“Together, they were amazing. And they were always together, always laughing, singing, sometimes holding court, telling stories, regaling their fans with the sheer joy they felt in the presence of each other. They were genuinely happy people, largely because they were living their lives exactly the way they wanted to. They did not care a fig for the usual business of life—the paying of bills, the collecting of rent from the twelve tenants in the apartments above the store, the management of business. They did not even care much if they made money or not, though certainly they preferred to make money when they could.” Wayne Mergler
Above The Timberline
By Wayne Mergler
Note: we are all still awaiting the return of Wayne Mergler to active duty, “Above The Timberline,” so we’re running yet another early Mergler column . . . in anticipation of Wayne’s return to his keyboard.
ANCHORAGE Alaska—(Weekly Hubris)—11/18/2013—Some years ago, I retired from a quarter of a century of teaching high school English. I was quite young to be retired (still in my late 40s) and so I thought of the move as less of a retirement and more of the beginning of a new phase of my life.
But, like many who make a significant change in mid-life, I was suddenly faced with what to do with those perhaps 40-some years ahead of me. It was very strange no longer to be Mr. Mergler, The English Teacher. That had been my title, indeed, my self-definition, for my entire adult life thus far. I remember how odd it felt that first September of my new life, when school started again for the year, and I remained behind at home.
That first day, when my former colleagues and students and friends were all back in the classroom, I set out on my bicycle and rode along the green-belted trails of Anchorage. It was autumn, the leaves were turning gold on the birch trees, and it was oh so silent. Nobody was on the trails. The air was brisk; the Canada geese, squawking overhead in their thrilling V-shaped formations, leaving town, heading south, made the only noise. I pedaled into town, now nearly a ghost town with the tourists gone for the season, and ended up at the corner of 4th Avenue and D Street in the heart of downtown Anchorage. Here, in that famous local location, sat Cyrano’s.
Cyrano’s, at that time, was Anchorage’s finest bookstore. But, as I hope to show you, like Sylvia Beach’s Shakespeare & Company and Chrisopher Morley’s Haunted Bookshop, Cyrano’s was always so much more than just a good bookstore. It had not been there very long, but had already become one of the most popular places in town.
Jerry and Sandy Harper, the owners, had come from Seattle just a year or two before, and had created Cyrano’s on the ground floor of one of Anchorage’s oldest downtown buildings. The Harpers were wonderful Dickensian characters. Like the Mantalinis and the Crummleses, they could have stepped directly from the pages of Nicholas Nickleby into the frozen Far North.
They were professional actors, then semi-retired, who had nursed a dream of a little bookshop—but not just any bookshop, a special bookshop. When a family inheritance left Jerry the big old building downtown, he and Sandy came to Alaska and Cyrano’s was born.
Jerry was a big, jolly, friendly, laughing man, a raconteur whose stories could mesmerize and delight. He had done every kind of job imaginable in the life of an actor. He had worked, as a young man, in carnivals, had played in tiny shabby playhouses all over the world; he had done movies and television and radio but, of course, his great love was the stage, and he had trod the boards the world over.
He had starred in “MacBird” in Chicago back in the 60s. Like his Dickens counterparts, Jerry was bigger than life. He and Sandy had met as actors performing together in California. In Seattle, they had started their own theater company, which Jerry directed and acted in; Sandy, too, was a principle actor there. Ten years younger than Jerry, Sandy was a lovely, charismatic woman, funny and bright and charming and, like so many stage actresses, could alternate between grave seriousness and comic ditziness without any apparent effort.
Together, they were amazing. And they were always together, always laughing, singing, sometimes holding court, telling stories, regaling their fans with the sheer joy they felt in the presence of each other. They were genuinely happy people, largely because they were living their lives exactly the way they wanted to. They did not care a fig for the usual business of life—the paying of bills, the collecting of rent from the twelve tenants in the apartments above the store, the management of business. They did not even care much if they made money or not, though certainly they preferred to make money when they could.
In the bookstore, which was largely Sandy’s domain, the best literature of the world could be found. She flatly refused to carry the trendy potboilers, the trashy romance novels, or the sensational grisly read. She was often told that she would make more money as a bookseller if she carried that stuff, but she didn’t care. She once told me that she felt a bookseller had a responsibility to educate the community. She wanted them to read Proust and Malcolm Lowry, not Danielle Steel and Nora Roberts. If that meant she lost some money, so be it. And nobody could sell a book better than Sandy.
