The Shop Around the Corner was open late again and Joe Fox found his steps slowing as he passed the tiny bookstore. The lights were bright and he could swear he heard the sounds of happy customers from across the street. How did they manage to do it? They didn't have a coffee shop and they almost never offered discounts--they barely even had a Black Friday sale! And meanwhile, Fox Books---
Well, he had done enough thinking about that. Joe pulled out his phone and checked the screen. Alerts from the store's twitter feed, a few texts from his dad, an email from his grandfather, but none of that was what he was looking for. He shoved the phone back in his pocket and walked on.
The holiday season had just begun. Maybe this would be the year that saved him.
The holiday season had just begun and Kathleen was already tired enough to sleep until January. She hadn't meant to stay at the store so late, but she never had the heart to kick out her customers. She unlocked her front door and Brinkley ran to greet her. "Yes, I know," Kathleen said, as she walked to the kitchen. Brinkley's eager meows followed her.
Brinkley gobbled up his food in the amount of time it took her to make a cup of tea. She curled up in her armchair and pulled out her laptop. She'd glanced at NY152's latest email that morning and had been looking forward to responding to it all day.
I took a walk in the snow last night. I know that, soon enough, the city will seem grey and dirty with patches of snow that never melt all the way, but that knowledge doesn't take away from the magic of the first few snowfalls. I walked and everything seemed a little slower and, for a few minutes, I stopped worrying about anything at all.
She hit reply and started typing,
I haven't had time to enjoy the snow this year. I keep thinking I should play hooky and run off and play in it for a day, but somehow I can never quite bring myself to do it. Would you play hooky with me?
After a moment, Kathleen deleted the question. She had so many bad internet dates. And this wouldn't be a date, exactly--she wasn't even sure if NY152 was single, but she couldn't bear the thought that he might be a disappointment in any way. Better to keep the mystery alive, to not even know his name or what he did for a living.
Joe took a deep breath before entering the store. The name of the store, Fox and Sons, had started to feel like an admonishment. "And Sons" implied the store would go on and on. But all signs were showing he was losing his grip on the store, that he would be the son who lost it all.
The store wasn't even empty of customers. Maybe that would've made it easier. Instead, he saw at least two customers price comparing on Amazon and a college student sitting on the floor, taking notes on Huckleberry Finn.
"Can I kick them out?" Kevin asked. He joined Joe in staring at the toddlers pulling books off the shelf.
"No," Joe said. "They might actually buy something."
"Coffee?" Kevin asked.
They walked over to the coffee counter, the one part of the store crowded with actual, paying customers, and ordered lattes.
"Let's get rid of the books," Joe said, after they sat down. "1000 square feet of coffee. It could work."
"What about bringing literature to the masses?"
"The masses have rejected the offer." Joe drained his coffee, and gestured at the barista to bring him another one. "How is The Shop Around the Corner doing it?"
"Stop obsessing about that place."
"We almost ran them out when we opened. Should've tried harder." Now that Kathleen Kelly ran a bustling business. He'd heard she was looking for a fourth employee. He'd had two workers quit last week and didn't even see the point in replacing them.
Joe's phone buzzed and he picked it up to see a picture of a cat glaring up at him.
"Who's that?" Kevin asked, looking over at the phone.
"The summation of my day," Joe said. He picked up the phone and texted back, Me, too, Brinkley.
"It's a woman, right?"
"No, it's a cat."
Kevin made a grab at his phone. "Shopgirl?"
"The only spot of brightness in my life," Joe said. "And I don't even know her real name."
"No, not Tinder," Joe said. "We just . . . started talking on Twitter."
It had been the day he set up his personal account. He'd been tweeting from the Fox Books account for a few years, but there were some things you just couldn't tweet about from the store account. She'd made a comment about New York in the fall and he'd sent her a picture of the colorful leaves he'd taken on his way to work.
They'd only recently exchanged numbers. It was so tempting to text her throughout the day about his lack of customers and falling sales, but they'd made a pact about revealing too many details about their lives. And maybe it would lose something if she knew the real him, the failure.
"Hmmmmm," Kevin said.
"What?" Joe asked.
"Nothing," Kevin said, and took a sip of his coffee.
Across town, Kathleen picked up her phone and frowned at the response.
