.

Clementine, who had been pondering that very thing, tapped her forefinger to her chin and mused, “Maybe when the skinny guy in Spandex attacked Florence, Walter forgot that Florence was Florence, and for a moment – if not forever – he started to think of her as just another one of his Happy Store beautiful things.”

After that day, life went pretty much back to normal, except that Florence continued to shop at The Happy Store (she still does), and Walter continues to monopolize her whenever she comes in.

 

Copyright © 2020, Shelly Reuben - Shelly Reuben’s books have been nominated for Edgar, Prometheus, and Falcon awards. For more about her books, visit www.shellyreuben.com