But, as I said, Cyrano’s was more than a bookstore. Attached to it, in an adjoining room, was a small, quaint café, an espresso coffee bar with soups and sandwiches and light fare. I lost my coffee virginity there. I was never a coffee drinker; I was adamantly a tea man. But, at Cyrano’s, I was introduced to my first espresso latté, and I have been hooked ever since.
And, adjoining the café, was Jerry’s domain: the theater. He had built a little black box playhouse there, with a wide flat stage, and rows of red velveteen chairs on three sides of it and a light booth and all the other trappings of a theater. Here, for years, Jerry directed and/or acted in production after production. Soon, a regular repertory group of actors took to performing there. Some were professional equity actors, some were drama students from the university, some were amateur community theater types, just happy to be part of the magic that Jerry created. The theater and the bookstore, and even the tiny café, became must-sees on the list of every visitor to Anchorage in those years. And the locals all knew that Cyrano’s was the most happening place in town (to use a phrase from those times).
On that first day of my retirement, I went into Cyrano’s for a latté and a browse among the books and, inevitably and unavoidably, a delightful chat with Jerry and Sandy. Somehow, they got it out of me that I was feeling a little melancholic and a little uncertain about my future as the former schoolteacher known as Mr. Mergler. Before I knew it, I had been hired to work at Cyrano’s. My duties were to sell books, keep the stock in order, chat with the customers about literary and artistic matters, occasionally make a latté or a mocha for a customer and, sometimes, work the box-office at the theater. They paid me a shockingly small amount of money, but I didn’t care about that. Their enthusiasm and joie de vivre had already rubbed off on me. And so, for the next five or six years, I worked at Cyrano’s. I don’t think I have ever been happier than I was then.
Through the doors of the bookstore in that shabby old building came, every day, writers and artists and musicians, photographers, actors, dancers, mime artists, clowns, jugglers, puppeteers, film-makers, lecturers, politicians, lobbyists, newspaper and TV media people, and assorted characters of unimaginable singularity. Soon they all came to know me and to call me by name. Usually, when it was slow, there were long talks about art and music and literature and politics. Even when it wasn’t slow. Jerry and Sandy delighted in my propensity to talk. When I worried that maybe I was talking too much, telling too many anecdotes instead of working at the business of selling books, Jerry and Sandy would assure me that that was what they wanted from me.
“I could hire a high school kid to sell books,” Sandy once said, “but you are a writer and an educator and a raconteur in your own right. We are lucky to have you!” (And, at what they were paying me, I had to agree that they were.)
Of course, I loved the role they had assigned me. Unfortunately, they did manage to spoil me for any other job. Now, when I still work as a bookseller for other people, I am always somewhat shocked to realize that they actually expect me to, well, work.
One day, I forget what season of the year it was, E. L. Doctorow, author of such classics as Ragtime and World’s Fair and The March, came into the store. I was not surprised to see him because I had read in the paper that Doctorow was in town, lecturing at the university, I think it was. And I knew that any writer who came to Anchorage would drop by Cyrano’s. It was always on their agenda. When Doctorow walked in, I recognized him immediately and hurried over from behind my counter to greet him. He was amazed that I knew who he was just by sight.
“I recognized you from your pictures on your book jackets,” I told him, truthfully. He seemed charmed by that.
As fate or, perhaps, the literary gods would have it, no one else came into the store the afternoon Doctorow was there. I had him all to myself. The two of us talked for probably half an hour. I told him how much I loved his books, particularly Ragtime, which has been on a special shelf of favorite books in my own library since its publication in the early 70s. We talked about his books and other people’s books; we talked about Alaska. I showed him around Cyrano’s.
It was, I must say, one of those moments that happen so rarely in life, one of those perfect, time-stopping moments.
Eventually, grim reality intervened. A gentleman who must have been his manager or agent or publisher or someone, poked his head in the front door of the store and said, loudly: “Ed! Come on! We’ve got to go! What have you been doing?”
And so my magic moment came to an end. But, at Cyrano’s, there were many others, nearly as good. Author Rosellen Brown sat in the audience of a production of Eugene O’Neill’s “A Moon for the Misbegotten,” in which Jerry starred and in which I had a small supporting role. After the show, Brown sent me a note on a program, complimenting my performance. I still have it.