Can I help?, she texted
If only you could . . .
I can offer up more sympathetic cat pictures
Long work day
"Are we out of Betsy-Tacy?" Christina asked.
"Ordered more last week," Birdie said.
"We should push the Shoe books after Christmas," Kathleen said. She shoved her phone into her purse. "Or is it time to do another Anne of Green Gable display?"
"Mysteries," George said. "Hardy Boys. Nancy Drew. The kids will eat them up."
They sold modern books, too, but Kathleen had found her niche in selling the classics that children still adored. Children and their parents loved coming by the store to hear her read Little Women or A Wrinkle in Time.
Kathleen ended up staying late at the store again, putting together a display of books with Christmas scenes. Her walk home took her past Fox books. They were having another big sale and she wondered if she could get Birdie to investigate exactly how they were doing these days. The big bad wolf was being eaten by a bigger, badder wolf--Amazon. What good were discounts if your discounts weren't the deepest?
To succeed, you needed something deeper, something special. Today's customers bought their children the same books their parents had bought them, from the same place their parents had bought them. And, someday, these kids would come back with their own children. Her thoughts translated later that night into an email.
. . . . I am leading a small life, in so many ways, but it matters. In this busy modern world of ours, I provide a space for people to breathe, to take a break from all the stress of life. I thought I would lose this life, once, but now I think it is mine to keep.
His reply came more quickly than she expected.
I envy you. I thought my life was busy and important, but now it seems it wasn't important at all. And now, very soon, it may not even be mine anymore. It seems the thing I was so very good at no longer needs me. And where do I go from there?
She sat at her keyboard for a long time.
I am very sorry, dear friend. All I can say is that you matter so very much to me.
The next morning, Joe was late to work. He didn't mean to be, but he spent 15 minutes trying to respond to Shopgirl and another 15 trying to find his shoes. And, after all that, instead of rushing off to the store, he found his steps slowing once more outside of The Shop Around the Corner.
Part of him waited for one of the employees to rush out of the store and yell at him, the way a young Kathleen yelled at a young Joe so many years ago. But they were too busy to notice him . . . and his steps quickened and he found himself slipping into the store.
What did they have that he didn't have? They both had books. And they didn't even have coffee. Or card games or calendars or anything extra, really, except for some stuffed animals. He found his hand brushing against Curious George and Madeleine. But he had those, too.
"Looking for a job?" Kathleen said, from behind him. He wouldn't have thought he'd recognized her voice after so many years, but there it was.
And he turned to catch her wincing. He lifted his eyebrows at her. "No, no, gloat away. I deserve it."
He remembered far too many taunts hurled in her direction. She should kick him out, should yell at him. Instead, she touched his arm and asked, "How are you doing?"
"Oh no," he said. "We are enemies. I am your competition."
And then he shook his head. "Well, I was."
She bit her lip. "I am sorry."
"I don't want to see another bookstore go away."
"As much as I'd hate to disappoint you--" He tilted his head at her and left.
Kathleen watched him go with a frown. There was something wrong about seeing Joe Fox look so defeated. She picked up her phone and texted.
How do you express sympathy for someone who doesn't like you much?
Who could ever dislike you?
She smiled at that and shook her head. A moment later, he replied again:
Some people don't want sympathy. We just want . . .
I have no more answers. I'm sorry.
I really wish I could help
There was no answer to that. She supposed that counted as unwanted sympathy. What was going on with him? If she knew where he lived, she'd--what? Send him a cup of hot chocolate? She shook her head and got back to work.
We should meet. I've been thinking about it all day and I've decided you need a friend.
Joe stared at the screen for a long time. Who couldn't use a friend? And to meet up with someone like her . . . it was so very tempting to believe she could solve all of his problems. They would meet and everything would be okay. His business would go back to booming and--he shook his head. It wasn't fair to put all those expectations on her.
But he said yes.
"I thought you gave up online dating!" Christina said.
"It's not a date!" Kathleen said. "It's a . . . meeting of dear friends."
"I think you should date him," Birdie said. "You smile every time one of his texts come in."
"I haven't even met him yet! We could have zero chemistry."
"Or . . . " Christina said.
"No," Kathleen said, pointing her finger at her. "No expectations. Get back to work."
