I got to reminiscing today. I was thinking about people who influenced me, and Kurt Hartman of Books & Books in Salinas, CA was one of those bosses who was extremely tough, but ultimately a great businessman.
For as long as I could remember I’ve had a job. First it was a paper route, and then when I was too old for that, I worked in a bookstore. I got the job at the best independent bookstore in Salinas in 1985, when I was just entering high school. Before I tell the story about how I got the job, let me talk a little bit about Kurt.
Books & Books started out in a little spot in a strip mall at the corner of Main St, and San Miguel Ave. The store was first located immediately to the left of a Lucky’s supermarket (it’s now a Save Mart I think), and when it outgrew that tiny spot it moved across the parking lot next to the Quiznos.
My parents would take me there as a boy, and I’d get to pick out a book every so often. But the owner, a gruff old man named Kurt, would always keep an eye on me. His distain wasn’t limited to me, but to all children, and every so often a customer, too. I honestly was afraid of him, with his wiry old grey hair, and his quick, and bright eyes. “Don’t touch that unless you are going to buy it” and “Time is Money” were two phrases I’d hear frequently on my visits.
He always seemed like a mean old man, and I recall very clearly my first real interaction with him, the one where I asked him for a job.
As a teenager, I needed money, and the best way was for me to get some part time work after school. My folks suggested I apply for a job at the bookstore Kurt owned, and I was reticent, remembering all of the bad interactions I’d had throughout the years. I put on my Sunday best, hopped on my bike, and rode the 7 blocks to the bookstore. I chained it in front of the store, and rolled down my pant leg. I was so nervous going in, but I had practiced what I was going to say. Simply, and politely ask for a job application, take it, and get out as fast as I could.
Kurt was sitting on his usual perch: a four legged wooden stool right behind the big black counter. He was reading the trades or something. I was 14, and already taller than him, but when I came through the glass door, I felt about 2 inches tall. My hands were probably sweating as I walked up to the counter, and asked for a job application. I didn’t ask if he had any openings, and he sensed this, and replied “What makes you think I have a job for you?”
Wait! This wasn’t how it was supposed to go. The exchange I had practiced in my head was much simpler. I didn’t have to answer any questions at this point. Only pick up an application and go.
My voice probably cracked as my brain spun thinking of an answer. I don’t recall exactly what I said, but it was something like “I need a job, and I like books, so I thought I’d ask you for a job”.
“What makes you qualified to work at my Bookstore?”
“I’ve volunteered at the public library for a summer, and had a paper route for 4 years before that” I answered.
He seemed satisfied with my responses, or at least wanted to be rid of me, so he reached under the counter, and tore off an application from the packet. He didn’t give it to me, but instead put it on the counter and said “I have pretty strict hiring requirements. Not just anyone can work here you know. I don’t really need much help right now because my staff is full. Take this, and when you have filled it out bring it back to me.”
Of course I didn’t have a leather folio or even a paper folder to carry it home in, so I carefully folded it, put it in my back pocket and headed home.
The application was a standard one page form. Personal details were on the front, and employment questions on the back. Strangely enough, I had more information for the back than I did for the front. Since I hadn’t been to high school yet, or even college, so I had to leave all that blank. All that was completed was my contact info.
But on the employment part I put down my volunteer job, my paper route, and 3 personal references who I had done yard work for, or who were friends of the family. I do remember having to ask my parents what some of the questions were like military service, or if I was a felon.
The next day, I put on the same outfit, rode the same streets and parked my bike in the same spot. Kurt was sitting in the same place doing what appeared to be the same thing. I walked through the door with my completed application, extracted it from my back pocket, unfolded it, and handed it to him. He didn’t even look up. Muttering, “I’ll take a look at this later”. There was nothing I could do. I had to wait.
Several days later I got a call. I got the job, and started on the very next monday at 3:30, right after school. What I didn’t know is that both Kurt and my father were members of the Chamber of Commerce at one time, and he arranged for me to be able to work there without much fuss. Of course I didn’t know about their deal during this whole process until many years later. I can only imagine what a stink he would have put up if that arrangement wasn’t made.
I ended up working there for over 5 years. Up until I graduated High School, and then off and on after that. I remember unpacking heavy boxes from Ingram, sorting shelves alphabetically by category, and of course calling people when their special orders arrived. On the weekends I would open the store, and on weekdays I would close up shop.
Al the while, Kurt guided and molded the way I do business. He taught me to do what I say. He taught me about customer service (he would tell me how to do it, not to follow what he did), and I learned all about the workings of a small business, from the cash register, to the dumpster in the back. Buried under a very tough facade was a nice man, and I am grateful that I was able to see that every so often. He kept his personal life very separate, but I did know that he was a survivor of the Holocaust (you could see the numbers tattooed on his arm), and that his brother was the famous Magnum Photographer Erich Hartman.
One of the very first things Kurt had me do was to begin reading the 100 best classic books of all time. I had to know what people were talking about when they came in he told me. It took me the better part of 2 years, but I did it. When it was slow, and I was working alone I would sit on that very same 4-legged stool and work my way through that list. And the best part was, I got to keep the books for free.
As I worked there, I got to know the customers. There were the regulars – the people who came in every week to pick up a magazine or two, or the ladies who would get the latest hardcover best-sellers. There were the how-to guys who browsed the woodworking section, and the coin collectors who came in for the yearly numismatic guides. At the beginning of the school year, we would stock up on all the required reading books, and every teenager for miles around would come in to get their copies. Every so often a visitor to Salinas would stop by, as we had the largest selection of John Steinbeck Books in the county. I can’t remember for sure if Kurt ever met John Steinbeck, but for some strange reason I think he did.
I had some great co-workers. There was Tisa, the 20 something free spirit, Francisco, Kurt’s right hand man, and Dante, the Goth who had a photographic memory. In the early 90’s Kurt decided to sell the store to his good friend Harry, and he and Lynn who also used to work there bought it together. Several years later, Harry died, and Lynn and I lost touch.
Some evenings when it was really slow, I’d lock the door for a few minutes and go next door to the ice cream shop that used to be where Starbucks is now. All the cheerleaders worked there, and I’d get a free scoop or two just for working next door.
I am very grateful for the years I had at Books & Books with Kurt, and although we didn’t communicate for years after I left, I was saddened when I learned he died in 2004.
PS; I had to put up a photo of my old elementary school, as I don’t have any pics of the old bookstore.