Barbara Kingsolver chatted with me over coffee one afternoon, while she signed books at the store. Jay Hammond, one of Alaska’s most colorful governors, talked to me for over an hour once about the autobiography he wanted to write; so did Norman Vaughan, Alaska’s most famous nonagenarian, who had been with Byrd at the South Pole on that epic expedition in the 1920s. Bradley Washburn and his wife, famous for their climbs of Denali, spent time at Cyrano’s. New York’s Broadway producer Mary Hunter Wolf was a regular visitor to Cyrano’s. She loved Jerry and Sandy and she was a huge, supportive fan of their theater.
But there were difficult times, too, during my tenure at Cyrano’s, though now, in retrospect, those trying times have only added to the richness of my memories.
Once, Jerry decided to lease out the café to another party, who turned out to be the Evil Bastard from Hell in the Café. Several frustrating, outrageous scenes and many lawsuits later, he finally got rid of the guy. Then, there was a shocking murder upstairs, among the tenants, and I came to work that morning to find yellow police tape all over the building and cops swarming like bees.
Another time there was a fire, fortunately small and contained, but the building had to be evacuated. Every now and then, a disgruntled Right-winger would protest something at Cyrano’s. (We were, after all, clearly a place of godless liberals and morally corrupt theater types.) Sandy suffered a bout with breast cancer, a dark, scary moment for us all, but came through it and is in good health today. She is an active spokesperson now for breast cancer research.
The most memorable moments were in daily dealings with customers and friends and fellow employees. One time, a drag queen, preparing a new act for a local gay bar, asked me to step into the theater with him and critique his act. He knew I had been a high school drama coach and wanted to draw on my expertise. And so I spent a hilarious and surprisingly fun hour giving him suggestions regarding his routine, which included my opinion of which gown best suited his very ample figure: the gold lamé or the sequined scarlet with the feather boa. (We went with the red and the feather boa, of course.)
Another time, I allowed a homeless guy to play his guitar and sing in the café for tips. I figured it would be harmless enough and he might make a few bucks. He turned out to be amazingly talented and became a semi-regular performer at Cyrano’s from then on. I know he went home every night with a lot more money than I ever made there.
The stories could go on and on, but we have no time for them all here. Of course, all good things come to an end. In time, Barnes and Noble and Borders Books came to Anchorage and began the death knell of Cyrano’s. Jerry was convinced that his customers were loyal enough, that they would not be seduced away by those bigger, flashier, richer stores. But he was wrong. Gradually, the customers stopped coming in. The most ardent book buyers could not resist the temptations of the big chain stores . . . and they had coffee there, too!
It was at that point that the bookstore began to fail. Jerry could no longer afford to order new stock. And so Cyrano’s died a slow, lingering, and sad death. That is when I had to leave. I did so reluctantly, but Jerry and Sandy, by that time, had let their entire staff go. I think I was the last one to leave.
Cyrano’s is still there, still at the corner of 4th Avenue and D Street in Anchorage, under its charming marquee. But it is only a theater now (http://www.cyranos.org/; https://www.facebook.com/cyranosAK). The café serves snacks on theater performance nights but, otherwise, does not function. The bookstore is no more, except for a few lingering old books that no one wants to buy.
And even the theater, grand though it still is, is not what it used to be. Jerry is not there.
Jerry Harper died of prostate cancer in 2005 at the age of 75.
Sandy valiantly carries on at Cyrano’s, booking theater gigs, actively talking up the arts and books. She has a board of directors and actor friends of Jerry’s who pretty much run the theater now. Sandy has a monthly radio show on Public Radio and remains active in the community. She is as delightful as ever, though there is a sadness about her now that wasn’t there before. She misses Jerry so much that she still tears up, years after his death, whenever his name is mentioned.
It saddens me a little to go into Cyrano’s now. When I step through that front door, I am suddenly back in a world that I miss, though it is no longer the same. And I swear that Morley was right when he says that bookstores are haunted. I feel the presence of all the ghosts every time I enter that building; the ghosts of the writers of all those books, of the characters within them, of the characters developed from the stage in the theater . . . and of Jerry, laughing and telling his tales.
But the sounds I hear most clearly, above all the rest, are always the wonderful sounds of laughter and applause.