But it was hard to get back to work that day. She looked at her phone between every customer, scared he would cancel. And then it was time to leave and get ready and then she was outside the coffee shop and then--what was Joe Fox doing there? And oh no, he was holding a copy of The Godfather and . . .
Kathleen closed her eyes. Once, long ago, she'd ran into an old high school friend in a chat room, but she'd never really considered that NY152 could be someone she knew. New York was so big and the internet was bigger and the coincidence was too huge. And Joe Fox was there, waiting with NY152's promised signal.
And, if he knew Shopgirl was Kathleen Kelly, he would HATE her.
She couldn't do it. She couldn't do it to him. She couldn't be a friend to Joe Fox, but she could be a friend to NY152 . . . provided he didn't know who she was.
She picked up her phone and texted.
I am so sorry. Something came up and I can't make it.
Figures, Joe thought, on his walk home. Nothing good could come out of his life right now. Shopgirl had probably taken one look at him and decided he was a loser. He couldn't blame her. He was going to have to shut down the store. It wasn't the end of Fox Books, not quite yet, but it was the end of his little corner of it. He couldn't do it again. He couldn't pour all of his heart and soul into something that was doomed to fail.
So where did it leave him? No job, hardly any friends, and the truest friend he had stood him up.
He came home, sat in front of his computer, and opened up a blank email. Should he yell at her? Plead for another chance? Or was this, too, something doomed to end in disappointment?
In the end, he closed his laptop lid and went to bed.
"So, when's the wedding?" Christina asked. She stood outside the shop door, and shifted from foot to foot.
Kathleen took her time opening the door. She walked in, set her bag behind the counter and started making the coffee.
"Kathleen!" Christina complained.
"I didn't go."
"What?" Christina said. She turned to a just arrived Birdie. "She didn't go!"
"Oh dear," Birdie said.
"That is--I did go, but I didn't--I left."
"Ugly, huh?" George said, as he slid his bag beside Kathleen's.
"No! That is--" And Kathleen paused at the realization that Joe Fox was, in fact, quite attractive. "That doesn't matter!"
"Then what's the issue, dear?" Birdie asked.
"It was-- " she bit her lip, and then got it out. "Joe Fox."
"Joe Fox!" The exclamation came from all three of her employees.
"As in Fox Books?"
"As in one time enemy, now vanquished foe?"
"Joe Fox." The last came from Birdie, who said it in a slow, quiet tone. "I always liked that boy."
"You did not," Kathleen said. She walked around the store and straightened stacks of books and pushed others back into place on their shelves. "You were ready to burn down his store when it opened."
"It all worked out," Birdie said. "And he was such a nice little boy. Your mother used to know his grandfather, you know."
"So you've said." Kathleen pulled a couple of books off the shelf. "Should we re-arrange?"
"No," Christina said. "You should tell us more about Joe Fox. Maybe he isn't as bad as we thought."
Kathleen sighed, and sat down in one of the small armchairs spread around the store. "He isn't. And that's why I couldn't do it."
George nodded. "Nice men are evil. Explains my problems."
"No," Kathleen said. "I couldn't do that to him. You saw him when he came by the store. He's a shell of himself. I won and he lost. He will never forgive me for that."
"We need to close," Joe said.
"What?" Kevin said. "A woman stands you up and you decide to destroy my source of income?"
"It's not her."
"I know," Kevin said. He looked over the store and Joe followed his gaze. The students were back at it, reading their assignments instead of buying them. No Amazon shoppers, though. Maybe it was too cold for them.
"Will you be okay?" Joe asked. "I can put a good word for you at one of our other locations."
Kevin smiled at him. "Joe . . . "
"I know, I know," Joe said. "Book industry is all I've got. Go work for Amazon. Hire me."
And he walked off.
"Hey man," Kevin said, nearly running to catch up to him. "Are you going to be okay?"
Joe reached out to grab a book at random. Pride and Prejudice, of course. He wondered what Shopgirl would say if she knew about his store. Shopgirl. Amazon shopper? Probably. He shoved the book back on the shelf.
"I'll be okay," he said.
I made a decision, he wrote that night. Maybe I have you to thank for it. I was going to talk all of this out with you, but I had the answers all along. I am closing my store. I know, I know, that's a personal detail, but there are so many stores out there in the world and so many closing, too. Mine is just one more fading into memory.
Kathleen couldn't ignore the big black and yellow "Going Out of Business" signs and she couldn't stop wanting to say sorry to Joe Fox. She'd thought about running into him accidentally-on-purpose, but if he didn't want to hear sympathy from her as Shopgirl, he definitely didn't want to hear it from her as Kathleen Kelly.
Still, as she looked over her cozy store, she couldn't get her mind off of him. But the next Fox Books employee who came in wasn't Joe Fox.
Kevin slipped in late one evening. She watched him for a long time before approaching. It was easy to forget that it wasn't just Joe who was affected by the store closing.
"I'm sorry," she said to him.
"We probably deserve it," he said. "I don't suppose you need a store manager?"
She hesitated for a long time. "I could use a new clerk."
"We do love books, you know," he said.
"I know." And she did know. Maybe she hadn't back then, when she was convinced Fox Books was only in it for the quick buck, but she could see it in Kevin's eyes as his gaze kept wandering towards the bookshelves. She had seen it in Joe's despair and NY152's long emails about what he was reading.
"Is that a serious offer?"
Kevin nodded. "I couldn't start until we closed."
"We'll wait for you."
Kevin spent a few more minutes browsing the store. He picked up a copy of Little House in the Big Woods and flipped through it and Kathleen knew he would fit in with them.
"Hey Kevin?" she asked, as he stepped to the door. "Is he okay?"
Kevin sighed. "He's sad. He's sorry, you know, for everything he put you through back then. Me, too."
"It's okay," Kathleen said.
Kevin nodded at her and slipped into the night.
"Figures," Joe said, when he saw Kathleen at his door.
"What?" she asked, and handed him a container. "Chicken soup."
Joe pulled the blanket around his shoulders. "Kevin sent you, right? Poor Joe. Lost his store and now struck down with illness."
"No!" Kathleen said.
"So you just had a psychic vision you should bring me soup?"
"He mentioned you were sick, that's all," Kathleen said, and stepped into his apartment. "And I felt bad."
"Why? You didn't make me sick. You didn't set up Amazon and run me out of business." He narrowed his eyes at her. "Did you?"
She rolled her eyes. "No."
Joe opened the soup and sniffed at it.
"My mother's recipe," she said, and walked over to his bookshelves.
"I'd offer to lend you something," he said, "but I don't want to let any other books out of my hands."
"I understand," she said, and ran her fingers along the spines of the books. "I'm sorry."
"Again," he said. "It is not your fault. Just because your tiny store has somehow survived and my brilliant, big business--" He sighed. "Now I'm sorry. You must think I deserve all of this. I was awful to you, once upon a time. It wasn't personal."
"It doesn't sound the same, coming from you." He remembered a younger Kathleen practically shaking her fist at those words. "And you were right. It is personal."
She winced. "I'm sorry."
"Now, now," Joe said. "We are going to have to ban those words from your vocabulary."
"I should go," she said. "I just wanted to say--"
He raised his eyebrows.
"Right," she said. "Well. Feel better."
The soup was good.
I've been thinking about regrets lately. Was there anything I could change to make my store survive? Maybe not. Businesses fail. But I could've changed my attitude. Not been so arrogant. Made friends out of enemies.
Kathleen stared at that message. Was he talking about her? She wished, oh she wished, that things were different. She wanted to talk to Joe Fox, not just NY152. Would that ever be possible? Could they ever get past the fact that she had succeeded where he had failed? And was she lying by not admitting who she was?
She was still thinking about it two days later when he stopped by the store. "Your mother was a magician," Joe said. "The soup has healed me."
"Hi," she said. "Come to visit Kevin?"
"Come to visit the shop," he said. "I used to beg my dad to take me here, but he said you were the competition."
Kathleen opened her mouth and then closed it. Joe gave her a lightening fast grin. "Caught yourself, did you?"
She frowned at him.
"This shop always seemed so . . . warm," he said. "Expensive, but warm."
"Not expensive. Valuable."
He spread out his hands. "Who am I to argue?"
"Would you like some coffee?"
"I thought you didn't sell coffee."
"I'll let you have some of our secret employee stash." And she led him to the back.
"Thanks for hiring Kevin," Joe said, when they were sitting at the break table.
"He's a good worker," Kathleen said. "And we booklovers have to stick together."
And she caught herself before reaching out to put her hand on his arm.
"Booklovers," he said. "That's true. Whatever else I am, I can still keep that title."
"Have you ever thought about writing?"
"And what would I write?"
She shrugged. "You're funny. You're interesting. I'd buy something you wrote."
"Kathleen Kelly, was that a compliment?"
She bit her lip. "I was never your enemy, Joe."
"'Yeah," Joe said, standing up. "You're right. It was me who caused all of it, wasn't it?"
"I didn't mean it like that."
And now he took her hand. "I know."
And then he stood up. "Well, I better get back to . . . nothing. I better get back to nothing."
"Come again," she said.
Kathleen Kelly. She was far too good for the world, Joe thought to himself. If it had been her shop that went under, he would've gone by to gloat every day. But she hired his best friend and brought him soup and gave him coffee. "You're an idiot," he murmured to his younger self, the one who decided to make a nemesis out of Kathleen.
And then he pulled out his laptop and started writing.
A stray comment from a woman who should hate me has gotten me writing. Nobody in my family ever even thought about writing. We sold books, we didn't create them. But I am writing. It may be awful, but if all my instincts haven't failed me, then maybe, just maybe, it isn't terrible.
Kathleen closed her eyes before writing a quick response.
I'm sure it's wonderful.
It wasn't fair. She knew who he was, but he had no idea who she was. And now he was writing to her about her and it just wasn't fair. She had to tell him. But how could she?
She was still stumbling for an answer when he came by the store the next week.
"The Phantom Tollbooth. Well, you've got me," he said. "I have no choice now but to give you money."
She smiled at him. "I can't take your money."
"I can," Kevin said, from behind her. "Good to see you, Joe."
Joe nodded at him and handed him a credit card.
"You were right," Joe said to Kathleen, when she had invited him to the back. "Writing is an answer of some sort."
"I'm glad," she said. She picked up her phone and toyed with it. No text or email from NY152, of course. Not when he was sitting in front of her.
"Have you ever had an online friendship?" Kathleen asked.
"Did Kevin say something?"
Joe took a long sip of coffee. "Well, I have sworn to never doubt you again. Yes, I have had--I have an online friendship."
"And have you met her?" Kathleen asked. It was a bit of a lie, she supposed, asking it like that.
"Her?" Joe asked. "Kevin has been talking."
"Well, is it a her?"
"Yes," Joe said. "And she is . . . " He let out a long breath. "Enchanting."
"Have you met her?"
"Almost," Joe said. "But she didn't show."
"Maybe she was nervous."
"Or maybe it's one more thing in my life doomed to failure."
And she just couldn't let him think that way.
We should meet
The text came in the middle of an afternoon. Joe had been thinking about stopping by The Shop Around the Corner again and trying to talk himself out of it. Kathleen must be getting sick of him. And now he stared at his phone, an unexpected gift in the middle of the day.
They hashed out details and then he found himself at the bookstore anyway. "She wants to meet."
"That's great!" Kathleen said.
Joe wrapped his fingers around his coffee cup. "I think so."
"What if--" he shook his head.
"What if you don't like her?" she asked.
He shook his head. "Impossible."
"Well, I hope you are right."
And he smashed down a fleeting thought that anyone would be a disappointment compared to Kathleen. After all, it was far too late for them to be anything but old enemies.
He ended up at the store the day of their meeting. Well, of Shopgirl and NY152's meeting. She supposed she should've expected that. He roamed the shelves and talked to Kevin and almost seemed to avoid her.
And then he left and she waited until she was sure he was really gone before running home. She slowed by the grocery store that had overtaken Fox Books. So much had changed in such a short time. Could they make it past it all?
Joe was sitting on a bench. It was early. He didn't want to risk missing her. He peered at every face that passed him and then . . . he saw . . . her.
"Kathleen," he said. "I didn't tell you where--but it can't--"
And she reached out to take his hands. "I didn't tell you, I wanted to tell you, but then you would hate me forever--"
"Never," he stroked her cheek. "I didn't let myself imagine it could be you."
She sniffed. "So, do you like me?"
He smiled. "Yes. Am I a disappointment?"
And instead of answering in words, she drew his head down and kissed him.